couscous for the slow cooker, in desperation


I make couscous frequently. It’s one of our favorite meals. It can be vegetarian or carnivorous, depending on what’s at hand. One can make bountiful substitutions and it still tastes good. In fact, every time I make it it’s a new dish. The bright colors and root-veggie goodness are fantastic pick-me-ups in the dreary PNW late-winter, like little chunks of sun we’re promised will come again.

Last year, after we bought our fixer-upper house, a cute little post-WWII cottage with great bones but needing a major face lift, I discovered that the worthless previous owners had been cooking on a stove that had caught on fire. The wires connecting the burners were frazzled and burnt. The electrician advised not using the stove, wisely, so I waited for a couple of months until we could afford todscf3137.jpg convert to gas and buy a new unit.

This was the middle of a cold winter, so, with trepidation, I bought a slow cooker for my winter stews. The crock pot was a major feature of my childhood. We had crock pot meals all year ’round, at least twice a week. Sometimes the reek of sauerkraut and kielbasa would be so bad that I’d get a headache, because there’s nothing quite like cooking sauerkraut all day long, even if you live in a large two-story house. I still associate crock pot smells with nausea. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that I actually felt a bit sick when the odor of my couscous permeated the house. Ah, le temps perdu. Proust had his madeleines, I get crock pot meals.

Anyhoo. The couscous turned out pretty well, and I’m far more sensitive now to those with compromised kitchens. For those of you who are similarly compromised, or if you just like the crock pot, the adjusted recipe follows.

I’ll have to admit that I like couscous better on my new stove, so I give notes that allow you to cook this recipe on the stove, as well. Lately, I’ve been forgoing the meat and simplifying the spices to only cinnamon, salt, red pepper flakes and cumin. We also had a version adding ground lamb and green beans that was good. See? Flexible as can be.

Slow Cookin’ Couscous Stew

Note:  I usually cook this stew on the stove, so you can easily modify it for stovetop cooking by browning the beef and onions, then adding stock/water and seasonings.  The root vegetables should be added after about an hour (if you’re using chuck beef) and the other vegetables near the end of cooking (about two hours or so).

2 lbs. cubed beef chuck (or pork shoulder, or lamb, or chicken thighs…)
1 large onion, chopped

Seasonings: 1 T. cinnamon, 2 t. salt, 1 t. coriander, 1/2 t. turmeric, 1 t. cumin, 1 t. allspice, 1 t. onion powder, ground pepper.

At least 3 root vegetables, 1 each, cut into largish (2-inch) chunks. I use turnip, rutabaga, yam, white potato, winter squash, leeks, carrot, parsnip. Cabbage works too, cut into 3-4 inch wedges, but it isn’t very pretty because the wedges fall apart. Russet potatoes and sweet potatoes will dissolve and make broth thicker, which is fine, but may be disappointing if you want chunks.

1 andouille sausage, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 can chick peas, drained
1 cup large raisins (white ones if you can get them)
3-4 dried red hot peppers

1 zucchini, cut into 2-inch long fingers
1 red pepper
1 green pepper (Retrogrouch likes these — I’d rather use roasted pasilla peppers I keep in the freezer or nothing at all)


about 4 cups chicken stock or water

In a 6-quart or larger slow cooker, layer beef, onion, seasonings, root vegetables, sausage, chick peas and raisins, in that order. Don’t mix. Add enough chicken stock or water to cover most of the vegetables (about 1/2 full?). Cook on high for first hour or so, then cook on low for 5-6 hours.

In last hour of cooking, mix in zucchini, red pepper and green pepper, plus a spoonful of harissa and some chopped preserved lemon, if you have some. Taste for salt and heat. Serve with couscous. If you want to be fancy, mix couscous with cilantro and chick peas. Makes a huge pot.

embittered beef stew and cuisine tristesse


I’m a humanities graduate student finishing her dissertation who has just gone on the market for the first time. Needless to say, I am embittered.

For months, I have been flirting with a recipe category I call “la cuisine tristesse,” exploring the bitter side of food with ingredients like endives, artichokes, escarole, almonds — anything that makes you pucker up or bites back. So what better way to perform one’s emotional angst than experiment with bitters?

The only bitters I can find in my lovely two-bit town are Angostura, which are available in every grocery store. A friend has scored me some Regan’s orange bitters, which I’ll pick up on my next trip to the Bay Area. So my experiments have just begun. Until I can get my lazy behind up from winter hibernation and on the road, Angostura is my monogamous plaything.

And just what is it that I’m playing with? Angostura is meted out in dashes. It’s an herbal concoction that is faintly sweet and spicy, with a bitter kick in the end. The standard use of Angostura, of course, is in cocktails. The mixology historians say a cocktail isn’t a cocktail without Angostura. But there’s also a slew of recipes out there, many concocted by the Angostura corporation itself, for food seasoned with these bitters. It makes sense. If it adds a certain je-ne-sais-quois to mixed drinks, it can also enliven food. After some research, including this fantastic 1933 recipe booklet from Angostura scanned and made available by LambMartini, I have found that the best recipes for an Angostura infusion are those with a high fat content, the creamy mouthfeel acting as counterpoint to the bitterness.

