Friday, November 28, 2008

How did your Thanksgiving meals go?

Ours went very well. This year we decided to stay at home, and shared cooking duties with our next door neighbors. They hosted the event and provided the turkey, stuffing and some sides.

I brought:
Appetizer - a small rack of lamb, herb crusted. This was probably my proudest moment; the lamb was tender, flavorful, perfectly cooked and the herb crust had a really nice texture. They were a hit across the board.

Side dish - curried sweet potatoes. Meant to be a compliment to the lamb. I was very happy with the dish but I didn't get much feedback on it.

Side dish - Pickled beet salad. Hand pickled roasted beets with frenched red onion, julienned and topped with blue cheese and chopped walnuts. I love that dish, but it wasn't a huge hit. Beets still scare people I guess.

Mashed potatoes - flavor and richness were spot-on, but I missed some lumps. Could have used another round with the beater.

2 breads; hand made dinner rolls and an asiago cheese boule. Many compliments on both.

I'm glad it's over; it was nice not having to cook everything, and I'm delighted with the decision to stay home this year.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hey y'all. Buttermilk buscuits are harder than they look.

We've been in North Carolina a full year now, and I hadn't perfected buttermilk biscuits.

Do we like biscuits down here? Oh yes, we do.

And this should be simple...a quickbread - no yeast; mix it and bake - couldn't be easier right?

As it turns out, yes and no. They're one of those things that once you've mastered, you wonder how they ever gave you trouble, but man did they give me the business.

I think this is batch 5. Batch 1 was inedible. 2 and 3 were improvements, 4 was a setback and then there were these...yes, 5 batches.

I really think the key to biscuits is not as much about doing things right as it is about avoiding a few critical mistakes; so with that in mind here are the pitfalls:

Not too dry. I tried to make a dough that was much closer to a bread dough and I didn't use near enough liquid. I got a great tip for cutting biscuits out of the rolled dough that also works great as a measure of if your dough is too wet. You use a rocks glass to cut them. (I used a glass that came with a bottle of Macallan scotch several years ago.) You push the glass straight down into the dough, not twisting, and lift. The vacuum holds the biscuit until you tap it out on your baking sheet. Your dough should be just stiff enough to do this.

You have to work fast. I used self rising flour from Aldi. This particular SR flour contains both baking soda and baking powder. Once the buttermilk hits the sodium bicarbonate, it begins releasing CO2 bubbles, so you don't want to waste any time. When you pour the buttermilk, the clock starts ticking. The sooner you get them in the oven the better. Of course this means your oven is already at....

500 degrees. Hot and fast. Took mine under 10 minutes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Beans so nice we fried 'em twice.

Looking for something cheap and delicious? Me too. Here's a good one - last night I made refried beans starting from a bag of dried beans. (.59 cents at Aldi) Very easy, economical and tasty.

Just a warning from experience - I always make too much. Just remember that your beans are going to more than double in size by the time you're done. This holds for just about any dried bean I've used with the possible exception of lentils.

The only tricky part of making this dish is that unless you have a pressure cooker (I don't) you have to soak the beans overnight in a bowl with plenty of water. Then you boil them with salt and some fat for half an hour, or until they're tender to the tooth. As far as which fat to use, I saw recipes calling from vegetable oil to lard and different things in between. I halved the difference and went with vegetable shortening, but I think plain old vegetable oil would work fine, and bacon fat would just be incredible.

When they've boiled up and are nice and tender, you're going to have to gauge if you have enough water. Are the beans covered? Just covered, or is there a couple of inches of water over them? Mine were just covered, and that seemed to work out pretty well. Hit them with the immersion blender. I guess you could use a regular blender, but ugh -no, you really need an immersion blender. If they're too soupy at that point you can always cook them down for a few minutes.

For spices; garlic, chili powder and cumin.

I served it up with a Spanish fried rice, simple pico de gallo and tortillas.

Just ate the leftovers for lunch, and it held up really well. This feeds a family for a couple of bucks and tastes great.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bread and soup.

That's what I had for dinner last night.

Sounds like a prison menu. Wonder bread and Campbell's? Not so much.

The soup - chicken with rice. Started with a lovely chicken stock I made 2 nights ago, diluted, seasoned and added rice and carrots. Very simple, very easy and really good.

The bread - this one turned out really nice despite taking almost no effort. It's the same slack, no-knead recipe I usually use, but I had half a can of tomato paste left over from a shrimp risotto, and I added it to the dough with some rosemary. Went perfectly with the soup. Could have used another 8 minutes in the oven, but everyone was hungry and it was still excellent.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


One of the cooking forums I visit featured a fascinating post regarding the Italian dish spaghetti carbonara. This post took offense to the way the term 'carbonara' is applied at some "Italian" chain restaurants like Olive Garden to describe sauces made with cream, peas and other bastardizations to what is supposed to be a very simple dish with sauce made from egg.

For true carbonara, eggs are mixed with parmesan cheese and then poured over spaghetti that has been cooked, then put into a pan of rendered pancetta and tossed to coat. The residual heat from the pasta cooks the eggs just enough. I actually temper the egg with some of the pasta waster, and use my infrared thermometer to make sure the pasta is no higher than 155 degrees before pouring on the egg. Too hot and the egg will scramble.

