Friday, November 30, 2007

Chili time

(EDIT: for the record, I had my Chili blog post planned waaay before today's Yahoo feature on Lamb Chili. So they're the copycats, not me.)

Hm. Weather Channel says today's High is 26. It's snowing a couple times a week now, and the days keep getting darker for about another month.

It's way past time to post some Chili recipes.

Joey's Chili - very, very spicy
2 # ground beef
large can of your favorite salsa, the spicier, the better.
Brown ground beef, drain. Return to pot, add salsa, simmer for 30 minutes.

Everyday Chili - mild
1 # ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
1 28-oz can stewed tomatoes, with salt
1 16 ounce can beans
1 packet pre-measured "mild" chili seasoning from the grocery store.
1 can beer (optional)
brown beef and onion together. Drain. Return to pot, add chili seasoning, beans, tomatoes, and about half the beer. Drink the other half. Simmer for about a half an hour.

Savory Chili - mild to medium. This is my favorite chili, adapted from an old cookbook recipe.
2 pounds ground beef
1 pound bulk Italian sausage - NOT breakfast sausage
2 cups shallots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tablespoons Chili powder1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon cumin
4 cups canned beef stock
1 small can tomato paste
1 small can tomatoes
cayenne pepper to taste

Brown beef and sausage with garlic and shallots. Drain, then return to pot. Add spices, and tomato paste, and stir for a few minutes to let the spices get fragrant and to let the tomato paste brown a bit. Add the beef stock and tomatoes. Simmer for at least a half hour.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Saving the world - through tea!

Hot beverages, actually.

Maybe it's my Italian Grandmother genetic heritage, but anytime something big happens, to me or to others, food is one of the first things I reach for. When a baby is born, I make the mother two nights of frozen dinners. When somebody is in distress, I usually offer something sweet, or a pot of tea...

I was reminded of this today when something very bad happened to a stranger in need, and in the process of helping her, I wound up serving her tea.

Many psychologists and dieticians say that emotional eating is bad, even though we all do it, but, I've found that hot beverages, like coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, can be just as comforting as a bowl of ice cream, but without the caloric drawbacks.

Hot beverages provide tangible physical comfort. Tension in muscles is eased by the heat of the liquid. Nasal passages open up from the steam, and cold symptoms and congestion are relieved. The entire body is warmed by the liquid. And the aroma, flavor--and sometimes texture--of the beverage is enjoyed and improves mood.

Other cultures--ancient cultures, know this. When a world-weary visitor shows up on a doorstep looking for rest, they're given a place to sit, a meal, and a lovely beverage.

We would all do well to remember these ancient rituals of hospitality this holiday season, and try to put them into practice when we can. Not only for our friends and family, but also for strangers, enemies, or people we simply don't like all that well.

Here's a cute little article about Tea and Hospitality that I found on the web. I sincerely hope you all enjoy it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The downside of Slow Food...

is that it's slow.

Seen scrawled on the bottom of a sheet pan, somewhere in the Midwest:

I'm a Slow Food slave, trapped in the Ark of Taste! Roasting an uncarved pumpkin so it does not go to waste.

I've been wanting to do the sustainable, locally grown, heirloom/heritage thing for a while now, and this summer, I really got into it with the CSA that I joned. And, I've also scored a great fresh meat supplier--my friend's parents. The meat is so fresh, that I've met the turkey that I'll be serving at Christmas.

But it's really, really hard to 1. source all ingredients locally, and 2. take the time to cook every single night. I believe that in the next 20 years, we'll have no choice but to cook local, sustainable food in season--or pay much, much more for the exotic, out-of-season, and convenient. The "local infrastructure," so to speak, is already building. Local Harvest, farmer's markets, and CSAs will only become more popular.

But that means our society needs to radically slow down for this to work. And that's the part I'm not sure will happen. Food takes time to cook--even the 30-minute meals.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post

I like Thanksgiving; I really do. But this year, I'm already consumed with preparations for Christmas. I'm having the family over this year for Christmas in my new house. They're bringing potluck items, but I'm in charge of the meat and the logistics of seating 25 people in a somewhat small space.

This year, Thanksgiving will be pretty low-key. We're going to visit the in-laws, so there won't be too much for me to do. My mother-in-law usually makes her sugar cookies on this weekend, so I'll probably help with that.

