Post # 352 The Breakfast Bar to End All Breakfast Bars

March 18, 2015 at 11:39 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post # 352 The Breakfast Bar to End All Breakfast Bars

I’ve travelled a lot, and most of the hotels I’ve stayed at had their own setup for the “breakfast bar.”  Here in America, when an affordable hotel says that breakfast is provided, I usually find a very small spread of mini muffins, bread for toast, small packets of cereal, sometimes oranges and/or bananas, and water/coffee/milk.  Definitely high on the carbs and sugars, low on the nutrition scale, unless you’re very careful.  Once in a while, I’d find hot offerings, such as instant oatmeal, or sausages, but very seldom unless I was at a place that offered room service and was willing to spend the bucks and the time for it.

In Mexico, the breakfast bar was usually chock full of the American carbs, but also heavy on local delicacies, as well.  Since this was food I’d grown up on, I was always happy to load my plate with juevos rancheros and tortillas and refried beans.  Good stuff.  When I was in Laos, it always seemed like the breakfast spread was anything leftover from the dinner menu the night before, plus fruit.

In Sri Lanka, the breakfast bar took up an entire dining room and while the choices were limited, there was tons of it.  There would be hundreds of sausages, pounds of bacon, dozens of hard cooked eggs, plus every kind of bread you could think of.  Enough fruit to fill an orchard.  I watched one man stand in front of the juice dispenser and fill his glass and drink it three times.  The trouble was, there were other people wanting to get to the machine and he wouldn’t move.  A waiter finally had to ask him to take a seat.

I found that the more international the hotel was, the better the breakfast bar was going to be, until you hit a point where breakfast wasn’t offered at all, except by room service.  Those were the places where you ordered your breakfast the night before and had it delivered at whatever time you chose.

There were three places that stand out in my memory as having the best breakfast buffets ever.  The first was in Frankfurt, Germany.  It was a smaller dining room, but the spread was lavish.  As soon as you sat down, the wait staff would be right at your elbow asking what you’d like to drink and if you had stayed more than a couple of days, already had your beverage of choice ready.  They had all kinds of meats, breads, eggs, cereals, fruit, anything you could think of.  This was where one of my colleagues earned the nickname “Egg Wrester.”  Every morning, he would get two hard boiled eggs, but could never peel the shells properly so by the time he was done, he was usually left with the yolk and a small amount of egg white.  Sometimes, I or another person would take the eggs from him and peel them so he would stop complaining about them.  We always managed to peel them perfectly.  We never did figure out what he was doing wrong.

China was another place where the breakfast buffet was above average, no matter which city or hotel I was staying in.  They had every food item and cooking style imaginable.  They had stations where you could have omelets made to order, or waffles, pancakes, or any other griddle food.  And it was always high quality stuff, too.  I always tried to stretch my culinary wings at places like this and tried local delicacies along with my standards.  China was on of the few places I could freshly cooked American style donuts for breakfast.  Another colleague told me how another colleague had wanted more bacon, but they were out, so he asked for a few more pieces to be brought to him.  They brought out the whole tray before they put it on the table and let him help himself.  I’m told he took about half, but I didn’t see it.

However, for my money, nothing beat the spread we were treated to in Helsinki, Finland.  It wasn’t hugely massive, although it was larger than I was used.  But the sheer variety of items was almost overwhelming.  They had fresh cooked meats, preserved meats, fresh fruits, dried fruits, breads of all kinds (fresh and rusked), spreads of every imaginable type and flavor.  To save money, one of my colleagues would grab a large bun, some cheese, some preserved meat and make a huge sandwich for lunch and take it to work with her.  I nearly always snagged an apple to keep with me in case I wanted it later.  It was in Helsinki that I was introduced to muesli.

Muesli is a breakfast or snack food that’s basically dried granola and fruit served like cereal.

Museli

Developed in the 1900s, like many foods, its exact ingredients are as individual as the person putting them together.  However, what I had in Finland was sweetened dried grains, dried fruit, fresh fruit over thick, creamy, tangy yogurt.  That’s how I’ve seen it most of the time.  I haven’t really thought about it in years except in passing when I’m in a store and I see small tubs of yogurt with granola cups attached to them.  Then I remember muesli and its rising popularity, and go on my way.

Until last night.  Partner/Spouse and I were watching a PBS cooking show called New Scandinavian Cooking.  There are two hosts, each with their own style and brand.  Last night, the guy was showing us how to cook “farm to table” for kids.  The first thing he cooked was muesli.  And he did it in a way I’ve never seen.  He made it from scratch.  Well, except the yogurt.

