Hamburger a la Fred

Upon returning from the beach, the mood in the Wise household has tanked. Hurled from the glamorous freedom of vacation back into the plodding reality of ordinary life and work, we’ve both been a bit downtrodden, even grumpy.

My own irritability has been exacerbated by a sprained ankle I acquired on the way back from the beach–not by slipping on a sundae dropped by a careless toddler at McDonald’s, or in a 12-car pileup on I-40, or even by tripping over the entryway at a rest stop. No, I managed to do this in the car. Sitting down. With my feet up.

After examining my X-rays, the doctor at Duke Urgent Care explained that the damage occurred because of an old injury, an avulsion fracture, in which a ligament had torn and pulled a little piece of bone off with it. I well remembered the injury, from my senior year at Duke in 1987, during a volleyball game held as part of a scholarship competition at Vanderbilt Law School. (I did not win the game or the scholarship. I suspect the committee questioned the sense of a candidate who could not bear the thought of not wearing her brand-new five-inch heels to the interview and so wore the heel on one foot and a splint with a cotton sock on the other.) And the results apparently are still with me, because it seems that the ankle is more susceptible to additional injury–including holding my ankle in a stretched position a little too long.

I’m now splinted and wrapped, able to wear only flat sandals to work, and not really in any shape to stand in the kitchen and cook. So Fred stepped bravely into the breach, offering to try his hand at dinner tonight.

As he did a couple of years ago, the last time he was allowed in the kitchen, he made hamburgers. This time, he consulted Mark Bittman for starters but decided that he wasn’t going to grind his own meat. He used 2/3 lb. ground beef for two patties, added a splash of Worchestershire sauce and salt to each one, and fried the two thick patties with some jalapenos and garlic. We debated the merits of bread vs. bun, and Fred’s preference (sourdough bread) won out because he was cooking. I hate to admit it, but he was right. Served with fresh tomato slices and onion, the flavor of the meat stood out, with the bread a nice complement to t he flavor rather than an overwhelming presence. And we ate them so fast it didn’t have time to get soggy.

I’m still grumpy, but I’m grateful that I have a husband who takes care of me when I most need it.

Roast Beef with Coffee and Red Wine

Fred and I are officially sick of this recession, but the cats are thrilled: after Louise’s recent $437 dental extravaganza we can’t take any more of them to the vet for a while. Since we can’t afford to go out much in the evenings, our laps serve as cat-warming meditation pillows, ideal for contemplating ways to destroy rolls of toilet paper or the next spot for a good hairball incident, preferably in a high-traffic area frequented by bare human feet at the darkest point of the night.

As our house in Atlanta languishes with no buyer in sight, food remains the best of comforts for the feline and human residents of the Wise household. The roast beef I made over the weekend was a great example–a relatively inexpensive cut of meat braised in coffee and (cheap) red wine. We felt like royalty carving it and serving it with the luxurious sauce. The flavor of the sauce is unusual, most closely resembling a rich, smoky, thick au jus, with just the slightest hint of sweetness from the molasses.

The recipe is a modified version of an Italian dish. (I know it only as beef braised in coffee.) The sauce in the original version was lopsided to me when I first made it, lacking depth, so I added chili powder, cloves, molasses, a tiny bit of garlic, and a little tomato. The result was a great variation on the original, one we’ll definitely try again.

The cats also like the little bits that “fell” on the floor.

Roast Beef with Coffee and Red Wine

4 lb. rump roast, tied
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 tbsp. butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 c. strong brewed coffee
3/4 c. red wine
1 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. cloves
2 tbsp. molasses
3 tbsp. crushed tomatoes
1 small clove garlic, minced

Preheat oven to 325. Melt butter on medium heat in Dutch oven or oven-proof pot large enough for roast. Add onions and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. While onions are sauteeing, rub roast with generous amounts of salt and pepper. Push onions to one side of the pot. Add roast to the side of the onions, browning lightly on all sides, about 3 – 4 minutes per side.

While roast is browning, mix together remaining ingredients. Turn off heat. Turn roast so that fattiest side is on top. Pour wine/coffee mix over roast. Use tongs to move roast back to center of pot; redistribute onions evenly throughout liquid, placing some on top of the roast. Cover and bake for up to 3 hours for a well-done roast and longer if you want it falling-apart tender. If you prefer a rarer roast, cook until meat thermometer inserted in roast reads 160 degrees; begin testing after about an hour and a half.


My confidence as a cook was somewhat restored last night when I used my Ranney Ranch soup bones in what I can only call Un-Split Pea Soup. (I don’t offer a recipe, though, because while the beef was good, the recipe itself still needs work.) These tasty little morsels consist of a bone (obviously) surrounded by about three inches of meat. This time I kept it simple–searing the soup bones in a little olive oil, sauteeing with onion, adding garlic and then soup ingredients. The smell of the meat cooking in the pot was heady, with a slight undertone of something else–cloves, perhaps, or New Mexico grasses, or maybe just a memory of home.

