Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pecans, Patience and Procrastination

You may remember than my oldest daughter has taken quite an interest in making candy. She needed to get some pecans to make pralines, so I heroically volunteered to drive her to the grocery store for them.

I don't know how much of a hero I really was. I was going to get eggs and some vanilla that night, anyway, but I like to think I'm heroic where my daughter's are concerned. It's this little illusion I create for myself, as their father. They know better, but are polite enough not to say anything.

Against my recommendations, she got the caramel made up and cooling before we left. We only needed three or four items so it wasn't going to take very long.

Yeah, right.

I tend to linger in the grocery aisles a bit, especially if something catches my eye. What caught my eye first, was a friend and neighbor who also happens to be a good home cook.

For some reason that I can't remember, he needed to replace his large cooking pot. He wasn't impressed with the prices there, and I wasn't impressed with the quality. We talked cooking gear as hard as any weekend woodworking warrior would at Home Depot. “Yeah, it looks bonded, but from the heft I'd guess it's got a hollow core, not an aluminum one,” and so on.

After several minutes of this my daughter ... remember my daughter? This story is about her, after all.

Anyway, my daughter was trying to speed things up and had found the vanilla. “Will this do? It's the cheapest.”

“It is imitation?” I asked.

“Yeah, but it's less expensive than this other one.”

I shook my head. “No, honey. Never buy imitation vanilla. It's crap. Get the natural stuff.” I promptly went back to the discussion of stock pot construction techniques.

My daughter chimed in again. “Dad? Candy? Remember?”

“Oh, yeah. She's started making candies these days. It's really quite something,” I told my friend, not quite getting the hint.

“Dad! We have to get back, remember?” my daughter said, in earnest.

“Okay. I guess we better go. We've got to get back before her caramel cools too much.” I finally said, and my friend and I parted ways.

Stepping a little farther down the aisle we found the pecans. “$10.00 a pound? Holy cow. I didn't realize they'd be so expensive. I'm not sure we don't need two of these.” I exclaimed in horror.

Sidestepping the issue, my daughter asked, “How many of these packages do we really need?”

Upon further inspection I thought we'd be okay with the one pound package, but just barely. To be honest, I was being hopeful. I knew that two packages would be too many and, frankly, I didn't want to pay $20.00 for pecans just to make candy. I'm kinda cheap that way. It turned out I was right. We had just barely 4 cups of chopped nuts.

“Okay, let's get the eggs and then we can go.” my daughter pressed.

We found the eggs, but along the way we also went down the picnic items aisle. This aisle has all the ketchup and mustard and hot sauce and, well, I did need some more.

I grabbed a bottle of Louisiana style hot sauce and started comparing it with the Tabasco brands when my daughter broke my reverie, “Dad? Candy?”

“Oh, okay.” I said. “I just need some of this,” and I put the Louisiana style hot sauce in our small basket.

The trouble is, the olives and pickles were farther down that same aisle. As I stopped once again, distracted by some garlic-stuffed green olives, my daughter spoke up again.

“No, Dad. No! No more looking! We have to go. No looking!” She hunched her shoulders and waved her hands furiously at me for emphasis.

Trying not laugh, I closed my eyes and left the aisle with her. She had a good point, but she just looked so cute waving her hands around that I just had to smile.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We got through the checkout quickly and painlessly. When we got home, though, the caramel had indeed cooled a bit more than I thought was good. My daughter was undaunted. I showed her how to chop the pecans with a heavy chef's knife and she stirred them in.

We realized, too late, that we didn't have enough waxed paper to spread out on the table so, we sprayed some baking sheets and she started to drop the praline mixture onto them to cool and harden. The caramel was more than soft. Runny, would be more accurate. I didn't think it had been cooked long enough, so I made her bring it to a boil again and then let it cool enough to deal with. That did the trick, mostly, and she was able to get them laid out on the baking sheets in record time. Once again, I listened to the voice in my head saying, Shut up, John, and just let her have at it.

I shouldn't have worried. They were the softest pralines I've ever eaten, to be sure, but they were quite tasty. So tasty, in fact, that it was hard to stop eating them. Once again, my daughter had created something wonderful. Not quite a confectionary triumph, but very close. Close enough that we devoured them all in two days.

Next, she's planning on making a caramel pudding-cake.

Photo by Michael W.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Daughter, the Confectioner

My oldest daughter has started following in her old man's footsteps. It turns out she followed me right into the kitchen. Unlike her old man, though, she's getting more into candy making. As you can imagine, I'm trying to encourage this behavior. Hey, I like homemade candy as much as the next guy.

