I’ve mentioned one of the groups I’m a member of on FB a couple of times called Food Interactive. The remarkable lady who runs the group is not only a pleasure to talk to, but also has a bubbling intellect brimming with ideas she shares with anyone who will listen. She has a rare and unique palate that creates flavor combinations that she loves which she spreads throughout the group. She recently sent me a spice blend and I had to write about it.
Autumn Spice is aptly named. It’s scent immediately brings to mind the harvest time of year with strong, earthy overtones. Its flavor profile belies its earthiness, though, by being both light on the tongue and robust in the sinuses. I received a 1 oz container just before Thanksgiving and it put me in the mood for the holiday. It was reminiscent of pumpkin pie spice, but held a character of its own. I let Partner/Spouse sniff it and we both liked it. After looking at the container for a half a day, I finally chose the four tests I was going to put it to.
First Test: Cream Cheese Dip. We often have appetizer night dinners. In keeping with that theme, often we will have appetizer desserts. Basically, that means fruits, cakes, and dips. The easiest dip is melted chocolate, but another that’s almost as easy is cream cheese, powdered sugar, and spice. 8 oz of cream cheese mixed with 2 tablespoons of butter, 1/4 tsp of vanilla, and your favorite sweet spice (think cinnamon or allspice) beaten together until fluffy. Then, like a fondue, dip small pieces of pound cake, pieces of fruit, or even shortbread cookies. Autumn Spice gave a depth of flavor that had eating the dip with a spoon instead of a cookie.
Second Test: Snickerdoodles. Snickerdoodles are basically a sugar cookie rolled in cinnamon sugar then baked. Instead of cinnamon and sugar, I used Autumn Spice and sugar. They smelled amazing while cooking, and tasted even better than they smelled. I only made two dozen, but they didn’t last two days. So good.
Third Test: Chicken Bones. It’s not what you think. It’s a dessert appetizer. Preheat your oven to 350. Cut the crusts off twelve pieces of bread, and use a rolling pin to flatten them slightly. Spread lightly with butter, then sprinkle a tablespoon of brown sugar over the butter. Very lightly sprinkle cinnamon over the brown sugar, then roll the bread into tight rolls either diagonally or straight on. Bake until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Only this time, I used Autumn Spice. Autumn Spice goes really well with brown sugar. Really. Well. The chicken bones were amazing.
Fourth Test: Simmering Potpourri. During the times of year that the house is shut up (read that, any time the a/c or heater is on), our house is regularly spritzed with scents from automated plug-in deodorizers. But “back in the olden days” they didn’t have automated stuff like that. Fireplaces and wood burning stoves added a certain ambience from the wood smoke. Cast iron steamers were used to add moisture to the air during a dry winter, and spices were added to scent the air. I’ve done the same thing by putting a pot of water on the back of the stove with cinnamon and vanilla in it and letting it steam. So I put in the last of the Autumn Spice and told everyone there were no pumpkin pies, gingerbread, or sweet potatoes cooking; it was just simmering potpourri. Made everything smell like home.
Result: It had a good beat and you can dance to it so I give it a 75. Kidding. I think she has a winner with this blend. I’m not sure if she’s going to continue to make it and/or sell it, but if she does, she can count on my support!
It’s been a while since I’ve written about any of my traveling adventures. Anyone who’s followed this blog for a while knows I used to travel the world extensively for the U.S. government. I loved the job, but I wasn’t sorry to end it when I did. It gave me unparalleled opportunity to eat things I never would have touched otherwise. Once, in Laos, I fed chicken quarters to alligators from a bridge about thirty feet above them. But that’s a story for another day.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Ireland four times in my wandering. I’m half Irish by birth, my mom was 100% Irish. So visiting the place where my ancestors are from was exciting. My first visit, I got to go to Belfast back in the late 90’s. I was still learning the task of traveling and training so I was with a more seasoned traveler. However, she wasn’t going to get to Belfast until Sunday, while I arrived on Friday. It gave me a whole weekend to mess about on my own. Her first advice to me was “Pick one thing you absolutely want to do in that country and make plans to do it.” The only thing I could think of was “Eat Irish Stew.”