He had the kids go out to the garden and pull up their favorite vegetables.  They got three different kinds of carrots, and something called Parsley root, which also looked like a carrot.  Who knew there was more than just the orange carrot we see in America, huh?  Well, actually, I did, but I’ve never used them.  He chopped the carrots and root into bite sized chunks, then peeled an apple and did the same thing.  Then he roasted them in a hot oven for about a half hour until they started to turn brown at the edges.  Roasting any vegetable intensifies the flavor, but roasted carrots also turn sweeter than you’d ever imagine.  While the veggies were roasting, he took a cup of spelt, a common wheat varietal that tastes a little sweeter and nuttier than standard wheat, and toasted that with some sweet seasonings for about fifteen minutes.  Once everything was roasted and toasted, he allowed them to cool and crisp up.  Then he put plain greek-style yogurt in a bowl, and put a small amount of the roasted veggies on top.  Then he sprinkled the spelt over it and then drizzled raw honey over it, not a lot, but enough to add a counter flavor to the tang of the yogurt.

You never saw kids eat anything so fast!  They loved it.  The fact that they had picked and sliced and chopped the veggies (And I Helped!) made a lot of difference, I think.  I’m probably going to try this.  If you do, let me know how it turns out.

Enjoy

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Post # 351 Happy Irish Day!

March 17, 2015 at 10:22 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post # 351 Happy Irish Day!

It’s Saint Pat’s Day to commemorate that favorite Irish saint.  I won’t go into details about his true nature, only that he did his best to what he considered to be good for others.  On Saint Pat’s Day, everyone is Irish, so enjoy Irish things and think GREEN!

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And for dinner, make your favorite drop biscuits and add a shredded apple and some grated cheese of your favorite kind.  Cook as normal and you have a real treat!

St Pats Food 02

And if you want to go full on Irish, throw a 3 pound chunk of corned beef into a pot of water and stout with some onion and cook for about four hours till it’s tender.  Toss in some potatoes and carrots and cook another hour.  Toss in a whole head of cabbage that’s been quartered then cut into eights.  Cook another half hour to 45 minutes till the cabbage is tender.  Fish everything out of the pot, reduce the broth by about half, and serve it all on a platter.

St Pats Food 01

Happy St. Pat’s!!

Post # 350 A Buddy Made of Bacon

March 13, 2015 at 11:16 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog that I’m a BIG fan of bacon.  It’s really good stuff.

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I’ve probably already told you this, but I still remember the first time I noticed bacon as bacon while it was frying, and fell in love with it.  My parents had taken us camping with some family friends on the banks of the Saranac River in upstate New York.  The cabin we was a single room affair, with bunk beds along the back wall and a stove near the front door.  I don’t recall too many details about the cabin, mostly because we spent so little time inside while there.  One memory stands out, waking up to the smell of frying bacon one morning.  I’d had bacon before, certainly.  But camping out, sleeping in a wooden bunk bed with a sleeping bag and my brother beside me, the smell of the damp forest, and the bacon overshadowing all of it.  Not to be forgotten, apparently.

That started a love affair with bacon that’s lasted my whole life.

Bacon is simply preserved pork.  Sometimes it’s streaky; sometimes it’s lean.

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Sometimes it’s cured with smoke and picks up the smoky flavor.  Other times it’s cured with sugars or syrups or other flavorings and takes on those flavors.  Through all of it, the wonderful salty bacon-y flavor still powers through so the additions are merely after thoughts, closing notes to a bacon song.

Every culture has some form of bacon, and their own preferred way of preparing it.  Here in America, it’s streaky bacon in long strips called rashers.  It’s fried and usually served with eggs.  Mostly, it’s fried crispy, but sometimes not.

Some of our favorite TV shows in our house are the Britcoms, comedy shows from England.  We also love the humor of The Two Fat Ladies cooking show.  In one of those, they remark about bacon that more vegetarians backslide on bacon than any other meat, and that they can well understand it.

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Another favorite show contains one of our favorite lines:  I could just murder a bacon butty about now.  The character is saying he’s hungry, and wants a bacon sandwich.

That sent me on a journey of figuring out what a bacon butty, or buddy, actually was.

