Post #677 Joe’s Spaghetti

October 20, 2019 at 10:34 AM | Posted in Basics | 3 Comments

I’ve had a love affair with pasta and meat sauce for more than half a century.  Sounds like a long time, doesn’t it?  It’s one of my favorite things in the whole world.  It doesn’t hurt that I love pasta in almost all its forms (or shapes.)  But spaghetti was the “go to” because it was easy and delicious.  I’d love to tell you the story of the first time I ate it, but I don’t remember it.  It seems like I’ve been eating spaghetti for as long as I’ve been alive.  My mom made spaghetti at least twice a month, and in my home, we have it probably once a week.  We go through dry spells where it isn’t on our radar, for some reason, but then we make a big pot and eat it every other day.  I notice I’m usually wearing a white shirt when I eat the stuff, almost like it’s a law or something.

One summer, when I was in my teens and bored, I was making spaghetti and got bored with the standard seasonings my mom directed me to use.  Her recipe was tomato sauce, tomato paste, browned hamburger, onions, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper.  Very innocuous and almost bland, but it satisfied the lowest common denominators in our family.  I wanted to make something “authentic”.  This was in the days long before the internet, and my cookbook was the standard American cookbook, probably the one my mom got her recipe from.  It didn’t have the Italian herbs listed for the dish.  So I went to my mom’s pantry and I read every single spice bottle and box she had.  And there were a ton!  She collected them like other people collected stamps or coins.  I’m sure some were over a decade old.  At least, according to the dust they were.  I pulled out anything that said Italian, or good in Italian sauces, or great for spaghetti.  You get the idea.  When I started the sauce, I put a pinch of everything in it.  I let it simmer for a while, then tasted it.  I added more of one thing or another, and eventually I had a sauce that was tangy and sweet and had a depth of flavor I’d never tased before.

Two things happened from that exercise.  The first was that because the sauce had simmered so long (not my usual method) the tomatoes had lost their sharpness and mellowed into a wonderful smoky sauce with a bunch of other flavors.  The second was a resolve to refine and redefine the sauce until it was “perfect.”  My sister truly disliked the flavor of bay leaf in the sauce so I left it out when I was younger.  Recently, I’ve started using it again in various things and I like it.

When I started my quest for the perfect spaghetti sauce, I was sharing it with a good friend, all my triumphs and mistakes.  She told me about the first time she made spaghetti.  She opened a jar of sauce and heated it.  She put a pot of cold water on the stove and put the noodles in and turned the burner on.  She waited for it to boil then waited the requisite number of minutes.  I was already grinning, knowing what was going to happen.  “It was inedible,” she said.  “It melted to the bottom of the pot and I couldn’t get it out.  I had to throw the pot away.”

Spaghetti sauce is deceptively simple since it’s completely up to the maker as to what’s “perfect.”  Some people want a fresher flavor; some people want a deeper, richer, longer-cooked flavor.  It can be a complex process, and it can be a pretty simple process.  It can have a ton of meats and herbs, or it can have none at all.  I’ve made sauces that have cooked for hours, and I’ve made sauces where I put tomatoes in a blender, heated it up with some salt, garlic, and basil, and was done.

When I started working, I used a crockpot to make my sauce.  It was always a meat sauce cuz I’m a carnivore and want meat in all my main meals.  I used two cans of tomato sauce, two cans of tomato puree, and one can of tomato paste.  I added a pound or two of ground beef (thawed or frozen), and my herb blend.  My standard herb blend is a tablespoon each of powdered garlic, powdered onion, and Italian Seasonings blend.  I also add an extra tsp of oregano for extra kick.  I stirred it all together, turned the crock pot on high for a few hours, then turned it down.  If I was going to be gone all day, it stayed on low for the entire time.  By the time I got home, or was ready to use the sauce, it had cooked into a thick viscous blend of tomatoes and meat that clung to any pasta.  I’ve used that sauce for lasagna, spaghetti, pizza, and a host of other dishes where a tomato sauce is needed.

NOTE:  I mentioned above starting with thawed or frozen ground beef.  You can also use ground meat blends, roasts, etc.  If you start with thawed or fresh, the ground meats will fall apart and flavor the sauce but kind of disappear.  If you start with frozen, it will cook in the sauce giving it the meat flavor, but will stay in one piece to be broken up later into large and small meat lumps that act like meatballs.