Per schedule, I arrived in the late morning and was at my hotel by about 1. My routine in any hotel room was the same. I unpacked everything, set my travel clock, then looked over any brochures, etc. to figure out what to do and where to eat. I rushed through this part, in a hurry to get out into the city. I changed money at the hotel desk, and almost ran out to the street. Picking a direction at random, I turned left and walked.
And walked and walked and walked. I don’t even remember the number of random turns I made, or even what I saw that first day, except I do recall a hiking/outdoors store that I wanted to visit given the chance. During the “walk and walk and walk”, I did plot out the course to where we would be working so I could direct us there on Monday. I love walking distance working. (In Paris, I would walk back to the hotel several times a week, which was nearly four miles.) My stomach was grumbling, I was getting tired, shops were closing down, so I decided to grab something to take back to the hotel and relax.
I figured out approximately where the hotel was and headed in that direction only to find that any stores that I could have bought food at were closed. And I was turned around, and not certain where I was or where I was going. Well, I had enough money in my pocket to get a cab and to order room service. Not exactly what I wanted to do on my first day in Ireland, but not the worst thing I could have done.
Finally, biting the bullet and giving up to the inevitable, I approached a taxi and showed him my hotel key.
“Can you take me there?” I asked politely.
He grinned at me for a moment, and I know it was the sound of my accent. “I’d love to, mate, but look down the road a bit.” He pointed over his shoulder. Big blazing signs announced the front of the hotel about two and half blocks away. I gave him a couple of coins and told him to get a pint on me and headed to the hotel. And I passed an American fast food place, so I stopped and got a couple of Whoppers, a large chips, and a large soda to take back with me. I don’t mind cold burger so I didn’t plan to eat right away. I did nibble on the chips some while I was walking and they were amazing! Something about the difference between American and Irish cooking.
Later, when I went to eat my cold food, I discovered what part of that was. They didn’t cook their fries in oil as we do here. I had to have been lard, because when they cooled off, there was this thick congealed substance on all the potatoes that made them inedible. At least for me they were. The burgers were fine though.
The next day, was another day of walking about the city, but not getting lost this time. I had breakfast at the hotel, a full Irish spread. Enough that I wouldn’t be hungry again for the rest of my life. When I left the hotel, the first thing I did was retrace my route back to work so I would know exactly where it was. Then I walked back to the hotel, noting any shops I could buy food at on the way. And I stopped in a pub for lunch and had real fish and chips. Crispy fried white fish and freshly cooked potatoes. Not much gets better than that. And so inexpensive. The barmaid raised an eyebrow at my request for wine rather than ale, but that’s what I wanted.
As I wandered some more, I found I was back on the track of work-to-hotel and there was a small convenience story/grocer so I stopped in to get something for dinner to take back to the hotel. In the back, there was a sandwich counter so I ordered a large ham and cheese. They asked me if I wanted salad with that. I figured a salad would be good with dinner so I nodded. When I got my food, I notice the salad was missing but didn’t say anything. I got a couple of bottles of water and soda to put in the minifridge. When I went to the checkout, I talked with the lady about my visit and work.
“I have something here that will make you feel right at home!” She walked away and returned quickly with a USA Today newspaper. I thanked her, and thereafter, every single time I stopped in there (which was often, the sandwiches were good), she had the paper waiting for me. On my last night there, I told her I ‘d be leaving the next morning, and she sounded sorry to see me go.
I arrived back at the hotel about mid afternoon, and relaxed and read. I wanted to go out in the early evening, to a nearby pub to listen to music and enjoy the atmosphere. Maybe throw some darts if there were any. So I unwrapped my sandwich so I wouldn’t be hungry later.
