Last night, dinner was surprisingly good. Not that being good was a surprise. Heck, I’m a cook and I know how to put things together. Like any home cook, I have a standard repertoire, a list of recipes that are tried and true and can be counted on to please us all. [I should start compiling that list for a series of posts, what an idea!] I worked the morning shift yesterday, but wasn’t feeling very well. The heat was getting to all of us, and I left work a little early with a head ache and not up to my usual 100%. I’d already texted Partner/Spouse to take out some chicken because my plan was to make a “standard” recipe, Baked Sesame Chicken.
What I had in mind was soaking the chicken in brine for an hour or so. After dipping in an egg wash, I was going to roll it in seasoned panko bread crumbs then press it into a pile of sesame seeds. I was going to gently bake it at 300 degrees until it was cooked, creating a delicious crunchy crust with the nutty flavor of roasted sesame. My plan was to serve it with a chilled pasta salad cuz it was so hot outside.
I’ve made this before and it’s really good, and really easy to make. It tastes like you’ve been cooking for hours and it always impresses the eaters.
But there’s always a however, right?
However, that’s not what happened.
I got home and the chicken was in the sink thawing out. It was a two and a half pound package of chicken thighs. We love chicken thighs. They’re moist and tasty. They cook quickly. They’re full of iron, about 75% of the amount you get from red meat. And they tend to be on the inexpensive side as chicken cuts go. We like ’em bone-in, skin on, boneless, or skinless. Pretty much any way they come.
So, jump to another thought here, but I promise they’ll tie together soon. Ever heard of PF Chang’s or Pei Wei? They’re a really good chain of Chinese food. Pei Wei is the “fast food” version of PF Chang’s sit down dining experience. They have basically the same menu. We haven’t been in a while since we haven’t been near one, so we constantly look around to see if we can find a way to recreate our favorite recipes from them. One of our favorite recipes is Lettuce Wraps.
In case you can’t tell, that’s ground chicken in a savory sauce with chopped green onion on top of crispy rice noodle all in a couple of leaves of iceberg lettuce. You fold it up any way you choose and cram it in your mouth. You get the warm savory chicken against the crunch of the noodles and the chilled moist lettuce and it’s wonderful.
Several weeks ago, Partner/Spouse found this:
It labelled “Sauce for Lettuce Wraps” so he bought it. This company makes other sauces too. Their Sauce for Orange Chicken is killer. And they also have a Sauce for Beef and Broccoli that we’re going to try soon.
So when I got home, I started the water boiling for the pasta salad. I originally was going to make a simple fettucine in a butter sauce with garlic. Would pair well with the Baked Sesame Chicken I’d been planning. As I was gathering ingredients, Partner Spouse said, “You know, there’s a package of Lettuce Wrap sauce if you want to use it.”
Faster than a speeding bullet, my whole menu changed. I no longer had to brine the chicken since I wasn’t going to bake it. I checked to see what fresh veggies I had for the pasta salad, and changed the pasta I’d be cooking.
So I boiled up some rigatoni. In case you don’t immediately know that that is, picture elbow macaroni about three times its normal size, then add ridges, then cut it in half lengthways.
For pasta salad, you don’t want any starch left on the pasta and you want the pasta to stop cooking immediately so you rinse it under cool water until it’s cool to the touch. Then let it drain for several minutes, shaking the colander several times to make sure the pasta is as dry as possible. I’ve known some people who then put the pasta in a towel and shake it around, but I think that’s going a bit to far. I mean, really, how much harm can a few drops of water do?
So I put the pasta in a bowl and added 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Remember that balsamic glaze I wrote about a few weeks ago? A tablespoon went into the pasta along with about a tablespoon of regular balsamic with raspberry. I added about a quarter cup of grated fresh parmesan, a quarter cup of sunflower seeds, a half cup of chopped green onion, three slice radishes, and half a pound of fresh asparagus cut into one inch pieces. I tossed every together to coat well and set in the fridge to chill.
