Post #698 Everything’s in Place

February 23, 2020 at 8:35 AM | Posted in Basics | 1 Comment

Years ago, just after graduating college (and trust me, this really was years ago) I had friend who loved to make stir fry.  He and his wife’s favorite was cashew chicken.  It always turned out good, but there was always a mad scramble and rush as they were heating the wok and cooking to get everything ready to go into the pan.  I was a guest so I usually stayed out of the way.  I was already familiar with process and technique of stir fry.  My mom had bought me an authentic wok a few years before and I’d memorized the tiny cookbook that came with it.  It said that all vegetables and meats should be ready ahead of time.  You needed to cut them up, measure them out, have them at hand in order of cooking before heating the wok since stir fry was at very high temps and there wouldn’t be time to do chop an onion or stalks of celery once the cooking started.

My mom had a similar idea.  She said prep the meal before you start made things go easier.  She’d open cans, wash potatoes, season meats, all while the oven or skillet was heating.  Once the prep work was done, the oven or pan would be ready and she could start.  It was a habit that I took with me, even though I didn’t follow it as consistently as I should.

Then I noticed while watching cooking shows the chefs always had their ingredients at the ready.  I figured it was to save time on the air, but it made sense to have things ready.  Based on what I knew and experienced, having it ready was easiest.  There were a few recipes that I had made some so many times (chocolate chip cookies, various cakes, fudge (see the trend here?)) I could make them in my sleep so didn’t usually do any prep except to have the ingredients on the counter.

One of our favorite cooking shows is Worst Chefs on FoodNetwork.  We get a kick out of the confusion of the cooks learning on the fly, but we get a bigger kick out of the hosts trying to impart knowledge to these worst cooks.  Anne Burrell is the primary host, and she’s very much a basic, nuts and bolts style of cook.  It was from her, years ago that I learned what food prep was called, and exactly how important it is.  Mise en Place, pronounced Meez On Plawss.

Mise en Place is a French term that means “everything in place.”  It means exactly that.  Before starting any recipe, measure out the ingredients and set them in bowls or small plates in the order you’re going to use them.  This is most important when the cooking style is quick, or intense, or exact.

Stir Frying is a fun and fast way to make dinner in an Asian style.  As I mentioned above, stir frying requires a high heat so the risk of scorching is high.  The secret to success in this technique is to keep the food constantly moving.  So there really is no time to do the prep during the cooking.  You can have a stir fry ready in a matter of minutes, after a half hour of prep.  You don’t actually need a wok, but a large skillet will work.

When making a risotto, you’re standing at the stove constantly stirring the rice to create the sauce, and prevent scorching.  I’ve stirred until my shoulder ached.  You don’t have to stir quickly, but you do have to stir constantly.  The only time you stop stirring is when the damned thing is done.  So there isn’t time to prep while the rice is cooking because you can’t stop stirring.  You have the barely simmering stock to one side to add as needed; you have the butter and parmesan on the other side waiting until the risotto is done.  All the veggies are done and in the risotto at the correct times.  Everything is added when it’s needed which can’t happen if they aren’t ready.  I love risotto, but it is certainly a labor of love.

The place where mise en place is a must is in baking.  I can’t tell you how many times I’m scrambling for something I know I have but can’t find in the cupboard.  Baking is not an art; it’s more a science.  Measurements have to be exact and timings and temps have to be perfect to get the same result as the picture.  I try not to substitute ingredients unless absolutely necessary.  There’s a Dilbert cartoon where he wants to make gazpacho but doesn’t have all the ingredients so he starts substituting things.  By the time he’s done, he’s made a cake out of cheese.  Mis en place will let you know if you have all the ingredients and in the right quantities.  I’ve found it’s immeasurably easier to dump something premeasured into a bowl than to hunt for ingredient and then hunt for a clean measuring spoon, or wash one and dry it thoroughly to make sure the measurement is exact.

Making a salad is not an exact science.  Mise en place isn’t strictly necessary.  But I still find that I pull out all the things that are going in my salad before I start.

When I make chocolate chip cookies, I know ahead of time if I have all the stuff, and where it is.  I can measure it almost by sight.  When I make one of my two favorite cakes, I can do the same so mise en place isn’t strictly necessary either.  If I’m making something I don’t have memorized, or making for the first time, mise en place is essential.