For what it's worth I use bacon in mine, as I tend to have it around a lot more often than pancetta, but otherwise I followed his instructions and the dish was fabulous. It's a great comfort food as well as being quick, easy and inexpensive.

While all that is interesting and all, that's not what I'm writing about. The point is that in this post he also described making his own pasta; something I had never done until today, but as I read his description of the process I instantly wanted to try it. I picked up a very reasonably priced pasta rolling machine to make the job a little easier.

The basic pasta recipe is pretty simple; flour, eggs and salt. I used this guy's technique.

As far as flour, I made the fettuccine with AP and the ravioli with bread flour. As I suspected, the bread flour worked significantly better than AP. I couldn't tell a difference before they were cooked, but after cooking the bread flour maintained better tooth.

The fettuccine was just tinted with food coloring, but next time I'll use some spinach for color. The food colors looked OK when the pasta was dry, but once cooked it got much lighter and just looked silly.

The ravioli were really fabulous, I made 2 varieties; acorn squash and mushroom.

Acorn Squash filling:
  • Roasted a halved acorn squash, peeled the meat.
  • Into the processor with a splash of olive oil, some fresh pressed garlic, a healthy pour of Parmesan cheese and a dash of ginger and nutmeg.
  • 6 pulses in the food processor, scrape the sides down and repeat.

Mushroom filling:
  • White button mushrooms sauteed in butter with 2 cloves of roasted garlic.
  • A pour of olive oil and grated Parmesean.
  • About 6 pulses in the food processor.

The acorn squash filling was really good, but the mushroom was outstanding. I could eat that all day long.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My big, fat Greek Collard Greens

You know what's really good for you? Collard greens.
You know what's really boring? Collard greens.
You know what's really yummy? Those Greek stuffed grape leaf things...what are they called?
Oh yeah, dolma! I love those things!

I actually thought this one up all by myself; I'm so proud. Greek meets The South. After I thought it up and wondered if it would work, I found this annoying woman actually had sort of the same idea, but after watching her recipe - I like mine tons better.

The leaves are just de-ribbed collards that I submerged in a big pot of boiling water, salt, lemon juice and vinegar. After they had boiled for a few minutes I fished them out and put them in an ice bath.

The filling:
* Cooked brown rice. Medium grain would have been better, but I had long grain.
* Shredded chicken. I used the breasts for pounded lemon chicken last night, so this was the leftover parts; legs, thighs and wings just cooked in the crock pot for a few hours with some water until the meat was falling off the bone - about 3 hours.
* splash of lemon juice
* finely chopped walnuts. Pine nuts would have been better, but I had walnuts.
* a bit of garlic
* mint
* hint of allspice

Spoonful of filling in each leaf, rolled them out tight, then put them in a covered pan and heated them up with some chicken broth and lemon juice. Everything was already cooked, so I probably could have skipped this, but I had left the rice just a bit on the crunchy side, and I was waiting on another dish to finish, so what the heck.

Only thing I will do differently next time is to use lamb (the chicken was great, I just love lamb), and cook the collards a little bit more. I know I'm going to piss off some Greeks by saying this, but I actually liked the collards better than grape leaves; they had no hint of the 'slimy' texture I sometimes encounter with pickled grape leaves.

They were awesome, and this recipe is a winner.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mashed potatoes and parsnips with horseradish

We had a beef roast for dinner last night. I had obtained a nice London Broil (top round) from my friend Roger, and as we usually do with beef roasts, I seasoned it with a rub of salt, pepper and herbs and parked it in the fridge overnight, to be roasted in our Ronco rotisserie.

For herbage I keep it pretty simple; rosemary and generic "Italian seasoning" which is usually some combination of marjoram, basil, thyme and oregano.

Someday I'm going to have my very own rosemary plant, but for now I used the dried.

I had picked up some parsnips at the farmer's market with the thought of using them in mashed potatoes, and this seemed like the perfect time - but then inspiration hit. I love, love, love horseradish; especially with rare roast beef. I had purchased a bottle of Harris Teeter branded prepared horseradish a few weeks ago that was particularly wimpy, and I was looking to get rid of it - so I told Jen to use it in the parsnip/potatoes. The combination was really excellent; this is my new favorite side dish for roast beef.

Rainbow cake

What can you do with a box of cake mix and a whole lot of food coloring?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The farmer's market had no leeks this week.

They are supposed to be in season, but I checked every vendor at the farmer's market; no leeks to be found. Some of them hadn't even heard of leeks. And without leeks, I couldn't make potato leak soup, so I ended up in Whole Foods.

I wonder if they just don't grow here?

I used this video as a guide. There were many on YouTube, but this one seemed closest to my style. I used 3 russet potatoes, whereas there are only 2 in the clip. I ended up adding salt at the end, and my broth wasn't even a low-sodium variety. I forgot how much salt potatoes need.

Anyway, it was excellent.

