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.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Apple Butter, or Apple Awesome Sauce?

When the apples go on sale, I like to take advantage of the pricing and get bunch of them. The problem is, I know they'll go bad before the family eats them all. I could make pie, but what if there's still a lot left? Make apple butter, of course.

For those who don't know, apple butter is not a fruit filled dairy product. It's more like caramelized applesauce. But it's really not applesauce, either. I've tried several recipes for apple butter, a couple of which used a crock pot. They weren't bad, but they left me wanting. I'm a fan of using a crock pot for apple butter, because it really does take a good deal of time to make it, but I didn't want to lock myself into a particular appliance without trying out a few other methods. As a foodie, I'm always after the good stuff.

Some recipes I tried used a little spice, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and so on. Some used so much that they ended up tasting more like a spicy slurry, with little to no apple flavor. Others weren't so bad, but I wanted something that celebrated the apple, no spice needed.

Eventually I tried one recipe from America's Test Kitchen. I'm a huge fan of theirs, as some of you may know, but sometimes their recipes don't work well for my situation. In this case, a couple of minor tweaks gave me an apple butter that had deep, rich, apple flavor, well beyond the other recipes I'd made. Sweet, but not too sweet, full of apple goodness, with nothing to get in the way. Best of all, it works for the kitchen I have, and uses affordable apples varieties.

There are several apple varieties that work well for apple butter, and a few that you'll want to stay away from. Even though you'll be cooking these apples until they break down, you don't want their flavors to break down along the way, or the resulting product become too watery. Varieties that hold up well to cooking, such as Fuji, Gala, and Granny Smith, are the way to go. Use two or three different varieties of cooking apples for the riches flavor. Stay away from Red Delicious or Golden Delicious apples. They're great for eating raw, but they don't hold up well under heat.

Apple butter is wonderful on just about everything you might put jam or applesauce on. I like it on toast, topping cottage cheese, or mixed into plain yogurt, when I'm not eating strait out of the jar, that is. It's super tasty as a topping for vanilla ice cream, as well.

Equipment needed
Dutch or other large pot (at least 6 quarts)
Large spoon
Flexible spatula
Mixing bowls
Chef's knife
Fine mesh sieve
Immersion blender

(You can substitute a food mill, or other blender, if you like. I'll talk about that, later.)

4 pounds of cooking apples (about 12 medium apples)
1 ¾ cups apple juice or cider
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
3 Tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp salt

Wash and then core the apples; chop them into 2-inch pieces. Don't bother peeling them. The oils in the peel with deepen the flavor. Put the cut apples into a large cooking pot, along with the apple juice, over medium high heat. Once it reaches a simmer, reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until the apples are very soft, stirring two or three times while cooking, about 30 minutes.

Remove from the heat and use an immersion blender to break up the apples, until very smooth.

You can use a regular blender or food processor if you don't have an immersion blender. Just do it in batches and be careful. The apples are very hot. Alternately, you can run them through a food mill, eliminating the next step. I don't have a food mill, they're a little pricey, so I need to use the next step.

Putting the fine mesh sieve over a large bowl, pour the apple mixture in, a little at a time, and push it through the mesh with a flexible spatula. This will remove the peels and make the mixture silky. Discard the peels.

Pour the apples back into the empty cooking pot. Mix in the granulated sugar, brown sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Heat the pot over medium high until it comes to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until the mixture becomes thick, like loose jam, about 1 ½ hours.

Let the mixture cool completely before transferring to pint jars or plastic freezer containers. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks, or in the freezer for a few months.

Makes about 1 ½ quarts.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Herbed Rice Pilaf with Almonds - International Side

The classic American meal, as I recall it, consists of an entree, and two side dishes - one starch, one veggie. Once you get tired of mashed potatoes or bread for the starchy side, though, you start to come around to rice. Rice is a great grain. I love it and so do millions of other people, worldwide. Rice can be a little bland by itself, though. In our case, we're going to kick up the rice's flavor by adding a few herbs to make a fluffy, savory, side dish.

Traditionally, a pilaf is a rice dish cooked in broth and seasoned with herbs and spices. Not all pilafs are the same. It's origins are in the middle east, but variations can be found throughout east Africa, as well as central and southern Asia. Pilafs vary as widely as the cultures it came from, and the cultures where it spread, which is just about everywhere. Some people add meat and veggies, but that goes beyond what we're going to do with, here. For me, it's all about fluffy rice with herb-packed goodness.

Don't think for a minute you have to use the herbs I've listed. Try a few spices, while you're at it. Is the entree turkey with sage? Tie it together by adding sage. BBQ Chicken? Spice it up with paprika and a pinch of cayenne. Play around and make it your own.

Note: I've indicated dried thyme and parsley, because that's what I normally have on hand. You can substitute 1 teaspoon of freshly minced thyme, if you'd like. If you don't have fresh parsley on hand, you can used dried parsley. Add it along with the thyme before cooking the rice, though, or it won't give up it's flavor as well.

Equipment Needed
cutting board
chef's knife
non-stick skillet
long handled cooking spoon
measuring cups and spoons
garlic press (optional)

1 small onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup sliced almonds.
3 Tablespoons butter
Salt and black pepper as needed
1 ½ cups long-grain rice
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 ¼ cups chicken broth
¼ cup fresh, chopped parsley.