This is it:

bacon buddy 01

It’s a mass of fried bacon piled into a bun.  It’s a BLT without the L and the T.  It’s an Egg McMuffin without the egg, or the cheese.  But it’s really good.  It’s a handy way to cram your mouth full of bacon and not look like a glutton.  Usually, the bun is spread with butter or margarine, but it can pass without if the bacon is greasy enough.

Sometimes, usually during lunchtime, the bacon butty will be served on bread and will have ketchup or mustard on it, or both.  And it can be served with a side of chips, either on the side or in the sandwich.

My beautiful picture

The thing that counts is massive quantities of bacon surrounded by bread.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a bacon sandwich that I thought was bad or wrong.  I’ve had fried eggs sandwiches with bacon that I licked every crumb off my plate.  I’ve written more than one post on this blog about BLTs and the best restaurants to get them in.  For the record, in my estimation, it’s Beyond Bread in Tucson, AZ.  I’m still looking for one comparable here on the Eastern Shore.

And today, for late breakfast, I made a bacon butty.   It was good.

Tonight, for dinner, I’m going to make baked chicken.  I think I’m going to wrap the chicken parts in bacon after I stuff them full of garlic and lemon.  Haven’t done that in a while, and bacon just sounds so good right now.

bacon type 01

 

Enjoy

Post # 349 Crock Pot Spaghetti Aris

March 11, 2015 at 11:34 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post # 349 Crock Pot Spaghetti Aris

A friend who read my last post asked me about the crock pot spaghetti that I mentioned so I figured I’d just write about it now.  Spaghetti sauce lends itself to the crock pot perfectly because the longer it cooks, the milder and better flavored it becomes.

The first thing you have to know about cooking spaghetti, and indeed, anything Italian, is that there are two parts to it.  The first is the sauce and the second is the pasta.  You cook them separately, mix them together, and serve them with garnishes and sides.  Easy peasy, right?  Well, not always.

Most of the time, when people think “spaghetti” they think this:

spaghetti 01

and this:

spaghetti 02

Anyone who has walked down the pasta/rice aisle of their local supermarket know there seems to be two dozen kinds of pasta shapes, and equally that many kinds of pasta sauce.  I mostly prefer making my own pasta sauce, but I typically buy my pasta dried in packages (except Barilla brand.  I don’t do Barilla for personal reasons having to do with their anti-gay views, but that’s a different story.)  Occasionally, I make my pasta from scratch because there’s just no beating the flavor, but that’s a real workout so I don’t do it often.

So when you’re talking spaghetti, just the spaghetti noodles, did you know you can get them in different thicknesses?  The larger the number on the box, the thicker the noodle inside it.  The two most common sizes are 8 and 10.  It depends on how full you want to be from a plate of spaghetti.  I mostly buy 8 cuz that’s what I’m used to.  However, Angel Hair pasta is just another very skinny form of spaghetti noodle that cooks in seconds.  I once tried to cook Angel Hair directly in the simmering spaghetti sauce and the starch turned it into a bright pink sludge paste that was inedible.  (We ended up forcing ourselves to eat steak that night.  Poor us.)

And lets not forget the wonderful shaped pastas.  Flattened spaghetti noodles become fettuccini and linguini.  Shaped pasta can be lasagna noodles, or bow ties, or fusilli.  Make hollow noodles and you have macaroni, or penne.  Make ’em bigger and you get rigatoni and manicotti.  And about a bazillion variations on the theme.

Sauces can be as simple as melted butter on hot noodles.  It can be as complex as a Romanesco sauce, a mix of nuts, herbs, spices, and thickened with bread.  It can rely heavily on fruit, like my favorite lemon garlic olive oil sauce, or on creams and cheese like an Alfredo sauce.  And it seems like every different combination of pasta and sauce has a different name.

So, spaghetti, right?  With a thick, rich, red sauce.  You’d think that would be easy, except that the number of kinds of red sauces available are huge.  You can throw a ripe tomato in a blender with a clove of garlic and pour that over pasta with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and call it dinner.  And it’s wonderful, by the way.  I’ve done that.  Try it.  Or you can toss a can of chopped tomatoes into a frying pan, heat them up with some bacon, oregano, onion, and basil and just eat it with a spoon.

But I’m going to tell you about a basic marinara sauce that can be used for practically any Italian dish and can be cooked on the stove top, in the oven, or in the crock pot.  It’ll sound complex to make, but is actually very easy.

