Our quest to knock down the inventory of our pantry, fridge and freezer has been a big one, and Chef Les has given me one final basket to conquer before the big kitchen remodel begins. I have to hurry this up, because our contractor, Matt, is on his way over with his crew, ready to start tearing out our existing cabinets (I’m not kidding, he really is)!
Before we started our challenge, Les and I established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:
- Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
- The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
- Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
- Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
- Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (we do).
I made myself a dry martini to take the edge off, because Les was wearing a mischievous grin when he assembled my seventh mystery basket. Here we go!
Yes, I was cringing on that last ingredient. Les and I have joked about that massive package of frozen kielbasa ever since this challenge began, but neither of us had dared put it in the other’s basket until now. We love smoked sausage of any kind, so that wasn’t a problem for either of us. The issue is that this was a 3–pound package, and that’s a lot of kielbasa for two people to consume in a short period of time.
After this meal was finished and judged, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t kielbasa at all; a closer look at the package revealed it as “mesquite smoked sausage,” but I was lured by the brand name, Kiolbossa, which is apparently the name of the family that owns the company. This had both of us quite perplexed (especially my ex-journalist husband, for whom facts still matter), so I did a quick search to see if we were correct in calling this sausage “kielbasa.” Based on this article on The Spruce Eats, kielbasa is the same as sausage, as least in the Polish language. As luck (or genes) would have it, Les is half Polish, so we are calling this one correct. Whew!
I bought the kielbasa at Costco in March 2020, on the same visit as the 7-pound bag of quinoa, three towers of canned tuna, that huge bag of mixed lentils, two cases of chicken and veggie broth, and umpteen cans of black beans. If we had a COVID apocalypse, at least we would not starve. In the heat of the moment, I did not have the presence of mind to downsize the sausage haul into smaller packages; I just popped the whole thing into the freezer. Later, when it became apparent that we would not perish in a pandemic version of The Hunger Games, we lamented the stockpiling, and the sausage became a bit of a punchline at our house. There are plenty of ways to cook and enjoy smoked sausage; my main concern is how to use so much of it, and I knew immediately that I would have to make multiple dishes to accomplish that.
Only one of the dishes I had in mind would use all four of the basket ingredients, and that’s what I’ll be presenting to Les for judging. To challenge myself further, I decided that I would try to prepare said dish without using our stove (might as well get used to it, given that our kitchen remodel will be underway any minute now). Our slow cooker, which Les purchased a few years before we met, is a serious workhorse —way better than my old Crock Pot—and the only reason we don’t use it more often is that I work from home, and I find cooking in the background is usually easy to manage during the day. Besides the usual high-low-warm functions of any other slow cooker, this one also has a roasting option and a setting to brown food, and I expect that it will come in super handy as we navigate the fall cooking season without a stove or oven.
Under normal circumstances, the slow cooker has lived on a utility rack in the garage, right next to the “downstairs” fridge (check out my post for baby back ribs with root beer bbq glaze to understand that inside joke). After several months without use, it needed some attention. As I was washing the accumulated dust from the slow cooker, it occurred to me how similar this scene was to some of the miserable, cringe-worthy dating experiences I’d had before things got serious with Les:
“Hey there, Gorgeous! I know it’s been a long time—since, when? –Super Bowl two years ago, I guess. Wow, we’ve had some good times, haven’t we? By the way, you look great! So anyway, my circumstances have changed and I’m gonna be without a kitchen for a bit and I wondered if you’re free for, oh, maybe the next six weeks or so? I was thinking we could get together and make some new memories. I’ll make it up to you when the kitchen is done. Look, I’m putting in a tall pantry cabinet so you won’t have to live in the garage anymore. You up for some fun? Aw, you’re the best!”
Thankfully, appliances don’t have feelings.
Let’s review these mystery basket ingredients again. First of all, there were (count ‘em) 10 fat links of kielbasa in that package, and there’s no way all of them can go into one dish. I wanted to find creative ways to use the kielbasa in multiple applications, and for this meal, I used three of the links—two were processed with the large shredder blade of my food processor, and the third was cut into chunks to be added to the final dish.
The mushrooms and lasagna noodles were easy, because I planned to make a variation of a stroganoff, and the lasagna only needed to be cut into smaller pieces.
The jar of maple-bourbon braising sauce has been in the back of a cabinet for a couple of years, and I always imagined it might be useful for doing some kind of roast in the slow cooker, but it didn’t have much flavor on its own (neither maple nor bourbon). With mostly salt and vinegar flavors to its credit, I decided to “beef” it up (so to speak) with some shredded kielbasa. This would add much-needed flavor to the sauce and also allow me to use the sausage in more than one way.
I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. It would be most unexpected for you to find yourself in possession of these exact ingredients, so I didn’t keep up with how much of every ingredient I used. But I hope you enjoy the story.
I used the “brown” setting to render the residual fat from about half of the shredded smoked kielbasa, and used the other side of the slow cooker to saute up the onions that would make their way into the meatball mixture with the other half of it. Along with those ingredients, I rounded up the usual suspects for any meatball mixture—a panko panade (paste made with milk), a large egg, a few shakes of dried oregano, black pepper and a small handful of chopped fresh parsley.
I did a quick browning on the sliced cremini mushrooms—again, right in the slow cooker. And then I added the maple-bourbon braising sauce with a few spoons of beef base and some brown sugar to amp up the flavor.
The kielbasa on its own had a pretty salty flavor, so I was reluctant to season the mixture as I normally would, and I couldn’t very well just taste the raw meat mixture to know how much salt was right. My solution was to cook two tiny meatballs and give them a taste. Definitely salty enough on their own.
I was kicking myself a little bit because I could have easily browned the meatballs right there in the slow cooker, but I had already dumped the jarred sauce into it. In the heat of the moment, I am not prone to make the best decisions (please refer to above-referenced purchase of the sausage, and the imagined conversation with slow cooker), so I forgave myself and pulled out a skillet. Thankfully, I did still have use of the gas range, at least for the moment. When the meatballs were browned, I sent them into the slow cooker to simmer on low until Les comes home at dinner time, and hopefully he will say, “the house smells great!”
I had planned to serve this meal in a “stroganoff” style, though I decided not to swirl in sour cream because it looked unappetizing. The partial box of lasagna noodles that Les had given me had eight noodles, which I boiled and cut into manageable strips for serving.
As promised, I also found three other ways to use up the remaining smoked kielbasa.