Then I sat down with a glass of wine and my Kindle.
When it came time to make dinner cuz both our stomachs were audibly growling, I took a large skillet and heated a tablespoon of oil to shimmering stage. I wanted it hot to flash fry the chicken on the first touch. I cut the chicken thighs into one inch pieces. I put all the chicken into the pan and after the first flash fry, when the oil temp was reduced, I stirred the chicken to get a gook sear on all sides.
When you’re cooking any protein, the cooking process will release a lot of juices. Those juices combine with the oil to produce steam and aid in cooking. I didn’t want any of those juices, but I wanted the flavor since I’d added some sesame seeds, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, and chili powder (VERY small amount.) So I let the pan juices reduce, stirring occasionally until the pan was almost but not quite dry. Then I added this:
I stirred it around to coat every single piece of chicken, then turned the heat off. I pulled the pasta out of the fridge, stirred it a bit to loosen it and distribute the dressing evenly, and set salad tongs nearby. Then I put the chicken into a serving bowl, sprinkled with sesame seed over the top, and retrieved a fresh serving spoon after I dropped the first one I’d taken out of the drawer.
I wish I’d taken a picture. It was so good! Totally not like what I’d planned, but so much more so better. Not a piece of lettuce in sight for a wrap, but a delicious chicken sauce along side a tangy sweet salad. So yum.
Waaaay back many years ago, when my ex-wife and I were still in our dating phase, she introduced me to her sister. We were all talking, laughing, enjoying the “getting to know you” atmosphere. We were talking about their grandmother who had passed away a few months prior. She was a feisty, irascible old woman who brought much laughter and joy to her family. While in the nursing home, SiL asked Grandma if she needed anything. Grandma replied, “I’d love some oatmeal pies.”
I smiled and SiL said, “You know exactly what she wanted, right?”
I nodded, the image floating through my head.
I used to eat these things by the truckload, but at the time, I hadn’t had one for months. No particular reason for that, just hadn’t had one recently.
“I’d never heard of them!” she continued. “I went through every cookbook I could find and there was nothing. I finally went to the library and asked if they had anything and the lady told me about the ones you could buy at the store.”
“That’s what she wanted, right?” I replied.
“Yeah, so I brought her a box every week after that.”
Little Debbie’s snack cakes. When I was growing up, they cost a dollar a box, sometimes less. The product wasn’t super-high quality, but it was usually sweet and delicious. And it was part of the landscape of growing up, looked back upon fondly, and yearned for in later years.
I usually go through a box of these once a month or so. There are two sizes, small and really big. We usually get the “really big” ones cuz the small ones can be finished in about three bites.
They’re one of the few sweets that I eat that don’t involved chocolate. And they’re one of the few oatmeal treats that don’t include raisins in any form. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dislike raisins, and I’ve never turned away anything due to their inclusion. But they aren’t my go-to snack, and Partner/Spouse and Ex-Wife won’t go near them.
One day last week, I made chocolate chip cookies, and though they were good, they were just chocolate chip cookies. I started thinking about other sweets I liked that didn’t have chocolate in them. I was not in a chocolate place at the time. I wandered up and down the store aisles looking for some kind of inspiration. I noticed the oatmeal pies but didn’t want them. But they made me remember another oatmeal treat from childhood.
Remember Archway cookies?
When I was a kid, mom had these in the house all the time. She loved the oatmeal cookies, particularly the filled kind. Back then, fifty years ago, they had several different filled cookies. They were soft, cake-like, had a wonderful cinnamon flavor and the fillings were superb, not just jam but actual fruit. I loved their apple filled oatmeal cookies.
I can’t find them anymore. Not even on their official products web page. I can still find these.
While I love raspberries, too, they just aren’t apples. Imagine the above cookie with apple pie filling in the center. Bites of real apple, a delicious apple glaze, cinnamon and oatmeal surrounding it all.