When I make it on the stove top, I usually start with two pounds of hamburger.  I brown that in a large heavy sauce pan.  I remove the cooked meat and drain the fat.  Then I add a couple of chopped onions to the pan using residual fat left from the meat.  When the onions have sweated and are translucent, I add 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic.  After a few seconds, I add a tablespoon of dried oregano, and a tablespoon of dried basil and I let this cook together.  This releases the flavors of the dried herbs, called “blooming” the herbs.  It doesn’t take long, 30 seconds or so.  Then I add a 6oz can of tomato paste and stir until is softens and “melts” a little.  I put the meat back in and mix it all thoroughly for a couple of seconds.  Then I add 2 or 3 16oz cans of diced tomatoes.  I try to use those that aren’t cooked and don’t have added flavorings.  I stir it around to get it all mixed up, then add two cans of tap water.  I turn the heat down to simmer, and let it bubble gently for a few hours until all the water has simmered off.  Check the flavors and add more of whatever you want.

In the crock pot, Aris, it’s nearly the same thing, but the order is different.  First, I put all the cans of tomatoes (including the paste) into the crock pot and stir to mix the paste into the rest.  I set it on high, cover it, and walk away for two hours.  Don’t touch it; don’t move it; don’t even breathe on it.  Once two hours are done, the sauce will be simmering around the edges.  Stir it completely and add your herbs and spices.  When I used the crock pot, I tend to use powdered garlic and onion rather than fresh because they don’t cook down as well, in my experience.  Then I put the hamburger in, but I make sure the meat is frozen.  That’s important.  If the meat is thawed, it will melt into the sauce.  You’ll get a wonderful meaty flavor, but no meaty bites.  If you put in frozen hamburger, it will cook and keep its shape.  Once it’s cooked completely, which will take a couple of hours, you can use a wooden spoon to break it up and get good lumps of meat into the sauce.  Once the meat is completely cooked, the sauce will be done.  I generally taste it and adjust the seasonings and let it simmer for another hour or so.

Serving pasta is another area for variety.  Some people cook the pasta, drain it, then add it to the sauce.  Others cook the pasta, put sauce on the top, and allow each person to serve themselves.  Still others will cook the pasta, use a basket strainer and put the pasta directly from the cooking water into the sauce.  It’s all for the same reason.  Do NOT rinse cooked pasta and do NOT add oil to the boiling pasta water.  When the pasta is cooking, it releases starches that help the sauce adhere to the pasta.  Rinsing and/or oiling causes the starches to go down the drain where they are no use to anyone.  Some cooks will add up to a quarter cup of the cooking water after the pasta is done to their sauce to add a binding agent.  I’ve only done that once or twice.  I prefer to just drain and add the pasta to the sauce.  Pasta will stick as it cools so serve it as quickly as possible.  Also, in all my time in Italy, I never saw a single diner swirl their pasta onto their fork using a spoon.

For the crock pot, I cook and drain the pasta, then add it to sauce in the crock pot.  I turn the crock pot off, and tell everyone to grab what they want.

It’s good stuff.  BTW – you can add any other ingredients you like, such as mushrooms, bell peppers, etc. but we like it simple.

Enjoy

Post # 348 Holy Umami, Batman!

March 9, 2015 at 1:13 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post # 348 Holy Umami, Batman!

Had a bad weekend, and still playing catch up.  For some reason, I have a knot of pain underneath my right shoulder blade which makes sitting at the computer for any period longer than 30 seconds incredibly painful.  It’s also made sleeping problematic, so my days have been hazy and uncoordinated.  Luckily, Partner/Spouse has been a brick and handled things over the weekend perfectly, giving me a chance to get on the mend.  It’s slow, but getting there.

It was a weekend of slow cooking, starting on Thursday.   I made Beef Onion soup, then on Friday we ordered pizza.  Saturday was a slow cooked ham, spiral cut and glazed with lingon berry juice and Dr. Pepper.  Yesterday, crock pot spaghetti to die for.  What’s most amazing to me when I take downtime like that is how much email and FB posts I get behind on.

The thing I wanted to tell you about for this post was the Beef Onion soup I made.  I love the flavor combination of beef and onions, as long as they’re both cooked.  Don’t like raw beef and don’t like raw onions.  But when they’re cooked, they’re excellent.  When they’re cooked together, they’re sublime.  I had most of a bag of onions that I had to use or toss out.  So it was a no-brainer; I had to use the onions.  I was going to make onion soup, but since I had a good chunk of roast cut in two, I decided to make beef onion.