I've already posted her first candy attempt. The caramels were good, in spite of the fact that she added twice as much sugar as the recipe called for.

It also turns out that she was guessing when it came to the temperature. We don't have a candy thermometer. I assumed she was testing for the soft ball stage because I had talked to her about it.

She told me, “Yeah, Dad. I read about it in this recipe book. I know what that's about.”

Knowing and doing are two different things, though. “Yeah, Dad. I read about and I think that's too much work so I'm not doing it.” That would have been more accurate. She eventually revealed that "She was guessing based on how fast she saw our meat thermometer rising."

I think that's why the caramels, and her latest candy creations, weren't quite as expected, texture-wise.

Mistakes are part of learning, though. Whenever she's in the kitchen I'm constantly reminding myself, shut up, John. Yes, I may know an [insert favorite positive adjective here] way, but she needs to be allowed to make mistakes. I firmly believe that. I also firmly believe that if I get too involved she'll quit doing it and there will be less treats in my life. Thus goes the father/daughter relationship.

A week ago I came home from work to find her in the kitchen just beginning to stir up some agglomeration of sugar, water, and butter. I thought I best investigate.

“What'cha makin'?” I asked.

“Oh, just this stuff,” she said, turning to her favorite cookbook, “Prawl-eyens, pray – lines, something.”

“Pralines?” I asked.

“I guess.” She said, turning back to the pot.

Wow. She's braver than I am so, I said, “Wow. You're braver than I am. I don't make much candy. Hot sugar makes me nervous.”

“Thanks!” she replied, smiling. “I don't have any pecans so, I thought I'd use these almonds. I'm not sure I have enough, though.”

“How much do you need?”

“Four cups, I think. I'm doubling the recipe.”

Ouch. Besides, the almonds and I had plans. “Honey, I think you've got maybe one cup of almonds here and I was planning on using them for something else.”

“Oh, okay,” she replied, dropping her smile in favor of a vacant look of dissapointment.

“Look, I'm going to the grocery store. Do you want to come along and we can get some pecans, instead?” I offered.

She perked up a bit. “Sure. Just let me get this started.”

“I'm not sure you'll want to do that. You really shouldn't leave candy alone when your baking it.” I said. “Why don't you wait until we get back?”

“No, I want to get this done. I've got to let it cool down for at least 30 minutes before I add the nuts,” she insisted. “Then we can go.”

“Are you sure?” I started. The voice in my head starting to say, shut up, John.

“Yeah, I'm sure,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, silently hoping the candy wouldn't cool down as fast as I thought it would.

After several minutes of stirring, she announced, “Okay, Dad. We can go. Let's just not take too long, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, “I only need to get some vanilla and eggs. that shouldn't take too long.”

Unfortunately, things don't always go as planned for budding confectioners, or their fathers ....

Photo by Rubén.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Food Joke Friday - God is Watching

applesThe children were lined up for a special Primary celebration at church. At the head of the lunch table was a large pile of apples. The Primary teacher made a note, and posted on the apple tray, "Take only one. God is watching."

Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. One child whispered to another, "Take all you want. God is watching the apples."

Photo by Bianca de Blok

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Essential (Kitchen) Oils

Don't let the title fool you. We're not talking about aromatherapy. We're talking cooking oils.

While the sunlight, shining through rows of multicolored oil bottles, may look pretty in your kitchen, the truth is there are only a few different cooking oils you need to get the most out of your cooking.

That and you shouldn't keep your oils in the sun. They'll go rancid really fast that way. You should store your cooking oils in a cool, dry, dark, place like your kitchen cupboard, or even in the refrigerator.

Speaking of refrigerators, olive oil will solidify at low temperatures. That can be good and bad. It's good in that you can then use tasty solidified olive oil on your toast as a healthy replacement for butter. It's bad because your dressings will have to sit on the counter for quite awhile before they become liquid, again.

I think of cooking oils as falling into two categories: oils for cooking and oils for finishing. Heating oil degrades its flavor, so I don't tend to us more flavorful, and expensive, oils for frying. On the other hand, oils used as a dressing, or added right at the end of cooking, can go a long way to creating a silky mouth feel and great flavor.

In my kitchen, there are four basic oils I keep on hand:

Canola Oil
With a very neutral flavor and high tolerance for heat, Canola oil is my “everyday” cooking oil. It's the modern replacement for vegetable oil or sunflower oil, being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fats. Let's keep no illusions here, though. In most cases, Canola oil is a genetically modified food (GMO). It's actually rapeseed oil. It got it's name from Canada, the country of it's invention, hence the capital “C.” Some people claim that it's just as healthy as olive oil. Others claim is deadly because the extraction process uses hexane. I think they're both wrong or are at least exaggerating things. While light olive oil would be a more healthy choice, it's more expensive. I've chosen to keep both on hand.