Otherwise, I get to eat turkey, drink wine, sit out and look on the bay and read a bunch of foodie/home/life magazines. It'll be my last relaxing weekend of 2007.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Chicken Agumba #1

Chicken Agumba ("a-GOOM-bah") is a meaningless Italian-sounding word my dad made up one day when he was cooking dinner. In my family, it's come to mean "improv chicken dish."

It's the recipe you throw together when the frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts are on sale, you're tired of the same old chicken meal, but you're too tired to seek out a recipe.

Chicken Agumba can be fried, baked, sauteed, roasted, poached, or whatever. Nothing is measured, and you never make it the same way twice.

Here's my chicken Agumba from Thursday night.

4 chicken breasts
1 cup brown rice (I did measure the rice)
2 cans cream of tomato soup
about a cup of frozen corn
1 can of green beans
A little less than a green bean can full of white wine
2 small red bell peppers, large dice

In the morning, before you go to work: Put chicken in crockpot. top with rice, and add all the other ingredients. Add pepper to taste. No salt needed because of the soup. Cook on "low" setting for at least 6 hours. Eat when you get home, with a dollop of sour cream if you like.

This is not terribly sophisticated, but tasty. And, presumably, good for you, with the fiber and the veggies and all. I'm not a huge brown rice person because it tends to be too chewy, but in this recipe, it became smooth and creamy after the long cooking time.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The LAST tomatoes--a fitting sendoff

Roma tomatoes
I roast and puree for sauce.
The end of summer


My first season of gardening went fairly well. However, as I've learned is the case with most tomato growers, I had a ton of green tomatoes on the vine before the first frost. After experimenting, with mixed results, with fried green tomatoes, green tomato pie, and green tomato batter bread, I came across some good news.

Apparently, you can ripen fully green tomatoes off the vine!

Of course, I should have realized this, because that's what the commercial farms do--it's why grocery store tomatoes taste so bad. But I never made the connection that it was something anyone could do at home.

So, a little under a month after I picked my green tomatoes, more than half of them are red, and ripe for making into roasted tomato sauce (pun intended).

This is based off of Alton Brown's tomato sauce, and from the Too Many Chef's food blog. but with my own spin. It's less a recipe and more of a method. I rarely measure out amounts.

This sauce comes out as thick as tomato paste, but flavored like tomato sauce. I especially love it because I don't have to seed or peel tomatoes, and it makes a larger quantity of sauce from the same amount of fruit. I tried this recipe after doing traditional tomato sauce three or four times this summer. I'll never boil another tomato sauce again. Roasting is the way.

End of summer roasted tomato sauce
As many ripe tomatoes as you can lay your hands on
Fresh or dried herbs
olive oil
some kind of alcoholic liquid (I use vermouth)
fresh garlic
salt and pepper

Slice tomatoes about 1/2 an inch thick. Estimate--thicker is OK. For small Roma tomatoes, just slice them in half lengthwise. Dump into large baking sheet, or 9X13 pan, whatever you have that's oven safe and large enough to hold your tomatoes. Season tomatoes liberally with salt and pepper. Add herbs, peeled garlic (leave whole). Add some olive oil and a little bit of alcohol.

Bake in a 350 degree oven, stirring every half hour or so. It will take at least an hour, closer to two, but the liquid will evaporate and the tomatoes will cook down to a dark, rich sticky mess. If it's taking more than two hours, turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes in there overnight, and proceed with the rest in the morning.

Remove tomatoes from the oven and let cool for 20 minutes. Scrape into blender or food processor. If you put whole herbs with the stem in, make sure to pick out the stems.

Blend tomatoes together, seeds, skins, and all, stopping to scrape the sides of the blender if you need to. Have a little water (or alcohol) handy to add to the blender if the puree is too thick.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How to get good food in the middle of nowhere?

Make it yourself. As much as I love going to restaurants, I've found that the best quality food is the food you make at home.

No matter how isolated a place is, there's still some great food. Jane and Michel Stern's Road Food column and Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt have pretty much proved that.

But you may not have access to classic French cuisine, American Fusion, decent Tex Mex, or mad scientist foam emulsions.

Sometimes, the only way you can get a good fancy meal is to make it at home.

As much as I complained about not finding Halibut in my last post, I can actually get most ingredients, or reasonable equivalents, within a 20-mile radius.

Now, I still can't get many specialty things, for there is no Whole Foods or Nino Salvaggio within my horizon. But 95% of the time, I can be flexible with the ingredients, find an appropriate substitute, and produce the dish I want to make, no matter how complicated or classy.