But it’s a labor of time and I developed short cut that still takes a little time, but not as much, and still gives the long slow cook flavor.  I start with a jar of good quality spaghetti sauce.  It can be flavored any way you personally like.  Then I add one or two cans of petite chopped tomatoes, a least two tablespoons of tomato paste (but usually just a whole small can), and extra spices of various types.  I usually cook the hamburger first and add fresh onion and garlic to it while it’s cooking before I add the sauce ingredients.  I always fill the jar of sauce half full with hot water, close it, and shake it hard to get all the sauce clinging to the sides of the jar and the inside of the lid loosened up to add to the pot of sauce.  Then I heat on medium until it starts to bubble, then turn it to low and simmer until all the water has simmered off and the sauce has thickened, stirring every five minutes or so to keep it from burning.  It takes about an hour, but it comes out perfectly.  It’s quick enough to make after work, but takes long enough that I can relax a little before dinner.

And all for this:

Like I said, it’s a deceptively simple dish.  Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top, add some garlic toast on the side, and maybe a salad, and it’s a great meal on a chilly night.

So what’s your favorite way to make spaghetti?  Let us all know!  Feel free to share this post far and wide.

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So Partner/Spouse and I did a bunch of errands yesterday morning and the final one was putting cardboard boxes in a recycle bin at our favorite diner so we could enjoy breakfast there.  It’s one I’ve blogged about before where I first enjoyed fiddlehead ferns, maple flavored soda (well maybe enjoyed isn’t the right word), and where they have a ham that is to die for.  When we walked in, this sign greeted us:

So I thought I’d share the horror.

As always,

 

Post #676 The Turn of the Seasons

October 13, 2019 at 1:11 PM | Posted in Basics, Crock Pot Slow Cooking | Leave a comment

I’ve always thought that between September and November there are two seasons.  The first season is End O’ Summer Beginning O’ Fall, and the second season is Dead Fall.  End O’ Begin O’ is when the warmth is declining but it’s not really super chilly, but it’s chilly enough to wear sweatshirts and sweaters easily.  Colors are changing, and the leaves turn spectacular colors.  Dead Fall is when the chill has definitely set in and we start looking for our winter clothes we put away last year cuz we need ’em.  Conversations turn to oil prices, and new boots, and snow tires.  The hill at the end of the street that was full green and gorgeous just a few weeks ago is now looking like this.

Imagine all those barren trees decked in blazing red and orange and you know what our view was.  Of course, I didn’t get pics of that before the rain took down the colors.  Even the drive to work is pretty spectacular.

Just one of the reasons we worked to get here.

Food takes on a different aspect this time of the year, too.  The drive for fresh fruits and veggies by necessity gives way to those that are preserved and canned and can’t be eaten straight from the ground.  Gourds and roots are the name of the game these days, and the months stretching in front of us are more of the same.

It’s not as dire as it sounds since the grocery stores still have all the fresh veggies we could ever hope for.  But if you want to buy local, it’s rough going.  In summer, when everyone is active and the farmer’s markets are thriving, I tend to think in terms of salads.  When it’s hot, you want to eat something cool and light.  This time of year, my mine shifts and I know it’s going to get cold and snowy, so I think in terms of hot and hearty.  You want things that are rib-sticking and heavy.  You burn more calories when it’s cold out than other times of the year so you want those calories to burn.  In my mind, I got to heavy soups and stews.  But, since work life gets in the way, it’s not always that easy.  This is when the crock pot comes into its own.

So today, even though we’re both home working on our computers and listening to music (and the door is open because it’s an unusually fine fall day and the house needs to get aired out) I did this.  See if you can guess:

If you guessed stew, you’d almost be right!

What I’m making is a pot roast.  My mom did this all the time.  It’s simple; it’s easy; it’s nutritious; it’s delicious.  You can use less expensive cuts of meat and they will come out tasting like they were made for kings.  So I’m going to break this down into its basic component parts and discuss those.

First, the meat.  You can easily see from the picture that this hunk of beef is way more than two people can eat in one meal.  Hell, it’s more than two people can finish off in four meals!  So what I’m going to do is cook the beef separately until it’s done and cut it into three equal-ish pieces.  By the time that’s done, there will be a phenomenal collection of meat juices in the crock pot that I’ll use to finish off the veggies.  The one “mistake” new cooks tend to make when cooking an all-in-one-pot meal is that components cook at different rates.  My mom always had perfectly done meat and veggies that were mush.  So, cook the meat alone until it’s nearly done, then add the veggies.