Olive Oil, Light and Virgin

Olive oil has a mild, almost fruity flavor, but brands vary wildly. There's no argument that the omega-3 content is good for you. The trouble is that it doesn't stand up well to very high temperatures, making it unsuitable for deep frying or high temperature stir-frying. It's great for general frying and many other uses, though.

There are several varieties of olive oil, depending on which pressing the oil is coming from. “Virgin” olive oil has good flavor, and low acidity. It is less refined than “light” olive oil, which has less flavor. Olive oil loses much of it's flavor when heated enough for sauteing. That reason, coupled with the extra expense, makes olive oil a secondary choice for me for everyday use. If I'm making a Mediterranean dish I favor it over Canola oil. Or whenever the mood strikes me.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra Virgin olive oil comes from the very first cold pressing of the olives. It has so much more character than light olive oil, it makes me wonder how they came from the same fruit. Strongly flavored, it is peppery and fruity. I use extra virgin olive oil as a finishing oil, drizzling it over hot foods before serving. It's also excellent in most dressings. I rarely saute things with it, though, as much of it's flavor is compromised when heated, not to mention the extra expense.

Sesame Oil
Sesame oil is a lightly flavored oil that has been used in Asian cuisine for thousands of years. It's high in omega-6 fatty acids and keeps well at room temperature. Light sesame oil has a high smoking point, making it suitable for deep frying and other high temperature cooking. It is also, unfortunately, expensive. Dark sesame oil does not hold up to heat as well, however. Because of the expense, I only keep dark sesame oil on hand, using it as a finishing and flavoring oil when I prepare Asian dishes. Its strong flavor means a little will go a long way.

Why not peanut oil?
I've been known to buy peanut oil from time to time. It's great when cooking many Asian dishes, and does well when stir-frying. The problem is that it's generally expensive, and loses most of it's character when heated so, I rarely buy it.

Photo by Pawel Kryj

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sauteed Lamb Chops with Onion Sauce

For a relatively quick weekday meal, or a nice weekend one for that matter, lamb chops are a great choice. The whole thing shouldn't take you more than about 15 minutes to prepare. Add an extra 5 minutes for the side dishes and you've got dinner ready in less than a half an hour.

Utah has excellent lamb, and it's not as expensive as you might think. My nine year old daughter had a hard time with the idea of eating lamb, though. “But DAAAaaad. It's a baby sheep!” Lamb isn't really “baby” sheep. It's more like pre-teen sheep. Think of it as young mutton. It has a lighter flavor than the adult variety, and is quite tender. We don't eat a lot of it, but we do enjoy it on rare occasions.

When I do prepare lamb, I think of family. One of my uncles kept sheep on his farm. If I was visitign at the right time, I could help feed the lambs. He'd fill glass soda bottles with milk, topped with tough rubber nipples, and we'd hold them for the greedy wooly monsters. He'd share some with the meat with my mother from time to time, and I really enjoyed the roasted mutton ribs she'd make. My paternal grandfather was a sheep shearer by trade. Even though I never met him, I can't help but think about them all when I cook lamb.

Lamb can be hard to find in some local groceries, though. To prepare this recipe for you, I went to my the only lamb I found at my grocer was in the form of blade chops. Blade chops are cut closer to the shoulder of the lamb and have a lot of connective tissue. The flavor is quite good, though, and they tend to be less expensive than the traditional loin or rib chop, even though they actually may more meat on them. If you use the lamb blade chop for this recipe, cut the chop in half lengthwise, removing the large band of tough connective tissue that runs through it's center, before cooking.

Equipment needed
Kitchen knife
Cutting board
Large skillet or saute pan
Measuring cups and spoons

8 lamb chops
ground pepper
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1/2 large red onion*, finely chopped
1/3 cup red cooking wine (Marsala) or red grape juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
salt to taste

Trim excess fat (and connective tissue) from the lamb chops. Heat the skillet over high heat for two minutes, and add the oil. Grind black pepper over both sides of each chop and place in the hot pan. Do not add salt at this point! The salt will pull the juices out of the lamb and you'll end up with dry lamb. Reduce the heat to medium and saute the lamb for 3 minutes per side for rare lamb. Add two or three minutes cooking time per side if you prefer it well done. Remove from the heat and set aside to rest a bit. You can add a pinch of salt to the lamb before serving, if you want to.