I want to cram a whole cookie in my mouth. Maybe three or four at the same time. I’ve got a big mouth.
So while I can find Archway cookies on the shelves, I can’t find the one I want. As I do whenever I’m searching for a memory, I went to the internet. Some Grandma somewhere must have tried to duplicate the recipe at some point, right?
Turns out, lots of grandmas did. And they’re pretty much all the same thing, but no apples.
Then I went to one of my food groups on FB (Hi Food Interactive!!) and found one of the members had posted this:
It’s Tamara Boyd’s Oatmeal Cookie Crust Peach Cobbler, and she left the recipe for it at the group site. Talk about a serendipitous moment! It’s a basic cobbler with an oatmeal cookie topping. But it set me to thinking.
Then I remembered the Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies.
So now it all comes down to this: I’m going to attempt to make a bastardized version of my favorite Archway cookie.
So from here I’m going to read every single oatmeal cookie recipe I can find and cull together a standard recipe that will remain soft, but stand up to the apple filling. Then I’ll need a whole day to play and experiment. Maybe more. I’m gonna get so fat.
I’ll let you know how it goes. If anyone wants to throw suggestions at me, feel free.
Where I grew up in the southwest desert staying hydrated wasn’t just important; it was a necessity. When you’re drinking copious amounts of water, it can get very boring. And some people don’t like the taste of water. So we came up with alternatives. My parents were inveterate coffee drinkers. They even had the automatic coffee pot that would start brewing the sludge before they woke up so it was waiting for them. My brother used to drink tea like it was his job. I spent an entire summer drinking tea until I couldn’t stand the flavor anymore. My preferred drink at the time was lemonade. Still love that stuff. Once I started getting more active in tennis, running, and cycling, I switched over to just plain water and still drink it mostly today. People around my town drink all kinds of things, from homemade power drinks to sports drinks to whatever was handy. When I’d get home from work and parked my bicycle, the first thing I reached for was the pitcher of orange juice. Two glasses would hold me until dinner was ready.
Fast forward several years, and in the early days of marriage, my ex and I wanted to do homemade and rustic stuff. I was constantly reading very old cookbooks, and reprinted accounts of life during the 1700s and 1800s. I learned how to make a fruit concentrate you could add to water to make your own fruit drink. At one point I had eight bottles of different concentrates, but I don’t remember actually drinking any of them. I learned at least half a dozen ways to make lemonade. I learned about a drink called Mormon’s Tea made from bush indigenous to Nevada. I even learned out to make homemade root beer with a fizz to it, although I never tried it. One drink I did make once I learned of it was switchel.
Switchel is a drink best served chilled, and it’s surprisingly good despite what the ingredients lead you to believe. I first read about it in one of those “historic” pamphlets you can find at national parks. It kept popping up as I was doing research for another project in one of those mysterious coincidental situations. So I started paying attention and found out a little bit about it.
Switchel is also called Haymaker’s Punch because it became popular for those working in the hayfields many many years ago. It is a thirst quencher, not like sodas of today. When you drink switchel, your thirst goes away. It also adds nutrients to your body much like the sports drinks today. It’s made by the gallons because it’s so tasty.
It was the favored drink of Congress back in the early 1800s. There was a large bowl that was constantly refilled as members replenished their cups during long sessions. Visitors could actually be on the floor of Congress at that time and would help themselves, as well.
Switchel was considered a summer drink, but was also popular in every other season of the year. It was heated during winter months, but was never served hot, just warmed. It never really was as popular warmed. People preferred the stronger drinks in winter, like hot toddies.
The first time I made it, I didn’t want a whole gallon of it. I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I cut the ingredients in half and it was a pleasant, sweetly tangy drink. I decided to make it for a family gathering and made the gallon recipe and it was transformed. There was something about the larger quantities that made it taste better.