Toast the almonds in a dry, non-stick skillet over medium heat until fragrant and toasty, about 4 minutes. Keep them moving so they don't burn. Remove from the heat and transfer them to a plate to cool.

Melt the butter in a medium to large saucepan over medium-high heat. At the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until just softened, about 3 minutes.
Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently, until the edges start to turn translucent, about 2 minutes. This denatures the starches and helps the rice stay fluffy, not sticky.

Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and dried parsley. Cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Stir in the chicken broth and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover, reducing the heat to low, and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it stand, covered, for 10 minutes more.

Discard the bay leaf and fluff with a fork. Stir in the almonds and fresh parsley, if using. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Makes 4 – 6 servings.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chicken Parmesan

Breaded chicken covered in marinara and cheese? What's not to like about that? Chicken Parmesan is one of those classic Italian comfort foods that became popular for a reason. It's easy, it's tasty, and relatively inexpensive. Chicken Parmesan is also quick enough for a weeknight meal, but has enough gravitas that it's great for special occasions and even entertaining.

One thing I've always been curious about, though, is why call it chicken Parmesan? Sure, it's got Parmesan cheeses in it, but there's far more mozzarella than Parmesan. Naming dishes is a real marketing trick, I suppose. Chicken mozzarella sounds heavy and pedestrian. Chicken Parmesan, though, that sounds light and rich, not only in taste but in pocket book. That's not the case, though. Done right, this won't break your wallet, or weight down your stomach.

There are a few things to keep in mind when cooking chicken Parmesan, or any other fried food, though. The oil has to be hot before you put anything in the pan. If the oil isn't ripping hot, you'll end up with greasy, flabby chicken parm. Yuck. Also, don't crowd your pan. Breaded foods need to breath. The moisture coming off of them needs room to escape or they'll start steaming each other. Soggy, waterlogged coating just doesn't cut it for me.

Before we get started, I want to talk about the chicken breast. Commercially packaged chicken breasts often have a little flap of meat attached to the side, and tucked under the breast by the butcher. This is the tenderloin. Great stuff, but it's best to remove it and fry it separately from the breast. It won't get wiped out when you pound the breast flat, that way.

Also, what's with all this “pounding out” the chicken breast? Yeah, yeah. I know. One end of the chicken breast is a lot thicker than the other and pounding the breast flat ensures even cooking.

I don't know if it's that I'm lazy, I don't like the noise, or what, but I really don't like risking tearing the meat into little shreds before I cook it. This is just a theory, mind you, but it also seems to me that smashing the bejeezus out of the meat is a great way to damage the cell walls and loose moisture. I could be wrong, but I've all but stopped flattening out my chicken breasts, that way. Instead, I carefully cut them in half, horizontally. This leaves me with two, flat pieces of chicken with even surfaces. They're not the same weight, or size, mind you. The top one is just a bit smaller, but it seems to be working out just fine. You can still pound your chicken if you want, but I don't recommend it.

One more thing. Chicken breasts have a bit of connective tissue running though them, just down one side. You can see it quite easily if you look for it. The problem with high heat and connective tissues is that it makes it contract and make things tough. There's an easy remedy, though. You can either cut it out, and cook each side separately, or you can take a paring knife and cut two or three tiny slits across it, evenly spaced through the breast. This will minimize the contractions, and make the breast more tender.

Now that I've given you the lecture portion of our recipe, it's time to getting cooking that chicken Parmesan.

Equipment needed
box grater
rasp grater (optional)
measuring cups and spoons
meat pounder (if you're still into the pounding thing)
paper towels
large skillet, nonstick is preferred
rimmed baking sheet
plastic wrap (again, this is only if you're still pounding your chicken)
3 pie plates (a good idea, but other shallow pans will work)

3/4 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
4 boneless, skinless, chicken breasts, 6-8 oz. each
salt and ground black pepper
3/4 cup cooking oil
1 cup tomato sauce or marinara

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, Fahrenheit, with an oven rack in the middle position.

Spread the flour in a pie plate or shallow dish. Beat the eggs and pour them into a second shallow dish. Spread the breadcrumbs in a third shallow dish. Set them aside.

Trim excess fat from the chicken and make a decision. If you're going to pound your meat, lay each breast between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound it evenly until it's about 1/2-inch thick. If you're going to cut it, follow the directions above. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and season with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Working with one piece of chicken at a time, dredge it through the flour, them dip it into the beaten eggs, coating evenly and letting the excess drip back into the dish, and then into the breadcrumbs, coating evenly. A tong works great for the first parts, but use your fingers to press the crumbs into the chicken, making sure they stick. Lay the prepared chicken on a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken.

Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, just until it starts to smoke. Add two pieces of chicken and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain the chicken briefly on paper towels and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.

Spoon the tomato sauce, or your favorite marinara, over the chicken, dividing it evenly between the pieces. Divide the mozzarella, sprinkling it over the chicken, followed by the Parmesan. Bake the chicken until the cheese is melted and browned, about 7 to 10 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.