While the lamb chops are resting, add the onion and a pinch of salt to the same pan. Add a little more oil, if you need to. Stir and cook over medium heat for about 4 minutes, until the onion starts to get soft. Add the cooking wine or grape juice, mustard and honey. Mix well. Simmer for 1 or 2 minutes more, until slightly reduced, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve the lamb and sauce with your favorite vegetable sides. In this case, I served it with asparagus and mashed potatoes.

Serves 4 adults, or two adults and a few children.

If you're using blade chops, you may end up with leftovers as there is more meat on them than a prepared loin chop.

*This recipe calls for red onion because they're milder than their yellow cousins. Yellow onions will work just fine, though. You may want to cook them a little longer in this case. Longer cooking times mellow the onion's flavor.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Food Joke Friday - World's Largest McDonalds

Driving through Oklahoma, the vacationing couple I went out of their way to stop at what was billed as the largest McDonald's in the world.

They were less than thrilled when an employee addressed everyone over the intercom: "Attention, world's largest McDonald's customers."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Make Meringues

Meringue - a fancy name for dried egg whites and sugar. This basic mixture is used in countless ways and in all kinds of desserts. Instead of drying, it can be poached to make oeufs à la neige (snow eggs). Mix it with nuts and you get dacquoise (also the name of a dessert cake using meringue as a base).

Here I'm sharing the simple technique of whipping them up, and drying them into little, lady finger like cookies. I'll share more elaborate techniques, later.

Equipment needed
Large mixing bowl
Measuring cups and spoons
Hand mixer
Rubber spatula
Metal spatula
Baking sheet

6 egg whites
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar*
pinch cream of tartar**
butter and flour to coat baking sheet***

mostly stiff egg whitesSeparate the eggs, saving the yolks for some other dish. Put the egg whites into a large mixing bowl. Add the cream of tartar. Using a hand mixer on medium-high speed, whip the egg whites until they start to hold their shape.

When egg whites are beaten, some of the hydrogen bonds in the egg protein break. This causes the protein molecule to unfold itself and get stiff. The cream of tartar acts as a binder for these broken protein chains.

Gradually add 1 cup of the sugar and continue to beat the eggs for one minute. They should be very stiff and shiny. Don't over-beat them! They will loosen up and become liquid.

Using a rubber spatula, fold in the remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Folding in the sugar at the end makes for a more tender meringue.

piping meringueCoat a cookie sheet with butter and flour. Fill a large plastic storage bag or pastry bag with the egg white mixture. Pipe out plane or fluted meringues, about the size and shape of lady fingers (about an inch wide and 3 inches long). Lift the bag at the end in sharp, upward motion to avoid creating a long tail. Dipping your fingers in cold water, push the tails down, or leave them if you don't mind the look of them.

Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake the meringues for 1 hour 45 minutes, to 2 hours or so. The meringues should be very well dried. If you have an oven that will go as low as 135 degrees, you can dry them for 24 hours, like restaurants do. Carefully remove the dried meringues with a metal spatula. Store in a dry, covered container. Stored this way, meringues will keep for several weeks. Don't refrigerate them or they'll get soggy.

Meringues can be served on top of ice cream, with fruit, whipped cream, or plain. You can even make little meringue sandwiches by putting a little whipped cream in between two of them. I like dusting them with cocoa powder, as you can see in the picture, above.

*You can use regular granulated sugar for meringues, as well, it just needs to have very fine crystals.

** If you don't have cream of tartar, you can substitute a few drops of lemon juice or even a pinch of salt as a binding agent.

***You can use “cooking spray for bakers,” which has flour in it, if you like.

Photos by Mormon Foodie!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Three Years of Food Blogging

I've been interested in cooking and eating good food all of my life. I've also had a weight problem most of my life. As you get older, you expect to put on a few pounds. When you trade in your blue collar job for white collar (or gray collar) ones, you slow down as well. Physical activity becomes more scarce sitting in front of a computer screen most of the day. Weight gain can be a problem.

As I began writing this blog three years ago today, I never expected my weight would increase as much as it has, though. My mind has been focused on food, and not on exercise.

It's not all the blog's fault, though. The blog is just a facilitator. I've got a lot of stressful aspects to my life I've not shared with you. I doubt I'll ever share them all. The blog has helped me cope. It's been a wonderful distraction and motivator to learn more about cooking, expand my recipe repertoire, discover wonderful new flavors and ingredients, and enjoy eating the fruits of my labors. It's even put me in touch with my roots and my faith in ways that have surprised and delighted me. I hope you, gentle reader, have enjoyed the journey as well.