(Cooking in season also helps, but that's a topic to leave until Spring.)

Going back to my ceviche example from my last post: No halibut, but plenty of tilapia, and salmon, and tuna. Any of those could have stood in for the halibut. I went with the tuna because it is more similar in muscle structure to the halibut, and I know that it works great raw or near-raw. I'm not very familiar with raw salmon, and I know nothing about tilapia.

I have to substitute a lot. I do it so much it's almost automatic for me. For the pepper-encrused steak I made last night, I didn't even try to find the pickled green peppercorns. I knew it was a quixotic task--not even Williams-Sonoma would have them. But I knew I could find capers at the grocery store within walking distance. And capers are very similar in size, taste and texture to capers--salty, briny and green.

Substituting is pretty simple if you think about it--

Good Idea: capers instead of pickled green peppercorns.
Bad Idea: eggs instead of cheese.

Good Idea: oil instead of butter for a pancake batter.
Bad Idea: oil instead of butter for a pie crust.

Good Idea: applesauce instead of eggs in a browine batter.
Bad Idea: applesauce instead of eggs in a quiche.

Good Idea: semi-sweet chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
Bad Idea?: cocoa powder plus butter instead of milk chocolate.

That last one--using cocoa powder in place of chocolate--might not be a bad idea. If you are cooking something that needs just a little bit of chocolate, or doesn't rely on the cocoa butter for texture, like a mole sauce, this trick is fine. If you are cooking something that is chocolate heavy and relies on the cocoa butter for a smooth texture, like chocolate-coated berries or mousse, it will be a disaster.

It may seem difficult to swap out ingredients, but the more you cook, the easier it will get. The key is to cook and have fun. You'll have pride in your dish, will get many dishes you won't find or can't afford, and it'll be a whole lot cheaper. And don't be afraid to make mistakes. I know what doesn't work in large part because I've tried it, and it failed.

(p.s. I have to mention one thing about seasonal produce. Please, I emplore you, do NOT get fresh berries out of season, especially in the winter months. Please. Just get frozen, or forsake the berry dish. They will taste like wet cardboard. No amount of sugar, vanilla, or vodka in the world will help. The same goes with tomatoes, though if you have to, get vine-ripened or roast them.)

Spoiler Alert: The Next Iron Chef is...

Symon wins! Symon wins! Symon wins!

Just got done with an informal birthday party which ended with watching The Next Iron Chef.

I love the melodrama involved. For the winner, it wasn’t just an announcement—the winner’s picture was unveiled on the Wall of Iron Chefs.

I was a Symon fan since the episode where they had to cook outdoors on the grills. I loved his simple approach, his family-style plating, and, most importantly, his ability to defend his decisions on why he cooked things the way he did. A couple of the judges thought his squab was too well-done (they wanted it rare). But Symon said that cooking the squab medium was an intentional decision. It was a well thought out and articulate answer when the other contestants were saying “um, well…”

Also, he has a tattoo that says “Born To Cook” on his leg. I wish I could think of a cool tattoo idea…

I wasn’t sure he could beat chef Besh, though. Chef Besh’s technique was much more refined. Also, Chef Besh was a Marine. In my experience, you don’t bet agains the Marine.

It was clear, however, that Symon had the job locked up after the tasting. Awesome, awesome finish.

Update on crappy food selection in my neck of the woods. I decided to do some fancy yet simple cooking for this birthday party, and tried my hand at ceviche. The recipe I was working from called for Halibut. No way I was going to find Halibut more than 700 miles away from the seashore—not even frozen. Checked three stores.

Finally settled on some decent fresh tuna bought at (shudder) Sam’s Club. Other than adding a little too much hot sauce, the Ceviche was a great appetizer. I’ll definitely make it again—very simple, but clean, complex flavors.

Until next time: Summon Sea Cucumber!

(Anyone know the reference? Post a comment and I’ll send you a prize!)

Friday, November 9, 2007

A rant

My friend took a joke to its logical extreme the other day. Working from the premise "bacon makes everything taste better," he decided to test this hypothesis, up to and including putting bacon on ice cream. His report was "it doesn't make it better, but it didn't really make it worse."

Ha ha. Except, on the Next Iron Chef the other day, one of the chefs MAKES a bacon ice cream. And the judges find it UNORIGINAL. The quote from one of the judges was something like--make sure you read this with the proper tone of elitist disdain--"This isn't the first time we've had a bacon gelato, you know."