That’s not to say you don’t cook it with the aromatics.  Aromatics is just a fancy word for herbs and spices or anything else that adds flavor.  Since I know what else I’m going to make with the roast (enchiladas and potato boats) I can add the right aromatics so they enhance the flavor of the meat for everything.  I’m using celery, garlic, onion, and carrot.  Celery has a bright tangy flavor.  Garlic is the flavor of the earth, as far as I’m concerned.  Onion is bitter and sweet and sharp.  Carrot adds sweetness and hearty flavor.  You can add any flavors you like when you cook.  As you try new things, you’ll discover what works for you and what doesn’t.

So, right now, I’m cooking the meat along with roughly chopped garlic, carrot chunks, onion chunks, celery chunks, and a sprinkle of salt.  Salt makes everything taste good.  In a few hours, I’m going to take out the meat and cut it into the portions a I need.  By then, it will be time to put in more onion, the potatoes, and more celery.  The original celery will be too mushy to use, and the original onions will be gone, having given their life and essence to the broth created by the slow cooking method.  BUT, I’m going to add a couple of more flavor enhancers.

Ever heard of Umami?  It’s the part of the taste receptors that tastes savory and meaty flavors.  But the things that trigger it are kind of funny.  When added to meat, they make meats taste meatier and better.  MSG is one, as is tomato paste and red wine.  So there’s a reason why they always say drink red wine with a steak.  Mushrooms also have umami, and cheese, as well as some fish.  Through centuries of trial and error, cooks have found those things that bring out the meaty flavor that science now tells us we ought to use.  So, once I’ve removed the meat and the aromatics, I’m going to add a tablespoon of tomato paste to the broth (another umame ingredient) and I’d love to add whole mushrooms.  But Partner/Spouse hates the texture of mushrooms so they aren’t going in.  However, I am going to add mushrooms to get the umami factor.  A few years ago ATK gave me the idea.  Take dried mushrooms and put them through a spice or coffee grinder until they are powder.  Then add a spoonful of the mushroom powder.  (NOTE:  IF YOU USE A COFFEE GRINDER MAKE SURE IT HAS NEVER BEEN USED TO GRIND COFFEE.  THE COFFEE FLAVOR IS IMPOSSIBLE TO ELIMINATE AND WILL TAINT EVERYTHING ELSE BEING GROUND IN THAT GRINDER.)  So I’ve got some dried mushrooms and powdered them.  I don’t have any red wine or I’d add that too.  The thing to remember when adding these ingredients is they are heavy flavor enhancers so use small amounts of each until you get the flavor you like.  And the mushroom powder will also thicken the sauce quite a bit since it’s actually dried mushroom and will absorb a lot of liquid.

Once I’ve doctored the sauce, I’ll add the potatoes, onions, celery, and probably a little more garlic to freshen the flavor, and put the meat in on top.  I’ll cook that up until the veggies are done and the meat should be falling-apart tender at this point.

I’d love to tell you how long each stage takes, but it’s a crock pot.  Each one has its own personality and will take as long as it takes.  I don’t expect to be eating until around 6:30 or 7pm.  But, even though it sounds like a lot of work, it’s not really.

So, that’s the plan for today.  What are your plans for dinner today, or the near future?  Let us all know.  We’d like to hear from you.

So, in a few weeks, there’s another holiday – Samhain.  In the pagan calendar, this starts the new year, but we also like the modern twist of Halloween.  I’m a big Great Pumpkin fan.

See?  But Partner/Spouse is a bigger fan of the season.

See?

As always,

 

 

Post #675 I’ve Been to Baku, Have You?

October 6, 2019 at 10:37 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #675 I’ve Been to Baku, Have You?

During my “travel days” when I was lucky enough to see parts of the world most people don’t and experience cultures and foods I never knew existed, I got work for a few weeks in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan.  It’s located in the former USSR on the western shore of the Caspian sea.  It’s got a long rich history full of wars and take overs and I won’t go into it in any detail, but the different cultural influences are varied and unique.  It’s primary economy is based on oil and petroleum and due to that there is also a fairly large scientific and educational community.

