Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Consider the vegetables of the field ...

I'm not a vegetarian in any way, shape, or form, but I think they're on to something. The vegetarians I know are all very healthy, certainly when compared to my sick-and-tired self. I like vegetables, if they're prepared well. Nothing turns my stomach faster than soggy overcooked spinach. Pasty canned peas are a no-go. Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella?  Give me all you've got. Greek salad with cucumbers and tomatoes? Yes, please.

Three of my cooking heroes have me thinking about vegetables. A few years ago, Mark Bittman introduced the concept of a “less-meatarian” in his book, “Food Matters .” Not vegetarian, just cutting back on the amount of meat you eat. Micheal Natkin, of Herbivoracious, has been kicking up amazing vegetarian fare for years. The awe inspiring Jose Andres has started focusing on vegetables with his new restaurants, hoping to popularize vegetables and make them the “new bacon.”

What's interesting to me, from a faith-based standpoint, is that it falls right in line with the Word of Wisdom. For those who don't know, the Word of Wisdom is the dietary and health commandments that Mormons believe were given to us by God. They're found in our modern scripture set, the Doctrine & Covenants. This is passage I'm thinking about:

Doctrine and Covenants 89:11 - 16
11 Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof; all these to be used with prudence and thanksgiving.
12 Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly;
13 And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.
14 All grain is ordained for the use of man and of beasts, to be the staff of life, not only for man but for the beasts of the field, and the fowls of heaven, and all wild animals that run or creep on the earth;
15 And these hath God made for the use of man only in times of famine and excess of hunger.
16 All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—

My daughter's are on-again-off-again vegetarians. The degree of their vegetarianism varies from hour to hour. My wife is an almost-carnivore. If she could just get by with Mountain Dew and roast beef with ranch dressing for the rest of her life, she would. My youngest is the pickiest, most unpredictable eater I've ever known. Her only constants are sugar and tofu. I'm an omnivore. I'll eat just about anything, as long as it tastes good.

Making dinner that we'll all eat is a challenge. My wife's not too difficult because she hates to cook. As long as I throw some meat her way from time to time, she won't bite me. With younger daughters I've learned to hope for the best while trying to contain my frustration. I spent two hours cooking this, and you won't even try it? Go make your own dinner, then. As for me, it has to taste good or I won't keep eating it. In fact, it's got to taste better than good. As Micheal Natkin might say, it's got to taste freaking delicious.

To that end, I've decided I want to learn to cook vegetables that are freaking delicious. My go-to source for learning to cook delicious food is Christopher Kimball and his staff at America's Test Kitchen. I've learned, over the years, that I can count on them to give me solid advice, solid recipes, and solid techniques. I don't like every recipe of theirs I've tried, but the vast majority are excellent. Some of I've modified to fit my own tastes and situation, but I know I'm not going to go completely wrong with them.

So, I bought their new vegetarian cookbook. A few of the recipes I've already made, getting them from other sources. There's so darned many more it was worth every penny, though. The first recipe convinced me I was right to buy to it, a summer vegetable gratin. Even my carnivorous wife enjoyed it. Their classic gazpacho was amazing, too. I still like the gazpacho recipe I've been using, I just have more variety, now. As I start to work my way through it, I'll be sharing my variations on them. Why? Because I know you, too, want to make and eat food that is healthy, and really freaking delicious.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Strawberry Shortcake – The Taste of Early Summer

One of the great things about the beginning of summer is all the wonderful berries. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, shnozberries … Okay, maybe not those. Still, berry season will soon be over so, it's time to do something extra special with them. I'm thinking strawberry shortcake.

Strawberry shortcake is a beautiful summer dessert. It's pretty simple: a tender biscuit, a sweet and chunky strawberry sauce, and whipped cream. Pretty sexy, if you ask me. There is a little work involved, but it's worth it. Good ingredients are important, though. Make sure you have ripe strawberries, but not overripe. No amount of manipulation can save bad fruit.

Equipment needed
cutting board
paring knife
measuring spoons and cups
mixing bowls
potato masher
rubber spatula
biscuit cutters (optional, you can just use a large glass or empty can)
parchment paper
rimmed baking sheet
cooling rack

1 quarts strawberries
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick)
1 large egg
1 large egg white
11 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided (1/2 cup, plus 3 tablespoons)
2 cups all purpose flour, plus a little extra for the counter
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup half-and-half
2 cups whipped cream

Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, place on a small plate in the refrigerator until needed.

Remove the stem and white core from the strawberries with a paring knife. In a large bowl, crush 3 cups of the strawberries with a potato masher. Slice the remaining 5 cups of strawberries and stir into the crushed ones, along with 6 tablespoons of sugar. Let them sit at room temperature for 30 minutes until the sugar dissolves and berries give off their juices.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 425 °F, with an oven rack in the middle position.

Now it's time to start on the biscuits. In another large bowl, whisk together 2 cups of flour, 3 tablespoons of sugar, the baking powder and salt. Scatter the butter on top of the flour mixture and mix together, using clean hands, until it looks like coarse corn meal.

Note: A food processor will make short work of this, but hands have been around for a lot longer and will do fine.

In a separate bowl, gently whisk together the egg (not the egg white) and half-and-half. Add to the flour mixture and gently stir together with a rubber spatula just until clumps start forming.

Lightly flour a clean counter top and turn out the mixture. Gently kneed the dough just until it comes together. Overworking the dough will result in tough biscuits. Using your fingertips, pat the dough into a 9-by-6-inch rectangle, about 1-inch thick. Cut six rounds out of the dough with a 3-inch biscuit cutter or glass. You'll have to gather the dough back up at least once, and you'll probably end up with an extra biscuit, maybe two. That's okay, though. This is cooking, not dental surgery.

