I’m really sorry, but I need to take the week off to pay attention to some stuff on the home front. I’ll be back next Monday, August 3rd. Till then, here’s a cartoon I saw over the weekend that speak a lot about cooks, cooking, kitchens, and families.
I use a slow cooker (a crock pot, but that’s a brand by Rival) all the time. At one point, I had three of them in various sizes and shapes. I’ve been known to have all three going at once. Over time, attrition has whittled those down to one, fairly large, slow cooker. We don’t use it continually as we have in the past, but it sees service about once a week or so. Often enough that it’s in the front of the cabinets and not buried in the back.
However, while the “crock pot” has only been around for about 40 or so years, the cooking method it utilizes and makes easy for us has been around for centuries. Slow moist cooking is called many things in many places. It’s known as slo-lo, braising, stewing, simmering, jugging, slow roasting, and a bunch of other esoteric terms. The process of slow cooking can be accomplished on nearly any medium as long as it’s paid careful attention.
One of the simplest ways to slow cook without a slow cooker is with a “dutch oven”. Basically, a dutch oven is a covered casserole. Most of the time, they’re made of cast iron, or metal of some form. We have two enamel covered cast iron dutch ovens in two different sizes, and one ceramic dutch oven in a square shape rather than a round shape. Eventually, I want to get an oval one, but it’s not a pressing matter. Dutch ovens were developed for cooking in the embers of a fireplace. The cast iron models have flat lids so you can pile embers on top and cook from the bottom as well as the top. With modern ovens, that’s not necessary so most dutch ovens have a slightly domed lid so internal moisture build up will return to the pot.
Coincidentally, we have both of these. I’ve never used the cast iron one, but the red ones get constant use from both of us.
Using a dutch oven is simplicity itself. You can brown the meat on the stove top, add your other ingredients, cover, and put into the oven for however long the recipe calls for. Or you can skip the browning process and just put it all into the oven. Then you just leave it all alone till it’s done. I’ve cooked everything from chili to a full grown turkey this way.
Another method, if you don’t have a slow cooker, is a skillet on the stove top. This require quite a bit more attention since food can easily burn. But all it requires is a skillet with a tight fitting lid, and a working stove top. Chuck all your ingredients in the skillet per your recipe, cover, and cook. You’ll likely have to check things every 15 to 30 minutes to make sure it’s not scorching, but if you start it low and keep it low, you shouldn’t have too many problems. An alternative to the skillet on the stove top is the electric skillet with a lid. Works just as well.
A big benefit the slow cooker gives you that the other methods don’t is power economy. They don’t cost hardly anything to run for hours, whereas the stove costs more, and the oven costs most.
So, here are a couple of recipes for the slow cooker, or the dutch oven, or the skillet.
- 2 lbs. kielbasa
- 1/2 lbs. sauerkraut <OR>
- 1/2 fresh cabbage sliced thin and separated
- 2 Granny Smith apples sliced thin
- 1 large onion sliced thin
- 2 lbs. small red potatoes
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 tsp caraway seeds
- 1 cup Swiss cheese shredded
In your slow cooker/dutch oven/skillet, place half the sauerkraut or cabbage and half the apple. Place 1 pound of kielbasa on top. Place half the potatoes in various nooks and crannies. Cover with remaining sauerkraut or cabbage, apple, onion, potatoes. Sprinkle the caraway seeds over, then pour chicken broth over the whole thing. Cook slow cooker: 6 hours on high, 8 hours on low until cabbage and potatoes are cooked through; oven set to 225 cook for 5-6 hours until cabbage and potatoes are cooked through; skillet on stove top or electric, cook on low heat for 4-5 hours until cabbage and potatoes are cooked through. Serve hot with cheese over top.