I found the salad. It was on top of the sandwich. Everything you and I would put in a bowl of salad was on top of that sandwich. In America, we’d ask for lettuce and tomato, maybe a pickle. This sandwich had it all, including salad dressing. So I scraped it all off onto the paper wrapping and ate it separately, as a salad. It was good.
Then I went to the pub and had a good Irish time. Still didn’t drink any Guinness or other brews, just my wine. But I made some good pub friends, heard some wonderful music, even managed to hit the dartboard a couple of times.
To Be Continued . . . (still haven’t had Irish Stew at this point)
Cold, gray, rainy weather on your only day off should be illegal. It’s time to make the house feel warm and homey. Best way to do that is to cook low and slow, let the aromas permeate the walls. Strong, heavy, earthy scents that build a wall protecting us from the cold. Cinnamon is good, so is beef. Chocolate is superb, and coconut enhances it.
Today, since I’m not working at the store, I am writing and working on edits. Music is playing in the background, the dogs are snoring comfortably at my feet (sort of), the oven is on. I put a fairly large chuck roast in a small dutch oven, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and it’s cooking slowly, at 275. The fat is rendering out of the meat which is releasing its juices to create a broth designed to bring tears to your eyes. I have three meals I’m planning for this king of beef roasts.
When the meat is falling apart tender, I’m going to drain the juices into a bowl and set it in the fridge. I guess I’ll spoon a little in each of the dogs’ dishes so they can have a treat with their dog food. The fat will separate in the fridge and solidify so I can just lift it off when I’m ready to use it. In the meantime, the fat will keep air away from the juices helping them to stay fresher for a longer period of time.
When the roast has cooled, I’m going to use either a very sharp knife, or just my (clean) hands and separate it into three pieces. The first piece will be half the roast and will get wrapped up tightly in a zip locked bag and put in the fridge. This is for tomorrow’s dinner. The other half will get divided into two roughly equal parts. One part will get wrapped and set in the fridge.
The third piece will go back into the pan with about a cup of Mexican salsa. I’ll shred the meat so there are chunks mixed into the salsa and heat that up in the oven for about an hour allowing the flavors to blend. This, my friends, is going to be the meat filling for tacos!
Who doesn’t love tacos?
I’m a traditionalist, and my favorite taco is the taco from my childhood. Corn tortillas fried a few seconds on each side, filled with cheese, meat, chopped tomatoes, salsa, and lettuce. Throw my face into the middle of the plate and don’t come up until all the tacos are gone. Partner/Spouse is a bit more daring and will try various different combos, but tonight it’s just the traditional “Joe” taco. Can’t wait.
Do you know how to make your own taco shells so you don’t have to worry about getting crumbling ones? Take a flat corn tortilla, heat a small pan of oil to medium hot (not too hot or they’ll burn). Place the tortilla in the oil and use a metal tong to lift half the tortilla out of the oil at a 90 degree angle. Slowly count to fifteen allowing half the tortilla to get crispy. Carefully move the tortilla over so the not fried portion is in the oil and use the tongs to keep the fried portion of the oil. Adjust the angle of the bend to what you like and count to ten slowly. Remove the tortilla to a plate lined with paper towels to drain by setting the tortilla on its edge so the bend is upper most. Do NOT set it on its side as the oil will not drain off.
Tomorrow night, I’m using the larger piece of roast and the saved pan juices to make a good soup or stew. I’ll shred the meat into a large pot making the pieces larger than I did for the tacos. I’ll put most of the meat juices into the pan, reserving some for the next meal. I’ll add some diced potatoes, a handful of lentils, some leftover tomatoes from the tacos, water, adjust the seasonings, and cook until the potatoes are tender. I’ll add some frozen veggies, wait for it all to heat up, and either serve as a soup, or add flour to thicken the broth to a stew. Fresh biscuits, and maybe a salad will finish it off.
I can taste it already.