I also discovered that the ranch offers a recipe for arm steak on their web site. It does not call for smothering the meat in bad barbecue sauce.

As for the Un-Split Peas: These were acquired on our trip to Food World (home of the mysterious and delicious little peppers I have yet to identify). I was excited to try them. They were labeled “whole dried peas,” and they consisted of small, yellowish-green pods that I imagined would puff up slightly, like black-eyed peas, and might make an interesting addition to a salad.

It’s probably pointless to go on. You know how the story went–the slowly dawning realization during cooking that the pods looked an awful lot like peas, only dried; the wonder at how quickly they were softening; and the final burst of insight upon tasting them: “Whole dried peas. Oh yes. Split peas, only . . . not split.”

Culinary Disasters

Our rut continues, but even in the midst of our doldrums, we have lost a collective 27 pounds–14 for Fred, 13 for me. The reason may lie in some spectacular culinary failures in the last couple of weeks, which go a long way toward keeping portion sizes under control.

The worst resulted in the sad destruction of a pound or so of arm steak from Ranney Ranch, owned by a colleague from Duke. Ranney Ranch raises “grass-finished” beef, and having grown up on a beef cattle farm, I was looking forward to trying it. But from there, things went downhill.

As far as cooking arm steak is concerned, I had the same amount of experience as someone who’d never accidentally stepped in a “manure pile” by accident. (It happens, you could say.) I suspect that this cut ended up as “ground beef” (which my grandfather adored) when we sent out our own calves to the slaughterhouse. So I was left to scour the internet for cooking ideas, just like anyone else.

My research led me to conclude that a long marinade or braising was the cooking method of choice, since arm steak tends to be tough. As usual, I had no patience with the idea of marinading overnight, so braising it was. Knowing that Ranney Ranch is in New Mexico, I also thought that Mexican spices would be appropriate.

If I’d left it at that, things might have been okay. But after adding chipotle, and salt and pepper, and vinegar (to reduce the gamey taste of the meat, I theorized), and then deciding to throw in tomato, and chili powder, and cumin, and coriander, and brown sugar, and God only knows what else, and then searing it on both sides, and then cooking not quite long enough because it was approaching 9:30 p.m., we were left with some tough meat floating in a sea of what amounted to mediocre barbecue sauce.

I have since learned that grass-finished beef is best cooked simply so that the flavor will stand out. Unfortunately I’m out of arm steak.

Cooking Extravaganza (Beef Burritos, Beef and Lentil Salad)

I’ll say this for Weight Watchers: I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen in an effort to create dishes that won’t be awful and that won’t leave us starving. And it’s been . . . oh damn and blast it all, I have to admit it. I’m having fun.

In what is surely the crowning irony of this whole weight loss experience, our fridge is now groaning with food. Most of the new residents are vegetables and herbs–squash, carrots, celery, mushrooms, watermelon, cilantro, parsley, plums, and so on. We’ve always eaten them, but not this much and not as fast. And we need them now like never before–they are our front line of defense against the battallions of cheese and chips that have been invading our waistlines over the years.

The vegetables also helped us use the leftover steak from Fred’s birthday. Leftover steak wasn’t a familiar concept to Fred in the past, but we’re in a crazy new world now.

They key to our leftover steak preparation were these little babies, picked up at Food World (401 E. Lakewood Ave., Durham.)

Unfortunately they were not labeled, and my search of The Chileman’s database did not produce results. They are tiny dried peppers, about 1/2″ long, with a wonderfully rich flavor–slightly smoky, but not like a chipotle, a good bit of depth, and heat in the same range as a jalapeno. (I’ll keep trying to find out what they are!)

On Saturday, we had these steak and vegetable burritos, which were far more beautiful and delicious than my limited photography skills can convey here.

Here is the recipe. I’m guessing each burrito would have 9 points, but they are a complete meal.

Steak and Vegetable Burritos (serves 2)

2 large flour tortillas
4 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 yellow squash, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
1 red pepper, chopped
1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 – 2 tbsp. cumin
1/4 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
6 – 8 of the tiny peppers pictured above, minced, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper plus 1 minced chipotle (adjust spices to taste)
1/4 – 1/2 cup crated white cheddar cheese

Saute onions in olive oil over medium heat in large skillet until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add squash, pepper, cilantro, 1/4 cup lime juice, cumin, and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and more lime juice as needed. Add beef and peppers. Cover and cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 more minutes. Remove lid and cook until liquid has evaporated, about 5 more minutes. Turn off heat. Put tortilla shells on top of skillet and let steam for 1 minute. Put tortilla shells on two large plates. Divide beef mix into shells, placing slightly to one side. Sprinkle with cheese, roll up, and serve.

Our second beefy delight came in the form of this lentil salad.