On the one hand, how pretentious can you get? But, on the other hand, a statement like this makes me start to second-guess my tastes. I'd love to have had the chance to try some bacon ice cream, but where I live these days, the innovation in going out to eat is severely limited. Even if I did live in a more cosmopolitan metropolis, I'd still be limited by what I can afford.

I really do feel like an uncultured hick some days. Never been abroad. Never been to New York. Never been to LA. When I went to Chicago, the closest city of any real culinary chops, I went to the fondue place (and I'll defend that decision to the day I die, but it's not terribly innovative).

The art of tasty leftovers - the stuffed potato

"Leftovers make you feel good twice. When you first put them away you feel really intelligent: "I'm saving food". Then, after a month, when hair is growing out of them and you throw them away you feel really intelligent: "I'm saving my life!" --George Carlin

It's nothing personal against leftovers. But most things taste worse the next day. So you don't want to eat them, and they sit and mould over.

Luckily for me, my husband is fine with leftovers, and will actually eat them stone-cold. (This is a trait I hope our future unborn children do not inherit.)

But I'd still like to be able to save money and food by taking yesterday's Beef Stroganoff to work for lunch, or have it a second night in a row, and also get a modicum of pleasure out of it.

There's a couple ways to do this. One, is make food that tastes better the second day--Chili is the classic example.

Another way to go is what those girls on the Food Network like to do: make extra protein (meat, fish, whatever) and use the extra protein in another dish. Not technically leftovers, per se, but you are using meat you cooked from the other day, and saving some time in the kitchen.

Then there's the strategy of maksing the old leftovers by pairing them with something new and very tasty. Pouring cheese sauce over broccoli is a good example, or the stuffed potato.

My husband introduced me to the stuffed potato, and he, in turn, was introduced to it from his mother. Although the stuffed potato tastes better when you stuff it with leftovers that keep well, there's something about a hot, fluffy baked potato with crisp skin that makes yesterday's tuna casserole a bit more tenable.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Improv recipe: Mint hot chocolate

Cold day. Wanted hot chocolate. Came up with this recipe.

1 cup milk
1/4 cup chocolate chips (I prefer semi-sweet)
1 large spring of fresh mint

bruse the mint by rubbing it around in your hands until the leaves are smoooshed and you can really start to smell the mint. Add mint, chocolate chips, and milk to a microwave-safe mug.

Microwave for 1-3 minutes, stirring after every minute. When the chocolate chips are melted and the mixture is hot, let sit 3-5 minutes to let the mint steep.

The more you bruise the mint, the more minty the flavor will be.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Improv recipe: Layered raspberries and cream pancakes

Had a workplace brunch today. Was going to make stuffed crepes, but ran out of time. So I put together this recipe instead.

UPDATE: This went over very well at work. Everybody loved it!

You will need a crockpot, a strainer, a saucepan, a non-stick skillet to cook the pancakes in, and two bowls. A couple spoons and something to flip the pancakes would also be helpful.

If you don't like raspberries, any kind of frozen berry could fill in here, though if you were going with strawberries, you'd probably need to cook them for longer.

The pancake batter
2 cups biscuit mix or self-rising flour
1 cup milk
2 eggs
2 tablespoons oil

The raspberry sauce
1 bag frozen raspberries
1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons corn starch
1/4 cup sugar

The sweetened sour cream
1 16 ounce container sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Optional: 1 apple, sliced thinly, drizzled with lemon juice to prevent browing.

Mix all ingredients for the batter, and let rest. Add more milk if needed. Mix ingredients for the raspberry sauce in a saucepan, bring to boil. Let boil for 5-10 minutes. While raspberry sauce is boiling, mix ingredients for the sour cream.

Cook pancakes, and place on plate.
Mix cornstarch with water. Take raspberry sauce off the heat, add cornstarch slurry. Cook over medium heat for another couple minutes until the sauce thickens. Pour sauce through strainer to try to get most of the seeds out.

Put a pancake in the bottom of the crockpot. Layer with part of the sour cream mixture, spreading over the surface of the pancake. Put some apple slices on top, if using. Place another pancake on top. Layer with part of the raspberry mixture, spreading out. Add apples. Repeat, alternating layers of sour cream and rasperry sauce, until you run out of pancakes. On the top, finish with raspberry sauce and any leftover apple slices.

Keep warm on crockpot on "low." This tastes OK at room temperature, too, but is better if it's warmer.