Here’s the basic recipe:
- One gallon water
- 1 1/2 cups molasses
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp fresh ground ginger
Mix and chill and serve, traditionally in mason jars.
HOWEVER, you know there’s always a ‘however’, right? You can make switchel as unique as your own personal tastes. You can add citrus flavors by floating slices of lemon, lime, or orange in it. You can make it fizzy by adding sparkling water just before serving. You can make it stronger by adding your favorite alcohol (rum seems to the preferred method for the early Congress members). You can adjust the sweeteners to what you have on hand and use honey or maple syrup or sugar (brown or otherwise.) Just adjust the amount you use. You can cut back on the vinegar, but I’d suggest not a lot since that helps overcome the sweetness. The primary ingredients you shouldn’t touch are the vinegar and the ginger.
Switchel has been making a comeback recently. I saw a jar of it on a grocery store shelf (not the one I work at) which brought back the memories of making it at home. At one time, it was so popular it was mentioned in popular novels of the time with no explanation as to what is was.
On a hot summer day, there’s not much better than switchel.
In a post last week, I mentioned the fact that I could cream butter to light and fluffy with just a bowl and a wooden spoon. One of my blog readers who is a friend and leads one of my favorite food groups on FB called Food Interactive pleaded for me to show her how. So, I’m gonna. It’s not difficult, and doesn’t require any special skill set. It just takes time, patience, and endurance.
And the right equipment.
That bowl, right there, that exact one, hand painted, ceramic, is the bowl I learned to cook in. It sits in my sister’s kitchen now, but when I told Mom I wanted to learn to cook, she handed me that bowl and said, “Let’s go.” I made cakes in that bowl. I made cookies in that bowl. I made salads in that bowl. I used that bowl to hold french fries, spaghetti, stew, fried chicken, and a host of other dishes. And it was in that bowl that I learned to cream butter by hand. That bowl fit my skinny teenage arm, holding it tightly against my side as I beat the butter with a frenzy. And a wooden spoon.
When I was a kid, I usually made cookies after dinner, and I seldom brought the butter to room temperature. I’d beat the ice cold butter into submission, and because it was Arizona, and the oven was on in the kitchen, the butter was quickly reduced to a paste that could then be easily beaten and stirred to the creamed consistency needed to add the sugars for whatever I was baking, normally the cookies. So I decided, since I hadn’t made chocolate chip cookies for a few weeks, I’d made them by hand, harkening back to the “olden days” to show the manual technique for creaming butter.
I’ve always got ingredients handy for cookies and cakes and pies and rolls and breads and biscuits, so it was no effort at all to get started. And I decided to do it all the “right” way. First, though, I reviewed my recipe in my head and remembered something that occurred when I was a teenager. I accidentally used half the butter called for in the recipe without noticing. The cookies spread only a little, were crisp on the outside but remained soft and doughy on the inside. I’ve done it that ever since. Until recently when I increased the amount from half a cup of butter to 3/4 a cup of butter. I have tried the full cup, but don’t like the flavor or consistency after a lifetime of half the amount.
So I pulled out my favorite mixing bowl and my favorite wooden spoon. I cut the butter into chunks and put it into the bowl. Smaller chunks will get to room temperature faster than whole sticks. Now, let’s talk about “room temperature.” What the heck is it? In summer, our rooms are a heck of a lot cooler than they are in winter. And in spring and fall when the windows are open, the ambient temperature can fluctuate dramatically. Most experts agree that room temperature is around 70 degrees. The easiest way to tell if the butter is ready is poke a spoon into it. If it gives easily while still maintaining some structural integrity, it’s ready.
After that, it’s really just a matter of mashing the butter and stirring it a lot and mixing it a lot and getting it off the sides of the bowl.
You’ll notice that it will get softer and fairly quickly it will turn into the light, lemon-colored goop you need.