Braised Short Ribs:
- 1 1/2 lbs. short ribs (beef or pork, but I like beef better)
- 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 bay leaf (don’t break it because you’ll be taking it out later)
- 1 can mushroom soup (yeah, I know, but it works in this)
- 1 envelope brown gravy mix (see above)
- 1/2 cup red wine (use a wine you’d drink otherwise you won’t like this. The wine enhances the flavor)
- 2 cups cooked mashed potatoes
Place everything except the ribs and the potatoes in your chosen cooking vessel. Use a wire whisk to mix well. Place ribs in sauce and flip to coat both sides. Cook: slow cooker, 6 hours on low, 4 hours on high until ribs are falling off the bone tender; oven: 4-5 hours at 250 until ribs are falling off the bone tender; skillet: 4 hours until the ribs are falling off the bone tender. Serve warm with mashed potatoes. Use sauce to cover the potatoes.
Being the cook that I am, I tend to buy things in bulk to save money and to make sure I’ve got ingredients on hand. Dry goods, things like flour, sugar, beans, noodles, rice, etc. are easy. Since they won’t spoil over the long term since they don’t have any moisture in them (hence the term “dry goods”), they can be put into any dark, dry space until they’re needed. But other things that tend to spoil must be managed over time to reduce the chance of spoiling as much as possible. Fresh vegetables get canned or frozen. Meats can be frozen, dried, or salted. But there are some items that defy “normal” preservation processes. For me, two of the biggest are butter and eggs. What’s the best way to store them, and how long will they stay fresh?
Let’s talk about eggs first. “Everyone knows” you’re supposed to store eggs in the fridge. Yet, you can also see eggs stored in a bowl on counters, too.
Well, first, you should store eggs in the fridge for a lot of reasons, all of them due to health concerns. What many people don’t know is that egg shells are porous; they need to be to incubate the baby chicks. The shells don’t change simply because the egg is unfertilized. However, when the egg comes out of the chicken, there’s a protective film around it to keep bacteria out. (My mom raised chickens in our back yard for a little while. Nasty critters, they are. And eggs don’t come out of the chicken looking nice.) In Europe, the eggs are cleaned and processed in a manner that leaves the outer coating intact so they can stay unchilled and safe longer than in America. Here in the States, we have a different process. The eggs get cleaned with warm water and an antibacterial soap which strips the shell of its protective coating. (And blood, feces, and feathers as it turns out, making them look nicer.) The eggs do get a very thin coating of oil during their processing, but this coating doesn’t do the same job.
Because the shells are porous and treated, salmonella is a real threat to old eggs if they’re left at room temperature and exposed to the air. However, storing eggs in the fridge at 40 degrees or below protects them from this. And just as good, it extends the usability time of eggs from 2-3 weeks to 5-6 weeks. Left on the counter, you should toss them after 10 days just to be safe. Left in the fridge, you can be reasonably certain they’re safe 30-40 days later. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a carton of eggs last that long. Ever.)
Let’s talk about the fridge for a moment. Where do you suppose you should store the eggs? For a long time, every fridge had an egg holder on the door.
Worst. Idea. Ever.
Eggs need to be kept at a steady temperature. Living on the door that keeps getting opened and exposed to the warmth makes their temp go up and down. Leave your eggs on a shelf, not near the light bulb, and towards the back, if you can. Also, it’s best to keep your eggs in the carton they came in from the store. Those cartons are designed to protect the eggs as much as possible during shipping. They already cushion to eggs to minimize breakage, but they also keep out the maximum moisture and air and light. A while back, I mentioned in a post a trick my mom taught me to make sure the eggs aren’t cracked on the bottom. Just wiggle them a little in their carton when you open it to check for breakage. Takes about 3 seconds. Well, I learned another tip when I was researching this post. Pick one egg out of the carton and hold it in your hand. The fresher it is, the heavier it is. There’s an air pocket in the egg. When the egg is fresh there is a lot of moisture in the egg and the air pocket is small. The older the egg is, the more moisture dissipates and the large the air pocket gets. Thus, it becomes a lighter egg.