I did the standard recipe.  I ended up with nearly four pounds of roughly chopped onion, and two pounds of beef cubes running about 1/2 an inch to 3/4 of an inch square.  The roast had this huge knob of fat in the center with I left intact but separate from the meat.  I heated a little good quality olive oil and tossed the onions in to sweat them down.  Then I remembered that if I allowed the onions to caramelize, it would give a good brown color to the stock.  I cooked and stirred for about a half hour, watching the wonderful transformation from plain old yellow onions to a rich brown syrupy mass that smelled heavenly.  Then I chopped up five cloves of garlic (because that’s all the was left on the one head I was using and I wanted to use it up) and stirred that into the onion.  The smell of onion and garlic cooking together is the best smell ever!  It’s rustic; it’s homey; it makes the mouth water.

Years ago, when I was attempting to teach my sister how to cook, I was explaining how to make stew.  I was chopping the roast and leaving a small line of fat around some of the pieces of meat.  She was insisting that I cut those off.  I was trying to make her understand that I would be cutting off the flavor, but she wouldn’t hear it and we had a lifeless stew.  Since then, I’ve managed to convince her to cook with the fat on, and cut it off later.  Fat equals flavor.  So I tossed that large knob of fat from the roast into the pot and started it browning and sizzling along with the onion and garlic.  Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I added the meat and about 8 cups of water.  I turned the heat down to a simmer and walked away from the stove.  Now it was up to the soup itself to recreate itself.

About every 45 minutes, I checked on it and stirred it to make sure it wasn’t burning.  There is a point when meat is simmering in broth where it will tighten up and become completely inedible and indigestible.  Then, fifteen minutes later, it will relax and soften, and the more you cook it, the better it will be.  And it hit that point.  I tasted the broth and it was good.

But I’m never satisfied.  I went to the ‘net and perused my cooking sites for other people’s ideas for Beef Onion soup.  I found all kinds of regional and cultural things people do to make it succulent and healthful.  I remembered things my own mom had done.  Then, I remember a word – Umami.

Umami is a Japanese word and it’s used to describe one of the five basic flavors.  Those five are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory, or umami.  To me, umami is what makes my mouth water.  There are loads of things that have umami, and I think I like every single one of them.  Meats, veggies, particularly tomatoes, and mushrooms are loaded with it.  Red wine is another.   So if I added various foods high in umami, it would only make my soup better, right?

So, I added two tablespoons of tomato paste.  Beef soup is always enhanced with tomatoes, although normally I just add a can of chopped tomatoes to it.  But I didn’t want any toothsome bites except the meat and the onion.  Then I added about a half cup of red wine we had sitting around.  I don’t drink a lot of red wine, although a good friend is trying to change my mind about that.  We had bought a bottle of my favorite white wine in a red, but neither of us like it, so it was just taking up space on the counter.  So some of it went into the soup.  (The rest went down the sink, sorry.  It’s a good wine, for those who like reds.)  I added some more garlic and a pinch of salt and let the flavors blend for a while.  It was good, but was missing some of the earthy undertones that I like with beef.  We had ordered Chinese takeaway a couple of weeks earlier and saved the packets of soy sauce, so three of those went into it.  The helped a ton.  The broth was dark, rich, full of subtle flavors.

Then I remembered the mushroom powder.  Weeks before, we had watched a cooking program where they had taken dried mushrooms and put them through a spice grinder making mushroom powder.  The result was supposed to be a good addition to soups and sauces to add the mushroom flavor without adding the mushroom texture.  Partner/Spouse likes the flavor of mushrooms, but despises eating them.  This seemed tailor made for him, so we had made some and put it in the freezer.  We’d used it a couple of times and like the result.  There was about two and a half tablespoons left so I dumped it all into the broth.  I also added a couple of cups of water since it had simmered down quite a bit by now.

Two very neat things happened.  First, as the mushroom powdered cooked into the broth, it thickened.  It was still a broth, but had a consistency bordering on gravy, but not quite as thick.  The flavor was exceptional.  Second, somehow all the onions had disappeared.  The flavor was still there, but it had mellowed and softened with the additions to the point that the flavor was unique but not distinctly onion.  Try as I could, I saw no onion anywhere in the broth.

About an hour before serving, I added one more fresh onion, chopped coarsely to add more onion flavor and visibility.  I also added a cup of pasta that I cooked separately to give the soup some body.  It turned out perfectly.  The meat chunks floating in the rich brown broth with the onion and pasta were perfectly cooked and perfectly flavored.  I served it with fresh bread.  A good time was had by all!  Or at least, both of us.

 

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