Kitchen Excavations/Expeditions

A number of years ago the Food Network hosted several seasons of The Next Food Network Star. Constant Companion and Daughter humored my plan to try out with Kitchen Expeditions, a cooking show that explored ethnic communities around the world to learn about their food traditions.  This concept is reflected in the food I serve the family now, I think.

Sometime in a past life, I taught anthropology at the University of Tulsa. My courses were primarily folklore and museum studies, but also included Intro to Cultural Anthropology, Multiculturalism in the US, and others as motivated or needed. It was a challenge to introduce young people raised in the American heartland to the richness of cultural diversity around them and, though I still don’t call it by this term, assorted realities expressed in what is not called Critical Race Theory.

Anthropology in the American classroom is divided into four domains – archeology, biological, cultural, and linguistics. My forte and interest was and is cultural. That’s why I went on to study folklore. One of my regrets, however, is turning down a long-ago invitation to take part in an archeological dig in Greece while in graduate school.

It’s funny that from time-to-time I’ve found myself immersed in archeological situations. At the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History part of my mandate as an exhibition developer was the stories of ancient peoples in the region and what they left behind told. This painted bison skull from the Cooper site is the oldest painted item in the Americas.

Lightening bolt painted with red ocre

In the more recent past, one job included included the management of an early site of human activity in our area and the lots of evidence of 18th and 19th century indigenous life, early twentieth century foundations of pioneer settlements, and potential underwater stuff that could tell so many important stories.

Where does this leave me today? Using my best skills and knowledge to excavate my pantry and freezer. Perhaps you, too, stockpile interesting ingredients that linger buried deep and forgotten. A few dinners the past few weeks are examples of my both my archeological skills in the kitchen and my enjoyment of culinary expeditions.

Deep in the fridge freezer I knew I’d find a block of extra-firm tofu. It took some “digging” to reach the corner where it was resting. Also deep in my stash of saved recipes was one for “Soy-glazed tofu and mushrooms” … but I had no mushrooms. A quick substitution of zucchini did the trick. I also added some chicken breast also found somewhere in the freezer. If you’re comfortable with it, improvisation often adds to the written recipe.

Soy-glazed tofu and mushrooms. Start with a drained, 14 oz. block of extra-firm tofu. Cut the tofu into thirds crosswise, then cut each piece crosswise again into 3 pieces (you should have 9 square-ish pieces). (If using chicken, cut it into similar-sized pieces.) Pat dry with paper towels. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a skillet, medium-high. When the oil shimmers, add the tofu (and chicken). Cook this undisturbed for about 4 minutes, should be browned. Turn and cook another 4 minutes.* Transfer to a plate, add another tablespoon to the skillet.

*Leaving the tofu alone is the secret to the crispiness.

When the oil is warm, add 3 stalks of celery, sliced on an angle and 1 zucchini, also sliced on an angle. Leave for about 4 minutes, turn for another 4 minutes. Add the reserved tofu (and chicken) and ginger (2” peeled and sliced thin), ½ thinly sliced Serrano chile, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss. Cook for about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and squeeze the juice of 1 lime, top with chopped cilantro. I served this dish with rice and steamed asparagus.

Freezer archeology combined with the excavation of an old, old recipe from my spiral notebook where I used to carefully organized recipes gave us the next tasty dinner:

Chicken Legs with Red Cabbage and Thyme. Of course, the recipe calls for red cabbage (and the photo would be more lovely) and I had only green. Cut ½ cabbage and one onion into thin shreds. Sprinkle 4 whole chicken legs, with thighs attached with salt and pepper (I had just bone-in thighs). Heat oil in a large pot, medium high. Brown both sides of chicken, skin side first, about 10 minutes total (til browned). Remove and set aside. Saute onion for about 5 minutes, add the cabbage and cook 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently (I use my tongs to do this). Add 1 teaspoon thyme, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, ½ cup red wine, and 1 cup chicken stock. Scrape up any chicken bits sticking to the bottom of your pan. Top with the chicken and the pan drippings. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered for about an hour.

A lot of unexplored mysteries wait to be excavated from both of my freezers: one in the refrigerator, the other a small chest freezer. Who knows what culinary expeditions our household will take off on and, hopefully, enjoy.

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