We were there back in the early 2000s, and they were still feeling the impact of the break up of the USSR, but were coming out of it to a rising economy.  The city was large and bustling and crowded.  It was largely a Russian culture, but there was still a strong influence from Persia and the Jewish community.  Formula One racing had taken hold in a strong way and there were shops selling F1 paraphernalia everywhere.

We were working 8-10 hours a day and our weekends were sometimes work-filled so we didn’t get a chance to see a lot of the sites, but we did get to go to a series of restaurants around the area.  Our hotel was located on Fountain Square almost directly across the street from the only McDonald’s in the city (at the time though I’m sure there are likely more by now.  They spring up like rabbits.)  It actually made it easier to get cabs.  Since none of us knew the language nor could puzzle it out, we’d just say “McDonald’s” to the cabbie and we’d get to the hotel.

We were warned never to try to get a cab ourselves.  We either went through the hotel or the embassy guards to get them.  The joke was as soon as a son was born, they were given a driver’s license and a cab topper for their car.  Because there was no central cab authority, the honesty of the cab drivers could be suspect, and kidnappings and extortion were problematic.  It was the same walking the streets.  There was a vibrant and active night life every night of the week, but tourists could sometimes be targeted for theft.  The most popular method was for a crowd to separate tourists and “guide” the one to an alley or a nightclub to be fleeced.  It never happened to us, but we were careful to stay to well lit areas.

My hotel windows didn’t look out over the square but to the other side which I found more fascinating.  I was looking at the real town where the locals lived.  It wasn’t as dressy as the square, but it wasn’t dirty or poor looking.  One thing I noticed each morning is the locals came out about the same time (I recall it was around 6:30am) and used bundles of small, bushy sticks to clean and sweep the sidewalks and the streets in front of their buildings.  In just a few minutes, all litter and dirt was swept to the curb and picked up.  I imagined that once that was done, they went in and started breakfast and had coffee.

Near the seaside is the original city with its ancient walls and battlements.

We climbed to the top of the tower and looked at the sights.  Then we went to the markets, and on of my colleagues bought some antique rugs which he shipped home.  I’m not a rug person, but many of my colleagues were so he was happy to find some deals.  I wasn’t in the market for anything in particular and bought a set of nesting dolls for a friend, and a pashmina for my sister, which turned out to be so successful I wished I bought her two more.

The area near the hotel was definitely the touristy area and designed to be enjoyed throughout the day, but at night is came alive.

I walked for miles just staring and gawking.  The European influence was strong and the displays in the shop windows was fascinating.

My usual routine was to get home and change.  Sometimes, I’d eat at the hotel, but other times I’d wait till I walked through the area for a while.  I walked every night for a couple of hours.  I ate street food that everyone else was eating.  Or I’d stop at a restaurant and sit at a communal table and enjoy a thick stew with potatoes, or turnips, or beets, and beef or pork.  I even ate at McDonald’s a few times.  I’ve found that fast foods outside of the US seem to have a different flavor, more a local flair, and taste a little better.

One weekend evening, all three of us went to an upscale restaurant with a couple of people from the embassy.  It was a Russian restaurant, had a dark interior, and a large Russian woman in a tight purple sparkly dress wandering through the dining area crooning vampish songs in Russian (I think, I’m not a linguist.)  I noticed that she would stop occasionally to interact coquettishly with a patron.  At one point, while I was eating (pork chops with pickled cabbage and something else) she seemed to be right behind me since her voice was loud.  The others at the table were watching her, but I was more interested in my plate.  A few moments later, the guy next to me said, “You did an excellent job ignoring her.”

“Ignoring who?” I asked.

“The singer,” he replied, surprised.  “She was trying to get you to flirt with her.”

I glanced behind me but she was long gone.  “Oh, I didn’t realize she was there.”

Another time, we went to an restaurant that featured Mediterranean foods.  This was food I was familiar with and enjoyed a lot.  We spent a lot of time there relaxing and laughing.  We found out a couple of days later that my colleague’s credit card was double billed.  It took several weeks and the assistance of one of the local employees to get it corrected.

One of the poignant highlights of the trip was a small girl who hung out outside our hotel.  She was asking for money and for some reason, she took a shine to my colleague.  The two of them would banter words back and forth.  She spoke pretty good English.  She would be there every time we walked out, almost as if she knew his schedule ahead of time.  He’d give her the equivalent of $10 every time he saw her, but only after they teased each other for a few minutes.  She showed us where the locals went to have a good time, or good eats, or just enjoy the day.  On our last day there, we all pitched in and gave her about $50.