I need to get serious about making a change, though. I'm overweight and out of shape. Depending on the scale, I qualify as obese. I have several health problems associated with obesity: gastric reflux disease, high blood pressure and high triglyceride levels (the other cholesterol), Add a family history of cardiovascular disease and I'm priming myself for a stroke. I guess it's better than dying of cancer, like my father did.

The good news is, my LDL cholesterol levels are low, and my HDL levels are ... well ... normal. I've cut out a few sources of hydrogenated fats, and my increased use of olive oil. I don't eat a lot of animal products, either. I think that may be helping. I still need to give up soda.

I've tried dieting before, but it's never really taken. I'd lose weight, only to have it plateau early on. Then I'd get discouraged and quit, only to watch my weight bounce back up, and then some. Pretty typical dieting cycle.

My doctor is starting an HCG diet program through his clinic. One of this blog's sponsors has a program about that, as well. Depending on what's involved, I may try it. I know a few people who've tried it and done well. I know a couple of others that have tried it, and then bounced back. I'm not sure what's going to be best for me, at this point, though. I hate restrictive diets, but I'm starting to get desperate.

While the last three years have brought me joy, sorrow and weight gain, I'm looking forward to the next three years. I'm hoping to share healthier dishes as well as document my choice, and progress, in controlling my weight and improving my health. If there's one thing I've learned about so-called diet food, if it doesn't taste good, forget it. I won't eat it, and I won't share it. Let's face it, I still need a little dessert now and then, as well.

I like sharing good food! Thanks for letting me share with with for that last three years. I hope you'll stay at the table. We've got more feasting, with healthier dishes I hope, coming up.

Photograph by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Friday, February 5, 2010

Food Joke Friday - Two Muffins

Two muffins are sitting in the oven. One turns to the other and says, "Boy, is it hot in here."

The other screams, "Ahhhh! A talking muffin!"

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Almond Caramels - Romantic Food

When we think Valentines day and candy, we usually think chocolate. Not a bad choice, considering. Good chocolate is rich, silky and sensual. Other kinds of candy can work, too. Almond Caramels, for example.

My daughter, Writer Girl, made a bunch of them yesterday. This was the first time she'd ever tried to make candy, and I think she did a fantastic job. She did accidentally put twice as much sugar in as the original recipe called for, and conveniently forgot to put in the almonds (the poor, deranged girl doesn't like almonds). They were still tasty caramels, if a bit gritter than normal.

I love almonds, so here's the recipe I use.

Equipment needed
8 inch square baking pan
aluminum foil
heavy saucepan
candy thermometer (optional)
waxed paper

1/4 cup butter
Additional butter, as needed, to grease the pan
2 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 cup toasted, chopped almonds

Line the inside of an 8 inch square baking pan with foil. Put one layer of foil lengthwise, and anther layer, top to bottom. This will create a “sling” that will make removing the caramel much easier. Grease the foil generously with butter, and set aside.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt and 1/4 cup butter. (Don't use margarine for this, please. It's not good!) Bring slowly to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly to avoid burning the sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer gently for 4 minutes, without stirring.

Remove from the heat. Slowly add the cream, stirring constantly until incorporated. Return to the heat and cook, without stirring, over medium low heat until the candy thermometer* reads 245 degrees Fahrenheit. This can take anywhere from 40 to 60 minutes.

Immediately remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, almond extract (if using), and chopped almonds. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking pan. Take you time with this to avoid scraping the sides of the saucepan. (It just makes a mess. Trust me.) Let it cool completely.

Lift the caramel out of the pan with the foil “sling.” Discard the foil and cut the caramel into 1 1/2 inch squares. Wrap individually in wax paper or foil. I find that spraying the side of the foil that contacts the candy with cooking spray makes them easier to remove.

Makes 3 - 4 dozen candies to share with family, friends, and sweethearts.

You can substitute the almonds with almost any favorite crushed nut. Walnuts, pecans and hazelnuts come to mind.

*Firm Ball Stage
If you don't have a candy thermometer, you're going to cook it to the “firm ball” stage. Start testing at about 30 minutes. Working quickly, dip a teaspoon into the hot mixture and drop a few drops into a cup of very cold water (not icy). With your fingers, form the drops into a ball and remove from the water. When it's firm enough to hold it's shape, but soon starts to flatten at room temperature, you've reached the firm ball stage. If it instantly flattens, cook it a little longer. If it doesn't flatten until you press it, you've gone too far.