I’ve already written about my coeur à la crème experiment with Angostura. Last night my husband made the mistake of telling me to refill his drink, so I made him a “Poor Man’s Orangina” with OJ, Perrier, lemon and Angostura. (For the record, it was tasty, and he requested it again tonight!) I refrained from adding Angostura to the butter cookies I made the other day, but I did try it in a dressing for salmon and roasted fennel, combining the Angostura with whole-grain mustard and olive oil (much tastier with the fatty salmon than the fennel). And it is delicious on orange slices. I can’t wait until strawberry season, peach season! Mmm…and in whipped cream.

But by far, the best marriage I’ve made is Angostura and beef stew. This recipe is my Boeuf Bourguignon On Vacation in Provence recipe made zippy with Angostura. It will serve four, and freezes well. Share your bitterness. Your friends will love it.

Embittered Beef Stew

1 bottle deep, rich wine (I use Syrah or Cabernet, but a Burgundy or Pinot Noir would be more authentic)

3-4 pounds chuck beef, cut into 2-inch chunks (best to buy a chuck roast and cut it yourself, since “stew beef” contains a variety of cuts)

2-3 T. bacon drippings or vegetable oil

1 large yellow onion

1 juicy orange, peel removed with vegetable peeler with as little white pith as possible and juiced into bowl

2-3 garlic cloves, crushed

2 bay leaves

1 t. dried thyme or a handful of fresh thyme

2 T. flour

salt and pepper

optional: 2 c. frozen pearl onions and 1 package button mushrooms, chopped

a few dashes of Angostura bitters

If you have time, marinate the meat overnight in 1/2 bottle wine, orange juice, orange peel, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. If not, rinse and pat meat dry with paper towels. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In a heavy dutch oven, brown meat in several batches in bacon drippings or vegetable oil (if you have any leftover bacon or salt pork, add these for more flavor).

When meat is a deep, mahogany brown on all sides, remove the meat and set aside in a bowl. Saute onions in drippings until golden, then return the meat to the dutch oven. Add the marinade or 1/2 bottle wine, orange peel, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. Cover and place in oven.

Pour yourself a glass of wine. Set aside rest of bottle.

After about an hour and a half, remove the stew from the oven and skim the fat from the top into a pan. If there isn’t about 2 T., add some butter, then the 2 T. of flour. Make a roux, which you will use to thicken the stew: stirring constantly, cook the flour with the fat until mixture is peanut-butter-colored. Stir it into the stew, along with salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another hour and a half, or until meat is fork tender and can be pulled apart easily.

About 10 minutes before done, add the rest of the bottle of wine. It will brighten the color and add a tart flavor layer to the stew. At this point, adjust the seasoning and remove garlic cloves, orange peel, and bay leaves. You may also now add sauteed button mushrooms and/or frozen pearl onions sauteed on medium heat with a bit of soy sauce and sugar to carmelize.

Serve over boiled potatoes or egg noodles. Immediately prior to serving, add 2-3 dashes per serving of Angostura bitters to each serving dish.

Another option is to substitute Angostura with orange bitters. I will try this as soon as I can.

chilly! my staples: midwesternish chili


It’s snowing in Eugene, and the Californian in me shoved aside the Midwesterner and ran outside to take pictures. We only get snow like this once every couple of years here, and it makes me happy because I remember the sound and the smell of snow, so hopeful, so vivid.

And being chilly, I made chili. This is one of my favorite recipes, and the best Midwest-style chili I’ve ever had. It’s particularly lovely because you can make it with almost all pantry ingredients, so it’s perfect for a day you’re snowbound. You can make it on the stove or in a slow-cooker. The recipe is a significant modification of one in a cookbook put out by the graduate students in my first grad school. It was called “Peanut’s Plebian Chili,” after a dog named Peanut. I ditched the Peanut, for obvious reasons, and made my own class-based value judgments. And I welcome you to do the same.

Almost Plebian Chili

2 lbs. Hamburger meat (lower fat better)
1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 T. chili powder
1 t. black pepper

1 28-oz. can chopped tomatoes with puree (or substitute can of diced tomatoes and a half-can of tomato paste)
2 15-oz. cans kidney beans, drained and rinsed (try to buy ones without added sugar)
3/4 c. steak sauce AND 2 T. catsup (this is the “almost plebian” part)
2 T. Dijon
1/2 lemon or lime, juiced
3 or 4 canned chipotles in adobo, plus some sauce, chopped (don’t omit)
1 T. sesame seeds
1 T. dark soy sauce (especially if you’re not using beer)
1 bottle beer or 1 cup water

Brown (A) on high heat in a dutch oven, preferably in two batches, but I’m not lookin’. Drain meat of extra grease. Turn down heat to medium low and add (B) to coat meat. Stir in (C), then cook for about 1 hour, covered, at a simmer. Tastes better the next day. Add salt only if necessary. Usually doesn’t need it, but if you use low-salt kidney beans or use less processed substitutes for the steak sauce and catsup (which I don’t recommend in this recipe), you’ll need salt. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, if that strikes your fancy, and/or pickled peppers. I prefer straight-up saltines and a beer chaser.