Tomorrow - mashed potatoes and parsnips with horseradish; I can't wait.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Making my own sauerkraut, and gratin potatoes

Last weekend I started a batch of sauerkraut, and yesterday we ate it with dinner.

It was my first attempted at fermenting kraut, and the results were certainly edible, but not outstanding. To be honest I'd prefer grocery store kraut out of a bag to that batch.

I'm not giving up, I learned some things and will do it a little bit different next time. For one thing I'll use less salt.

The side dish that I made to go with the sauerkraut turned out absolutely fantastic though; so I'm very happy about that. I made a potato gratin, with Yukon gold potatoes that, quite frankly, had one foot in the compost heap. Once they were peeled though they seemed OK, smelled nice - so I gave it a go. Slice them thin with a mandoline or V-slicer, and layer them in a buttered casserole dish. I used thin mushroom slices and grated Parmesan cheese, with a bit of cheddar and some grated mozzarella that I had to use up. Then about 3 or 4 ounces of heavy cream and into the oven for 45 minutes covered with foil. I switched the over to broil, took off the foil and gave it another 10 minutes. Let it cool for 10 minutes and you're ready to serve.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election results

Despite my vote, incumbent North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler successfully defended his seat from opponent Ronnie Ansley this election; although it was a fairly close call at 52% to 48%.

It wasn’t that I was really excited about Ansley; this is his 4th election running for different positions, and he’s a lawyer when he’s not running for something. He had a booth up at the North Carolina State Fair this year, and I stopped to talk a bit. I didn't know what he looked like at that point, so I mistakenly assumed I was about to talk to Mister Ansley himself, but then I saw his picture on a flier and realized that the both was being manned by a volunteer. So I spoke to the volunteer who kept telling me the Ronnie had lots of great ideas, but had trouble explaining them to me, and he also knew very little about the raw milk debate. Oh well.

Troxler is a former farmer, so he’s got that going for him, and the State Farmer’s market is his oversight, and I’ve never seen a better one – so what’s my problem with him?

He lists “Helping agribusiness” as one of his job priorities. Who do you think needs more help; a young farmer trying to run a sustainable farm in this economy or Monsanto and Arthur Daniels Midland? He’s never talked about the environmental impact of CAFO operations in this state. In short - he seems to be a real friend to agribusiness.

So – the results are in, and Steve kept his job. ‘If you can’t beat ‘em; try to get to know them’ is going to be my mantra for Steve. I’m going to try to make it a priority of mine to get to know Mister Troxler and get his opinions on these issues that are important to me. After all, he does supposedly work for me.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Easy cheese

Would you believe me if I told you that you could make really yummy cheese right now with stuff that you probably have in your refrigerator?

Do you have some milk, an acid (lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, vitamin C?) and some seasonings? Do you have an old t-shirt? Then you're ready. Seriously!

What does it taste like? Sort of like a mix between Boursin and cream cheese. It's really good on warm bead.

I'd been wanting to try making mozzarella, but for that you need 2 things that are not found in the typical kitchen, a mozzarella culture and rennet. So I figured that one of these days I would have to try that, and I sort of put the whole idea on the back burner.

Then a few days ago I made a really excellent sweet potato curry, and it got me thinking about some other Indian dishes I enjoy, and I was looking up something to try when I came across a post talking about how easy it was to make paneer. Paneer is the cubed, white cheese often found in some Indian dishes. Reading the recipe, I discovered that I could make it with nothing more than some sort of acid to curdle the milk. Score!

So I tried it; and it was really good. My Indian dish didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped, but the cheese part was good; and I took the extra cheese and spiced it with garlic powder, salt and chives and let it sit a day in the fridge. We spread that over warm flatbread and I'll tell you what, I could eat that all day long. It would be killer on bagels too.

Is it really easy? Totally easy!

Take a half gallon of whole milk, put it in a pot and heat it over medium heat until it just starts to boil. Slowly pour in your acid. I used vitamin C granules; but you could use lemon or lime juice - I even saw one recipe that used buttermilk. Immediately the milk will start to curdle. I know what you're thinking - why am I spoiling perfectly good milk? You'll just have to trust me, almost all cheese starts this way. How will you know when you've added enough? The whey will be almost clear. It doesn't take much; 3 pinches of my powdered vitamin C. Let it sit for 5 minutes, then line a colander with cheese cloth if you have it, or a t-shirt or bandanna or something like that if you don't. Pour it out, then rinse the curds with cold water for a few minutes, to both wash off the acid and cool them down. Then gather up your ball of curds and squeeze all the liquid out of it that you can. Set a weight of some sort on top of it and park it in the fridge for half an hour. Pour off any liquid that collects and you're about ready to go.

Mine was pretty crumbly at this point, so I kneaded it with just a tiny bit of flour, and let it rest in the fridge for another hour and it seemed to firm up quite a bit. It's ready to eat as is, or you can season it. Chives, salt and garlic powder worked great for me, but it's really a blank slate - go nuts. Nuts? Mmmm, chopped walnuts and honey! That's what I'm going to make tonight.

Edit - made the honey walnut version; it's excellent. This is the yield from about 1/3 of a gallon of whole milk by the way.

Are you in favor of irradating food?