So, why do we see bowls of eggs sitting out in restaurants and cooking shows? It’s best to use eggs at room temperature. They blend better; they cook better and fluffier; and they tend to taste better (at least, to me.) It only takes an egg about 30 minutes to reach room temp, but if you’re in a hurry, put it into a small bowl with very warm water for about 10 minutes.
Now, butter is the opposite of eggs when it comes to storing it. Butter can be left out on the counter to reach room temperature and used for days. In my house, a quarter pound stick of room temp butter never lasts for days. Sometimes, it doesn’t last for day. Butter can be stored in the fridge for several months. Butter can be stored in the freezer for up to a year and a half (as if.) The key to storing butter is similar to storing eggs. Store butter in its original wrapping until you’re ready to use it. The people who make and ship butter know the best way to handle butter to protect it from the elements and from shipping. So leave them in their wrappers and boxes.
However, if you’re going to leave some out of the fridge, it needs to be protected. There are all kinds of gadgets and devices to do this, but the one I like best is this one:
It’s simple and elegant, and most importantly, it’s air tight. And you can see exactly how much butter is there. It’s so disappointing to pick the cover off a butter dish and find it empty. Cold butter is death to anything it’s spread on. Except maybe brick. I get so frustrated that I refuse to use cold butter on bread or toast unless I’m eating European style (tear a bite-sized piece of bread, slice a small piece of butter and put it on the bread, pop it all into your mouth. Good stuff.) But then I found this:
This is called a butter mill and I have no idea how it ended up in my ad list on FB. As soon as I saw it, I investigated and was able to get this one fur under $20. You put a stick of butter in the white hopper and screw it all together. As you continue turning, the butter is forced against a fine grating plate which scrapes incredibly small butter worms for you to scrape off and put on your toast or bread or whatever. It comes with a cap to keep the butter protected in the fridge. Easy to use, and kinda fun, too.
My little brother always used to say that as long as he had bread in the house, he wasn’t going to starve. He really likes the stuff, in almost any form. One time, I watched him spreading mustard on a piece of bread and asked him what he was doing. “I’m making a sandwich like the girl on the bread wrapper,” he said back. I glanced at the wrapper of the Sunbeam bread he was eating.
“That’s butter, you doofus.”
He shrugged. “I don’t care. Mustard is good, too!” And he wandered away with his mustard sandwich. So of course, I had to try it. Wasn’t bad, but the next time I made it, I put some cheese in it and it was really good.
I can’t say that I like bread as much as my brother, but I come close. I’ve eaten bread all kinds of bread all over the world and I haven’t found one yet that I didn’t like. Since I’ve stopped traveling, I don’t get the same breads anymore. It’s hard to find a specialty bread shop that’s going to slap a piece of dough onto a embers or a hot rock and serve the resultant charred but deliciously steamy hunk of bread.
So I try to make different kinds of bread at home when I’ve got the time and inclination. Seldom do those two requirements don’t often fall together on the same day. I do make bread for the family. All the time. I’ve posted about the best sandwich buns in the world before and you can find the recipe on the list at the right side of the blog page. The sandwich buns require the bread machine whose dough setting takes 90 minutes. Then after shaping, the buns need to rise again for another hour before being baked, which adds another 30 minutes. So start to finish, it’s about 3.5 hours when you add in the setup (taking the freaking machine out of its cubbyhole surrounded by other stuff, and getting the ingredients to room temp, etc.) and the clean up, and all that fun stuff.
But I’ve always had a small twinge that using the bread machine was somehow cheating. I wasn’t putting my effort into the bread. And as the Bible says, “By the sweat of they brow shalt thou eat bread.”
So I was always on the look out for a good bread recipe that would make a good, decent loaf in less time, and with some effort, but not a sweat breaking effort. It wasn’t making me lose sleep or anything, but I did want to try my hand at an easy, start-to-finish, kneaded loaf of bread. Part of the reason is that I find store-bought bread to be flimsy, lacking in flavor, and less rugged. A knife and a pat of cold butter will destroy it. Then I found it.