When I sit in a restaurant and watch the kitchen, I can see the way they cook quickly is to have all the prep done ahead of time.  I’ve watched servers who had some down time core and slice pounds strawberries for later use.  Mounds of veggies are washed and sliced and diced.  When I was working fast food back in my teens, I’d be at the restaurant an hour and a half before it opened getting things ready.  Flat top grills were turned on to heat evenly.  Fry baskets were filled and waiting.  Pancake batter was mixed and hydrating.  Butter was melting slowly in a cool corner of the cooler grill top.  Eggs were in crates getting to room temp.  All utensils were washed and double checked for cleanliness.  Sometimes I’d get so involved in prep that I’d forget to clock in.

So, mise en place.  How about you?  Do you have any fun stories to share about it?  Holler back if you want to.

And as always,

Post #687 Cooking the Easy Peasy Way

January 12, 2020 at 1:15 PM | Posted in Basics, Easy, Main, My Recipe List, Standard | 3 Comments

**** NOTE ****  Sorry, I started this post five days ago, but my gut system acted up on me (probably rushed the whole fatty element part of the plan) and I spent a couple of days feeling like a slug.  I’m much better now, so here’s the finished post!

 

Unfortunately, for this post, there are no pictures for the meals we cooked.  But each one was so good and in such different ways, I wanted to share what’s been going on here.  But first, health update.  Things have been going exactly the way they were expected to.  I’ve been introducing more of the fatty elements into my diet and have suffered no ill effects.  So, yay me!  There’s still one more thing, ice cream, but since I’m not a big fan of the stuff, it shouldn’t pose any kind of a hurdle.  Had bacon one day over the weekend, and sausage the next.  Both times I had bread of some type with butter and not even a twinge.  I’m not overdoing it, and I’m always trying to eat healthy, but for the moment, it looks like normal eating habits are around the corner.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly that Partner/Spouse and I are big fans of Mexican cooking.  We both grew up with it, and have missed it tremendously since moving away from the southwest.  So we try to keep the flavors going as best we can wherever we are.  Sometimes it means growing the ingredients ourselves, and other times it’s just finding good local sources.  Here, we have good local sources, but since the growing season is so short, winter time can be rather a dry time.  Don’t get wrong.  We do tacos any time because we love them so much.  As long as we can get corn tortillas, or make them ourselves, we can do tacos.  But there’s so many other things.  So I was casting about for something to fix for dinner that was going to be easy, and quick, and tasty.  I took out some chicken thighs cuz they’re just so darn good.  I wanted to make some kind of braise, or stew, but not a soup cuz we’ve been eating a lot of soup recently due to cold weather.  I noticed some pico de gallo (think a very very chunky salsa) and some hot salsa, although around here, nothing is really very hot to our taste.  I also found a tube of cilantro paste that we’ve been using that has actual chunks of cilantro in it.  I browned the chicken, added the two salsas, some “Better Than Bouillon” roasted chicken flavor, and some fresh garlic.  I let that all simmer for a couple of hours, adding water when it was in danger of burning.  When it was close to being done, I put on some white rice and added a good helping of cilantro and some lime to the rice to flavor it.  Since there was still a good healthy squeeze or two of cilantro paste in the tube, I put the last of it into the chicken.  When the rice was done, I set it aside to stay warm, and finished up the chicken by adjusting the balance of salt and water for thickness.  The chicken was served over the rice and was spicy and tangy and warm and chickeny (is that a word?) and so good we both said it would have to become one of our staple recipes.  There was enough leftover for lunch which I enjoyed a couple of days later and it was still so good.  It helped that the salsas were so good.  Oddly enough, they were both store brand salsas that we got right here in Vermont.  As I’ve always said, anyone who can read can cook.  They must have been following the right recipe.  We just like a little more heat.

On Saturday, to test out my new digestive system sans gall bladder, we wanted to make steak and salad.  You’re probably saying to yourself “They’ve had that since his operation.” and you’d be right, except for one thing.  I’ve had the leanest cut of steak known to mankind, the sirloin.  Apart from a strip of fat on the outside, there is no internal fat to a sirloin.  Some people call it flavorless and coat the thing with all kinds of spice rubs.  I like the flavor of beef, so I cook it rare, sprinkle it with a light coating of salt, and eat it hot or cold.  But this time, I got a rib eye!  Bone in for flavor, and well marbled throughout.  It’s the tenderest cut of beef, and the marbling adds so much flavor it’s like the meat is basted from the inside.  I used our cast iron griddle pan for both steaks, and did the Bobby Flay method of getting the cast iron blazing hot, and searing the steak for two minutes a side, flipping the meat until it’s done to your liking.  The salad was a standard garden salad, but that steak was so good!  I made fresh bread to go with the meal, and had cold steak and fresh bread the next day for lunch.  So Yum!!