Finally, with the last bit of the beef and juices, I’m going to make a nice beef gravy making it savory and lumpy and stick-to-your-ribs good. I’ll probably add whatever is left from the soup/stew making certain it doesn’t thin out much. This will be served over a bed of rice or noodles, or maybe some toasted homemade bread.
I’m also making chocolate chip cookies a little later.
I love hamburgers and always have. One of my earliest memories is curling up on a chair in living room with a paper plate holding a hamburger and some potato chips while a glass of some red kool aid drink sat on the end table next to me. My little brother had the exact same plate set-up and was bouncing with excitement. We were about to watch “Godzilla” on television while eating our burgers in the living room instead of at the table! Since then, I’ve probably eaten more hamburgers than is good for me, but what the heck. It’s good stuff.
Several months ago, a friend had come to the house for a few days and we were wondering what to do about dinner. I thawed out a pound of hamburger, heated up a flat iron skillet, made four large cheeseburgers, served them with chips and pickles, and wine.
“These are wonderful!” she exclaimed. “How did you get that crust on the outside?”
“It’s the flatiron skillet.” I said. “Get it blazingly hot then turn the heat down. Slap the burger on it for a couple of minutes on one side, then flip it. The sear creates the crust and holds the juices inside. Then cook until you get the level of doneness you like. I’ve watched short order cooks do this a bunch of times.”
I typically try to use meat with a 20% fat content. Any more than that and the burger shrinks too much and is swimming in rendered fat. Any less and the burger will tend to burn and have less flavor. You can make your own ground beef from a good quality chuck roast, adding as much fat as you like. You can chop it by hand if you have time, two very sharp large knives, and a solid cutting board. Alternatively, and far more easily, you can chop it using a food processor. Cut the roast into 1/2 inch cubes and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Place it in the freezer for about 45 minutes. When they come out, they should be firm but still pliable. They should NOT be frozen solid as this will harm the machine. Using the single blade, place enough meat to fill the container about a third of the way. Work in batches as you need to. Pulse the meat 10-15 times and remove to the baking sheet. When all the meat is processed, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, and mix, then form into patties. If the meat was lean, add a little oil to the skillet before frying. Cook as normal.
I’ve done this a couple of times and the burgers taste really good. I explained how to do this to a friend, but he did it wrong. Not sure what he did, but the burgers were stringy and lumpy and didn’t hold together well. Tasted good, though.
When I was a kid, I once tried to add grated cheese to my burgers as I was forming them, but it didn’t work too well. Not sure why. Maybe too much cheese. I like cheese, so I might have gone a little overboard with it.
One of my favorite burgers is an onion burger and it’s so easy to do. Fry some thinly sliced onions in a tablespoon of olive oil until well cooked and caramelized. Divide the onions into piles of the number of burgers you want to make and put them on a baking sheet. Separate the meat into equal amounts of the number of burgers you’re making. Press the meat firmly onto the onions making sure to cover the onions completely. Heat a flat bottomed skillet and add a small amount of oil. Carefully place the burgers onto the skillet and cook for three to four minutes. Carefully flip the burger and finish cooking until it reaches the level of doneness you want. Easy peasy and delicious.
My brother used to make burgers the size of a golf ball and smash them down. He’d sear one side, then the other, and eat them practically raw. Nowadays, we call them sliders.
I love sliders.
I never eat very much at one meal. (I tend to eat several times a day, just smaller portions.) Sliders are the perfect size for me. I love going to a restaurant and ordering the slider appetizer. It’s usually cheaper, and I get 3-4 small burgers. I can eat two, sometimes three, and take the other(s) home to the dogs.
When I was a teenager, I worked at the ubiquitous fast food place well known for arches. Over time, I developed a taste for a particular burger, a double cheeseburger, plain, with extra cheese. It was delicious. Well cooked burgers, toasty but soft bun, and melty cheese dripping from all the nooks and crannies. I’ve never been able to duplicate it at home. Probably because I make better quality burgers and use better quality cheese. (Once in a while, I think fondly back to the burgers I used to get in the high school cafeteria, but then I get over it.)