I don’t remember where I found it, and I’ve printed the recipe out, like, five times so I don’t lose it, and I’ve scanned the printout into my computer so I don’t lose it. It makes a good, solid, reliable loaf of bread. And it makes one loaf. That was a problem with so many other recipes. They made two, or four, or eight loaves. And it’s difficult to pare that down to one loaf. I don’t mind making one loaf, eating it, and making another. It just guarantees that the bread won’t go to waste. Matter of fact, the sandwich buns usually grew mold before we could finish them off. I tried freezing them, but they lost something in the process.
So here it is:
The Best Bread Recipe I’ve Found So Far
- 2 1/4 tsp yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/4 cup warm water
- 3 cups sifted AP flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 tsp vegetable oil
- 1 egg (any size)
- 1/4 cup flour for kneading and rolling
In a small bowl, dissolve sugar and yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Set aside for 5 minutes to activate the yeast. It will be foamy when ready. In a large bowl, sift 3 cups of all purpose flour (I have not yet tried this with bread flour so if you do, let me know how it turns out.) Stir on tsp salt into sifted flour. Add activated yeast and one cup warm water. Stir with a sturdy wooden spoon until dough ball is formed. Turn dough out onto a floured surface, remembering to flour your hands. Knead for 5-7 minutes until dough is elastic and not sticky. Add small amounts of flour to the surface you’re working on to add extra flour to dough. In another bowl, spread tsp oil to coat evenly then place dough ball in bowl, turning to coat the dough evenly with oil. Put in a warm area out of breezes (microwave or oven work perfectly for this, just make sure neither is on.) Cover if needed with a clean dish towel. Let rise until doubled, 45-50 minutes. Punch down and return to resting area for another 30 minutes. Punch it down again and return to resting area of another 10 minutes. Turn out onto a floured surface and roll out to 7 by 14 rectangle. Flour your rolling pin if dough sticks. Starting from a narrow end, roll up the dough tightly. Pinch the end of the dough together with the roll forming a seam. Place dough into a loaf pan treated with cooking spray, seam side down. Place loaf pan in a resting area for 30-40 minutes until doubled in size. Heat your oven to 425.Beat the egg in a small bowl until completely broken and yellow. Carefully brush egg onto top of loaf. Bake loaf at 425 for 12 minutes. Turn your oven down to 350 and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove bread from oven and release from pan onto a clean dish towel. Cool the bread on a wire rack covered by the dish towel. If you have no cooling rack, just cool completely wrapped in the dish towel. The dish towel is to collect the steam and keep the bread from getting soggy. Let the bread cool completely. It should be room temperature to the touch before eating. Slice and eat!
One variation I’ve tried is before rolling the bread up, I spread it with a dry mixture of 1/4 cup brown sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon. Mix the two by hand until completely mixed and spread evenly on dough. Roll up and bake as above. You can also use white sugar if brown isn’t available.
I know it sounds complicated, but it’s really not. In about 2 hours, the bread is done, start to finish. There’s no complicated technique or equipment. Just time. Let me know how you fare if you try this, or have any questions.
And as always,
Just a couple of items before I get on with the blog. I’m now a No Kid Hungry blog! You’ve read about No Kid Hungry from me many times and you’re going to hear about it more in the future. No Kid Hungry is dedicated to raising awareness about the problem of childhood hunger, and providing solutions so kids can be fed. There are many ways to support this organization that are almost painless. One of their best known is coming up soon, Dine Out for No Kid Hungry. Check your local restaurants and see who’s participating. Then go out to eat at one of those restaurants during the Dine Out week, and the restaurant will donate some part of the proceeds of the meal to No Kid Hungry. In some places, they donate 100%. In others, they donate the taxes. In some restaurants, they donate a percentages, and the wait staff donate all their tips. I’ve provided a link below to learn more about the organization and their efforts. It’s deplorable that in one of the richest and strongest nations in the world that anyone should go hungry, but with the kids it’s worse since they have no control over their situation.