Note: I don't use biscuit cutters. Instead, I cut the tops and bottoms off a couple of cans of water chestnuts. Why pay for something if you can recycle something else for free?

Line the baking sheet with parchment paper. Place the dough round on the sheet, 1-inch apart. Gently beat the egg white with 1 teaspoons of water and brush the tops of the dough rounds. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Bake the shortcakes until golden brown, about 12 minutes. Remove them from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet for ten minutes before transferring to a cooling rack to finish cooling.

By now, the strawberries should be ready. Now would be a good time to whip the cream, before assembly.

Split each biscuit in half. Lay the bottoms on individual serving plates. Divide the strawberry mixture evenly over each bottom, and then top with a dollop of whipped cream. Cap with the biscuit tops, and enjoy.

Make 6 servings.

Friday, May 29, 2015

How to Make Candied Ginger

As you may know, I'm a fan of “do-it-yourself” when it comes to the kitchen. Making your own food products is a great way to supplement your pantry, and can be cheaper than buying them ready made. It's easier than you might think. In keeping with the kitchen DIY spirit, I decided to take on candied ginger.

Candied ginger has three ingredients: ginger, sugar, and water. There are many recipes out there; I just happen to like this one. The advantages of making your own candied ginger are many. It tastes better than the supermarket stuff, for starters. In addition, the byproduct of making it is ginger syrup – a miraculous food stuff all on its own. Bonus!

Candied ginger can be added to so many things, cookies, cakes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pies … the list is long and illustrious. I've been told it's good for you, too. It's an old cure for nausea and seems to reduce gastric inflammation. Some people say it even has a positive effect on some cancers. I just like snacking on it. It's pungent, sweet, spicy, and really kicks your taste in the buds.

Ginger syrup is wonderful. Use it to sweeten teas (herbal in my case), or kick up cold drink – think mock ginger ale, ginger lemon-lime soda, or ginger cola. Pour it over pound cake instead of some other syrup or glaze. I like it on vanilla ice cream.

Note: Young, fresh ginger root is preferred because it's got a milder flavor and is more tender. The older ginger will work just fine, though.

Equipment Needed
chef's knife
spoon or vegetable peeler
chef's knife
medium saucepan
wire drying racks
rimmed baking sheet

2 ¼ cups sugar, separated
2 cups water
8 ounces of fresh ginger

Break the fingers of ginger apart, and peel them. You can use a vegetable peeler, but it easier to get around the knobbly bits by scraping it off with a spoon. Cut the peeled ginger into thin slices.

Place the wire cooling racks inside a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.

Combine 2 cups of the sugar and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and it looks clear. Stir in the ginger slices. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until the ginger is tender and translucent, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.

Drain the ginger using a strainer set over a large bowl to collect the syrup. Set the syrup aside to let it cool.

Transfer the ginger to the cooling rack. Spread the ginger pieces out a bit, so they don't touch each other. Let the ginger dry until it's no longer moist, but still a little tacky. This will take at least 6 hours, but should be done in no more than 12 hours.

Combine the dried ginger and the remaining ¼ cup of sugar in a large bowl, and toss until well coated. You'll have some sugar left over, that's okay. You can use it to sweeten your drinks or something.

This is where your patience will pay off. If you don't wait until the ginger is dry before you toss it with the additional sugar, you'll end up with gummy ginger pieces that will cement themselves together.

Candied ginger can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for about 2 weeks. Once the syrup is cooled, transfer to a jar and refrigerate.

Makes about ¾ cup of candied ginger, and about 2 cups of ginger syrup.

Looking at the cost
The joy of cooking aside, is it worth the cost and time? I have no idea how much electricity or natural gas this takes, so I can't account for that. Just keep it in mind as you read my cost breakdown.

The cheapest I found for a 16 oz bag of “crystallized ginger” was $4.99, or about 30 cents an ounce. From what I've been able to figure, there's about 6 oz of candied ginger per cup, so the yield of this recipe it about 4.5 oz. Commercially, that's about $1.40 worth of candied ginger. Keep in mind that this candied ginger isn't very chew-able. The more tender stuff, which is comparable with the candied ginger in this recipe, goes for as much as $11.99 a pound, or 75 cents per ounce. Compared to that product, making your own candied ginger comes in at about $2.53 worth of candied ginger.

Ginger root, at my local grocery, is $3.69 per pound, or 23 cents per oz. This recipe uses 8 oz of ginger, so that's $1.84. A 4 pound bag of sugar costs $1.50. At 2 cups of sugar per pound, that's about 38 cents worth of sugar. The total cost for the ingredients, then, is $2.22. Remember, that doesn't count the cost of heat or your time. It seems to only be cost effective if we're comparing it with the “good stuff.” With the added cost of heat and time, we're lucky to break even, so far.

Except we also get 2 cups of ginger syrup out of the bargain. Just like commercial candied ginger, the price of ginger syrup varies widely with the quality. Some of these syrups have all kinds of added preservatives and stabilizers and artificial flavors. I found the cost of ginger syrup varying from about 25 cents per oz, for the cheap stuff, to about $1.50 per oz, for the good stuff. At 16 oz, that means anywhere between $4.00 and $24.00 worth of ginger syrup. We get it for free, as a byproduct.

Okay, so at its lowest commercial cost, we're making at least $6.22 worth of gingery goodness for $2.22, plus the cost of the heat and time. That's a bit less than $4 savings, and that's comparing it to the cheap stuff. At best, we're making about $26.00 worth of product, that's a $20.00 savings. I don't think we're actually saving that much, but it suddenly seems a lot more cost effective to make it ourselves.