Beef, Lentil, and Cilantro Salad (2 huge meal-size servings, 9 – 10 points each)

2 cups cooked yellow lentils
8 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1/2 large red onion (about 2 cups), sliced thin
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice (lime is great if you don’t spill your entire supply all over the floor as someone did this evening)
4 – 5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. olive oil
6 – 8 of the small unnamed peppers pictured above, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper with 1 minced chipotle pepper

Mix together lemon/lime just, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and peppers in a small bowl. Add remaining ingredients to large bowl and pour lemon mix over lemon. Let stand about 1 hour before serving.

And, to top things off, I roasted this chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms. You may notice it lacks a wing, which saved us several dollars off the price. But it had the most spectacular skin I have ever eaten. I believe chicken skin, eaten by itself, has only a point or two, and so that was dessert.

The chicken preparations were of particular interest to Thelma.

At this point, however, she was asked to leave.

Ragu a la Claudia

Ragu, as you know, is NOT the jarred spaghetti sauce you got in your school cafeteria in the 1970s, or that your mother–and now maybe even you, if you have children–opened up to pour on spaghetti a la East Tennessee (i.e., cooked to mush).

But what IS it? There are about as many recipes for ragu as there are internet sites. In short, though, ragu is a meat sauce with tomatoes and finely chopped vegetables served over pasta. I’ve seen recipes with lamb and pork and sausage as well as beef. Too many recipes claim to be authentic even to list here, but I’m proud to say that this one is fairly close to the one from the Italian Culinary Institute (or so the web site claims) and that of the great Mario Batali.

I guess this one has some authenticity because it comes from Claudia Mantovani, an Italian friend from Milan.

Fred would eat this every day if I were willing to cook it.

1 lb. ground beef
Olive oil and/or butter for sauteeing
1 minced onion
2 – 3 minced carrots
2 stalks minced celery
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. “magic cube” (Claudia’s word for “beef bouillon”–I use Better than Bouillon, which does not come in cube form)
2 bay leaves
1 can tomatoes (Debate rages over whether or not to use whole or crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce or paste. I’ve tried it all, and except for the paste, it works. And Mario likes the paste, so that probably works too.)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. cream (half and half will do)
Grated fresh Parmesan

Saute onion, carrots, and celery in olive oil and/or butter. Cook about 10 minutes over medium heat, or until soft. Add beef, breaking it up as you cook it, and cook until just brown. Add tomatoes, vinegar, bouillon, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Cook, half covered, for about half an hour. Add cream. Cook another half hour or more. Serve over spaghetti or linguini. Top with Parmesan.

Lentil Soup

With the temperature being an absolutely ridiculous 42 degrees yesterday, there was nothing more to do than make soup.

And read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I was supposed to read for my book club two months ago. Let’s just say I skipped the meeting. But now I’m working on one of our next items, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and it’s so dreadfully, horribly serious that I had to turn to something fun.

But back to the soup. Fred miraculously did not finish, or even come near to finishing, the steak he ordered at Feast on Saturday night, so it ended up in the soup. I felt a little guilty throwing a lovely steak into a lentil soup, but it was either that or overcook it.

For the recipe I’ve added more meat–there really was not quite enough leftover steak.

Beef and Lentil Soup

2-3 tsp. olive oil
1 lb. beef, cut into 1″ pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 carrots, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 quarts water
1 can unsalted tomato puree
1/2 – 1 cup white or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive in soup pot over medium heat. Add and cook until just tender.

Add onion and saute until translucent. Add carrots and saute about 10 minutes.

Add garlic and stir. Add remaining ingredients, stir, turn heat to high, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until lentils are soft, about 1 1/2 hour.

And now–back to my day job.

Buffalo Steak Salad with Bleu Cheese

We will coninue the Blue Extravaganza with something that barely qualifies as a recipe because it’s so easy. And it is really not blue, just “bleu,” which being French probably qualifies it for the Blue Food Contest.

Marinade a 12 oz. buffalo steak in 1/4 tsp. organic Better Than Bouillon Beef Base Bouillon whisked with 1/4 c red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. (My Italian friend Claudia believes that beef bouillon and vinegar mellows gamey meat, and I always follow the instructions of Italians when it comes to food.)

Make a lot of other blue food and let steak sit out entire time in marinade. Pray buffalo is not a good source of E. coli.

Heat up iron skillet for several minutes. Add about 1 tbsp. olive oil. Sear steak on both sides to taste (for me, 3 minutes on each side). Cut steak into thin, bite-size strips for salad.

If food poisoning fears emerge at the sight of bleeding, oozing flesh, toss pieces back in the skillet. Don’t overcook as buffalo can get tough very easily.

Pour 1 container washed mixed baby greens into bowl, remembering after California Spinach Disaster that greens can harbor E. coli as well as buffalo but not caring. Baste with the following, whisked together:

1/4 c olive oil
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Add sliced mushrooms. Add bleu cheese. Add steak. Toss. Eat.