Today’s slow cooker recipes are easy to make, but produce an elegant meal that can be eaten alone or served to friends. Keep them warm in the cooker, and they wouldn’t be out of place at a pot luck or block party.
First is Beef Stroganoff. Stroganoff has long been used to make those tough pieces of beef taste succulent. This recipe if for two people.
- 1/2 pound stew beef, or chuck roast cut into bite-size pieces, or long thin slices
- 1 medium onion, chopped small
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound mushrooms, cut into quarters
- 1/4 cup red wine, optional
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 tablespoons corn starch
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
- salt and pepper to taste
Place beef, onion, garlic, mushrooms, wine, and water into slow cooker. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or on high for 6. Stir about half way through cooking to make sure flavors are blended. When meat is tender and falling apart, blend corn starch with two tablespoons of water. (A trick I have to make the easy: put corn starch and water in a jar and screw cap on tightly. Shake vigorously until corn starch is well blended, about 30 seconds.) Add about a half cup of the cooking liquid to corn starch. Turn slow cooker off and drizzle corn starch mixture over the beef and stir till blended. Allow to cook for five minutes or so, stirring constantly. When mixture is blended and thickened, add sour cream and stir. Then add mustard and stir. Allow to sit for a few minutes so flavors will blend. Serve over cooked noodles or rice.
Okay, the next recipe is for Scalloped Potatoes and Ham, and I’m going to apologize up front. This recipe calls for a can of condensed soup. I don’t ordinarily use the stuff since I’ve outgrown it. But I’ve never found an acceptable substitute for it.
- 1 1/2 pounds potatoes
- 1 cups grated cheese
- 2 cups cooked ham
- 1 medium onion
- 1 can cream of mushroom soup or cream of celery soup
- pepper and paprika
Peel the potatoes and slice thin. Cut the ham into cubes, or into strips. I’ve done both and both are good. Peel the onion and slice into rings as thin as possible. Use whatever is your favorite cheese or a cheese blend. Mostly, I use cheddar, but I’ve also used Swiss and gruyere. Just don’t use American or Velveeta since they break apart. Grease the inside of the slow cooker, I use butter mostly. Sometimes, I use butter flavored spray. Layer half the potatoes, ham, onion, and cheese, then repeat the layers with remaining ingredients. Do not dilute the soup, but whisk it with a fork to make it more pourable. Pour the soup over the top spreading to cover. Sprinkle with pepper and paprika. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hour, until the potatoes are soft. Do not cook this on high as it will scorch. Turn cooker off and uncover. Allow to cool for 20 minutes and serve. It can stand alone as a main course, or can be served as a side.
As I was writing this, my mind was wandering on some level back to pot lucks and church gatherings from my childhood. I remembered one where the minister’s wife invited the whole church back to their house for Sunday lunch, pot luck style. I don’t remember what I brought (probably a cake), but I remember there was a huge bowl of potato salad the minister’s wife had made. It was quite impressive and looked like it could feed 50 people, about the twice the number that were there. She looked quite proud of the spread she had put out. While I was looking over the table, one of the older ladies from the Busybody Squad remarked on how delicious the potato salad looked. She took a small taste and said, “Oh, my, it seems very dry.” I looked at the mayonnaise slathered thickly on the vegetables and wondered what the heck she was talking about. Without batting an eye or asked permission, she grabbed the jar of mayonnaise standing nearby for sandwiches, and put a large dollop in the center of the salad. Using a minimum of movement, she spread the dressing through the part of the salad it sat upon. Then she took her spoon and tasted the area she had just “fixed.” “Much better!” she cried and wandered away. The look on the face of our hostess was priceless. I bit back laughter, caught her eye, and grinned in sympathy. She made a small hitting motion, winked and walked away.