Once it’s hit that stage, I usually keep beating it and stirring it for about a minute. For the cookies, or for any recipe that calls for creaming butter, the point is to get it to a stage where the other ingredients will incorporate easily and be suspended in the butter. My mom taught me to mix ingredients in one at a time and that’s how I still do it. I know people who throw every ingredient into a blender or something like that and switch on. A few minutes later, they have a batter that they take out and add chocolate chips to and call it good. I can’t do that.
So, I added the brown sugar.
This is where you need to start really stirring and beating with vigor. You need to break down the sugars so they melt and suspend into the butter. It really only takes a couple of minutes. One thing I found as a kid is that if the brown sugar is lumpy, it will never ever incorporate into the butter smoothly. I tried all kinds of things but the only thing that worked with real success was adding small drops of hot water to the sugar before adding it to the butter. Don’t get it to the syrup stage, just melt the lumps. Before you do that, though, let me just say that those brown sugar lumps will melt during the baking process and caramelize and taste just like candy when you eat them, so consider carefully before you break them up too much.
Then I added the white sugar.
By this time, the butter is starting to say “Hold up, that’s a ton of sugar, give me a minute!” And it will act as though it’s not working properly.
But keep at it. Notice the strong grip I have on the spoon, the white knuckles, etc. It wants to fight at this moment. Keep stirring. You’ll get this.
It all comes together just like it’s supposed to. It’s creamy, well blended, and ready to taken on the eggs and vanilla before adding the dry ingredients. I added three cups of flour, a teaspoon of salt and one of baking soda. It gets more difficult at this stage because the batter will be stiff. I’ve broken many a wooden spoon trying to stir it all together.
Partner/Spouse who took the pics, asked for sunflower seeds in the cookies, so I poured about a third of a cup into the batter and went to the pantry for the chocolate chips.
“What’s the matter?” he asked hearing the air filled with curses.
“There’s not a damned chocolate chip in this house!” And nothing I could substitute, either.
So I put the batter in the fridge until I could bring home chocolate chips from the store. Guess what? It takes batter a much longer time to reach room temperature than just plain butter. Like four times longer. However, they were successful, and they had the same flavor and consistency that went back to my high school days. Good stuff.
Sorry this post is so late, but this was a crazy day filled with unexpected hurdles. Let me know if you try the handmade version of a favorite dish. And include pictures, too!
Partner/Spouse and I watch a lot of TV shows about other countries, and in the early days of our relationship it was a game to see if I’d been to that country or that city. Sometimes, even to that restaurant. After dozens of “yeah, I’ve been there”, the game paled a little. It morphed into “where would you most like to go back to?” and usually the answer was whatever country/city was being featured in the show. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about Italy. I was able to spend several weeks in Italy, first in Naples, then in Rome.
Naples is usually cited as the birth place of pizza, and I ate a LOT of pizza while I was there. It’s also the city where I was introduced to calamari, fried and grilled, and on a pizza too. I made myself sick on gelato, and walked dozens of miles each week to see the city and its residents. I went to small restaurants that had three seats in them. I went to outdoor style restaurants that looked like a whole village had gathered inside. I went to street fairs and ate popcorn covered in sugar (didn’t like it.) I climbed Mt. Vesuvius and looked into the volcano, and visited Pompeii and sat in its amphitheater. I also learned about the value of letting wine age.
We had an older woman on the trip who spoke a little Spanish which was close enough to Italian that we got in trouble a lot. One Saturday afternoon, I wanted to get a little ham and some cheese and some bread to have for dinner that night in my room rather than go out. I ended up with a chunk of ham that weighed 4 pounds, and a block of cheese that weighed three pounds. And no knife. And I wasn’t certain if the ham was cooked or not. I ended up giving it all away, and went out for pizza again.