The hotel staff was very interested in making sure our stay was pleasant, but none more than the older woman who was head of the maid service.  She turned down our beds personally every night to make sure we were comfy and didn’t need anything.  She also put the chocolates on our pillows, and when she found out how much I enjoyed it, she started giving me three every night.

About a year after we were there, we found out that the local staff we had been working with had been replaced due to influence peddling.  Kind of sad.

As always,

Post #674 Random Thoughts

October 2, 2019 at 8:22 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #674 Random Thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve done a mid-week post so I wanted to be sure to get one done today.  Might be shorter than normal, but what the heck.  So driving to and from work every day is quite an experience these days.  The fall colors are exploding all over the place.  I won’t go on about the apples again, but I was talking to someone at work the other day and made the comment, “The best bite of an apple is always the first one.  You don’t know what to expect and it the flavor explodes in your mouth.  All the other bites pale in comparison because by then you’re used to it.”  She laughed and said I was right.  Then walked away laughing.

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I’ve got a writer friend in Australia.  We’ve never met in person, but we’ve interacted so much on line, and helped each other with our writing projects that we’re as close as if we grew up next door.  A few years ago, she was lucky enough to swing a trip to a writer’s conference in Boston.  I really wanted to get up there to see her, but I was in Arizona at the time.  We chatted online while she was here, and she made the observation about how disappointed she was that pumpkin in America didn’t taste like pumpkin she was used to.  It tasted more like cinnamon.  I laughed and explained that here anything that said pumpkin really meant pumpkin spice, and that pumpkin spice was a sweet spice blend that went into pies.  She was not impressed.  For the record, neither am I.  I prefer tacos.

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The last post I talked about staples, those items you keep on hand to make things with.  Before leaving for work, I took out a sirloin steak large enough to feed the two of us.  Typically, when that happens, we grill it on the stove with our cast iron grill pan, then have it with salad.  Or roasted potatoes.  But today, I grilled it and we had it with flour tortillas, pico de gallo, and cheese.  Kind of a mock fajita, but we enjoyed the heck out of them.  And it was all done with the things we nearly always have on hand.  Part of it was even leftover from last night’s Taco Tuesday!

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I was talking to a woman at work today and she was saying she wanted to learn more about meringues.  She’s been watching a lot of The Great British Bake Off and has been fascinated with the way they’re made and the variations.  The only one she hasn’t tried yet is the Italian meringue.  I told her it was my favorite.  I once made America’s Test Kitchen’s Mile High Lemon Pie with the Italian meringue.  She asked if the heated sugar cooked the egg whites and if that made it taste funny.  I told her it tasted like whipped marshmallows.  She seemed to like that.

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I’m a peppermint loving guy.  I love the smell; I love the taste; I love the impact.  I have a bowl of peppermint Lifesavers in my office and it keeps the smell of peppermint going all the time.  Peppermint is an astringent so it cleans really well, too.  I have peppermint shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothpaste, and shaving lotion.  Several years ago, I learned a recipe to make my own peppermint candy.  Soften 8oz of cream cheese and whip it in a large bowl.  Add a tsp of peppermint extract and blend thoroughly.  Add two cups of powdered sugar, then keep adding powdered sugar in half-cup increments to make a very stiff dough.  Total should be about 4-5 cups.  If you like a stronger peppermint flavor up the amount to 2 tsp, but don’t go more than that because the flavor gets stronger over time.  Roll the dough out and cut into small shapes.  Dip them or drizzle them with chocolate and leave to air dry until completely dry.  You can also color them.  I made these for Christmas one year, and my sister in law insisted the blue ones tasted the best.  Go figure.

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I had a blueberry scone for breakfast today.  We bought them at the grocery store, so it wasn’t terribly fresh, but it tasted like a scone is supposed to.  I wish I could get mine to rise the same way.  But the star was the blueberries.  They were locally sourced, perfectly ripe, and there were a TON in this scone!  Every single bite was blueberry heaven.  Blueberries are one of my favorite, partly because they were the first berry I learned to identify as a kid.  I used to keep frozen blueberries around to throw a handful into anything going on.  My favorite was blueberries in salad.  Tastes so good.

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Well that’s what I got for tonight.  Random, rambling thoughts.  Any of you out there got any random thoughts to share?  Let us all know!

As always,

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