Today is Election Day in the U.S. For all my U.S. readers, I urge you to get out and vote. Each election cycle is incredibly important, but this particular one even more so.
It’s been a while. I’ve been cooking and working and writing and taking care of the house and dogs and guests and life in general. Along the way, random thought crop up and I think “Oh, I should blog about that.” But it’s not enough to write an entire post about so the thought sort of goes away. So here’s a small collection to let you know I haven’t forgotten about you.
You’ve all read about how my mom taught me how to cook by handing me a cookbook and saying “Anyone who can read can cook.” She told me to pick a recipe and we’d get started. I chose a cake I loved at the time and still love today, yellow cake with chocolate frosting. I made one just a week ago. She had me read the recipe through a few times and then made me gather all the ingredients and utensils. After I had them all set out on the kitchen table, she said “Which one is the teaspoon?” I showed her the smallish spoon that we usually ate cereal with. “Uh huh. And the tablespoon?” I showed her what we in our family always referred to as the “big spoons”, larger than the cereal spoons. She struggled to keep from laughing. Then handed me the measuring spoons explaining what they were. “Oh,” I said. I reached for a coffee cup. “So this isn’t a measuring cup, is it?”
I was hurrying through the store recently getting something for a customer when I was stopped by a lady. “It’s you!” she said. I smiled, “Yup, been me my whole life.” “You were the one who told me how to cook brats.” I remembered instantly. “Searing them then put ’em in the oven?” “It worked like a charm.” She held up another package of brats. “It’s the only way I cook them now. The whole family likes them.” I’m glad she liked it.
A friend told me recently “I found your blog!” “Oh, did you like it?” “I loved it. You’re so funny and the way you talk about cooking makes it sound so easy.” “Well, it is easy in most cases. People just think it’s complicated.” “I know. Somewhere after the tenth post I decided I could be a gourmet cook.”
At the store, we had a sale on vegetables. One lady bought five one-pound bags of onions. I asked her what she was going to do with them all. They were mostly going to family. “Want a good soup recipe?” The weather had started to turn even though it was still warm. She nodded. “Take two pounds of onions and chop them up roughly. Caramelize them in a large heavy pot, then sauté some chuck roast cut into half inch cubes. Pour a gallon of water over it all and simmer for an entire afternoon. The onions will disappear into the broth and create a sauce and the beef will get falling apart tender. I serve it over noodles.” “Don’t you add any seasonings or anything?” I shook my head. “Taste it at the end and add whatever you like, but taste the beef and onion flavor first. I think you’ll like it better.” She came a week later to tell me her family had gone crazy over it. I love a good recipe.
Every once in a while, my younger brother could be found wandering around the house with a spoon sticking out of his mouth. “What are you doing?” would always be answered with “Eating a peanut butter sandwich with no bread.”
I learned to cook with no kitchen machines and did everything by hand. I went over to a friend’s house one Saturday afternoon to find his wife making chocolate chip cookies. He was excited since he loved chocolate chip cookies. I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water and glanced at her workspace. My eyebrows drew together in bemusement. She was making her cookie batter in a blender. I’d never seen that before, but apparently it worked.
During a sale at the store a while back, a certain popular brand of ice cream was on sale. A retired lady came up with that brand but not the sale amount. I mentioned that she could get more at the sale price if she like but she declined. “I don’t eat this stuff very much.” she said. I nodded. “I’m not a big ice cream fan, either.” I replied. “I only eat it once a year,” she said, then continued at my puzzled look. “Mom’s favorite ice cream was chocolate chip. Now she’s gone, every year the sisters all call each other to share memories and eat her favorite ice cream.” I told her I was stealing that story for my writing. Turns out she and her husband are both professional writers. She checks out my blog once in a while now.