The place we were working at had a cafeteria and each day you needed to go downstairs to see what the two ladies would be making that day. It was always freshly made, even the pasta, and all of it was delicious. If you wanted it, you told them so they could have an accurate amount of ingredients. There was never any waste. That’s where I first had pasta and beans and fell in love with that simple dish. I’ve posted about it in earlier blog posts so I won’t go into it again, but it’s an amazingly flavorful bowl of cannelloni beans and pasta in a sauce created from the breakdown of the beans. Fresh herbs and a light dusting of cheese, and I’ll eat that for days.
One Saturday evening, a group of us were wandering around and found a plaza behind our hotel and a gelato shop. I’m not a big ice cream eater, but everyone wanted some, so I bought a small dish. It was so good, but I paid for it on Sunday. And I spilled chocolate gelato on my white t-shirt, staining it terribly. On Monday, one of the local staff told us where a cleaner was, so on Tuesday, along with a coworker, I went to the cleaner and in broken Italian and English we conveyed what we needed. They weren’t certain my shirt could be completely cleaned, but my coworker’s shirt would be no trouble. Three days later, we returned, and my shirt was sparkling white again, while his left with the shadow of the stain that was impossible to remove. I had to listen to him complain about it for days, as though it were my fault somehow.
Rome was a city that seemed to be always on the move. I’d spent a weekend in Rome while in Naples several years before, so I didn’t want to see the same things I’d seen before. I was there with a fairly large group of people, most of home were personal friends as well as coworkers. Several of them were walkers like myself so whenever I went out to walk I nearly always had people with me. We ate all kinds of things on these walks. Pizza was a regular consumable, and sandwiches were easy to get. Made from fresh bread, cheese, and a cured ham, usually prosciutto, then toasted. The crusts would break your teeth, but the centers were ambrosia.
I didn’t try it, but there was one thing we saw a lot of. Turkish Ice Cream. It’s made the same as the ice cream we’re used to, but a couple of other ingredients are added which give it a different consistency. It doesn’t melt quickly, and it’s very very elastic and stretchy, similar to mozzarella. Everyone loves it. The vendors have to keep stretching it to keep it workable. Some do that with sticks and a lot showmanship, while others use a machine like a taffy puller. It was amazing to watch and I only wish I’d tried it just once to see what it tasted like.
While in Rome, I eagerly anticipated Thursday nights. All the restaurants had designated it gnocchi night and not only was it inexpensive, but it was so GOOD! I’ve eaten potato gnocchi most of my adult life, and here in the States, it’s typically a small potato dumpling, about the size of your thumbnail in tomato sauce or cheese sauce. It tends to be heavy, a little sticky, but still very good as long as the sauce is good. In Rome, they were little pillows of fluffy potato dough that seemed like they were full of air. And the menu had a full page list of various sauces you could have on top of them. My three favorites were al forno (cheese), al fungi (mushroom), and Bolognese (meat and tomato.) Al fungi was my favorite, but it was also very popular so sometimes, it was sold out. The portion size was immense and added with bread and a salad, I walked away from that meal burping.
My favorite dish while in Rome was Cacio e Pepe. It’s incredibly simple, easy to make, and full of flavor. It was created by the peasants and shepherds centuries ago, and not much about it has changed. To get the full experience make sure your ingredients are as fresh as possible, and use large amounts them, but to your own taste. Cacio e Pepe is spaghetti with cheese and pepper. That’s it. Set your pasta water to boil and measure out your spaghetti. Salt the water as you normally would for spaghetti. I like it a little saltier, but it’s to your taste. While the water is heating up, use a pepper grinder to coarsely grind up to a quarter cup of pepper. That’s a lot, but it’s worth it. Grate a half cup of pecorino romano cheese. When the spaghetti is cooked al dente, reserved 1/4 cup of pasta water. Drain the spaghetti and put in a heated bowl. Add cheese and pepper and toss until cheese is melting. Add as much pasta water as needed to create a sauce. Serve piping hot with bread. Some people like to add a little butter or oil, but that’s up to you. And some people use it as a side dish with grilled fish or chicken, but again, that’s up to you.