On Sunday, Partner/Spouse decided he wanted tacos.  It was fairly late in morning when he decided that, so there wasn’t really time to thaw out a piece of roast beef to cook until tender, then add seasonings, etc. to get the full flavor of Mexican.  But, we could thaw out some chicken pieces pretty quickly and get them cooked well for tacos.  However, while the chicken was thawing (and I was working on loom knitting a scarf that was his last Christmas present, and I’m very nearly done), he changed his mind and decided to make a crockpot full of chicken chili.  I will say that although I offered suggestions, he made this on his own, following his own designs, and I didn’t watch or participate since I was sitting in the living room with balls of yarn around me.  But the aroma as it cooked slowly filled the house and was so tantalizing.  By the time it was done, it smelled perfect.  Then, he made home made corn tortilla chips that were excellent!  Scooped into a bowl with a small sprinkle of local cheese and tortilla chips sitting on top, it had just the right amount of spicy heat without being killer.  Against the backdrop of snow falling lightly for three days, it was a cozy homey meal.

During all this, we were trying to schedule with our local auto glass shop to get our windshield replaced.  We got a small chip which the cold temperatures turned into a large crack running from one side of the thing to the other.  Not at eye level which is typical, but at the bottom where it could easily be ignored, but we didn’t want to.  They were originally supposed to come by on Friday morning, but the tech split his hand open on the previous job and the poor guy called from the ER to explain he was going to be late.  I called and rescheduled for Monday morning, but because of the incessant snowfall, I ended up going into the shop.  From there, I drove to Partner/Spouse’s office and waited about a half hour for him to get off work.  We got home later than usual, and I wanted something hot and satisfying.  I made Beef Mushroom Risotto.  What I did was cut up some chuck roast and onions.  I fried them up in a tablespoon of olive oil for the onion to soften and the beef to brown, then added a cup of Arborio rice.  I’ve written about the different types of rice before; Arborio rice is short and plump and very starchy.  It absorbs three to four times its weight in liquids and takes on the flavors of whatever liquid is being used.  Once the rice had cooked for a couple of minutes, I started adding mushroom stock that was heat to simmering.  I’d added minced garlic to the stock while it was heating so it would pick up that flavor.  I added the stock to the rice and beef by the cupful and stirred the rice constantly.  There are two reasons to stir the rice.  First, so the liquid is all evenly absorbed and the rice doesn’t scorch; and second, so it creates a sauce with the starch from the rice.  For one cup of rice, I had five cups of stock simmering.  Cooking risotto isn’t an exact science, so it’s best to have too much liquid than you think you’ll need, just in case.  I ended up using all of it to make the rice more fluid at the end.  Normally, when the rice is done, you finish it off by added about a half cup of finely grated parmesan cheese.  Instead, I added a quarter cup chilled butter in small chunks to give the sauce a silky finish.  It can take up to an hour to cook properly, but the best way to figure out when it’s done is to cook for about 30-40 minutes, then keep sampling small bites till the rice is al dente.  It was so good!

Then, the next day, which would have been “yesterday” from the original timing of the post, with the snow still falling lightly, I made lemon chicken and pasta.  This is one of those dishes that is so quick and easy that the longest part of the process is getting the water to come to a boil.  While I was waiting for the water to boil, I cut up onions and chicken thighs to bite sized pieces.  I was heating a large skillet while doing this, so when I added a touch of oil it shimmered immediately.  I used a Myers Lemon infused olive oil for the flavor.  I started the chicken and onion cooking then put the pasta in to boil.  I used a shaped pasta rather than a long pasta because we like them better.  Then it was just a matter of letting everything cook.  Once the pasta was done, it went into a colander.  By this time, the chicken was done.  I added more of the Myer’s Lemon oil, and then some lemon juice.  I added a handful of pine nuts, too.  Oddly, while the lemon flavor was there, it seemed bland to both of us.  So I added some lime juice and that made it turn the corner.  The oil became saucy, and the flavor when Boom!  I added the drained pasta and flipped it all around.  From beginning to end, thirty minutes, give or take a minute or two.

So, that’s been the menus for the week.  Nothing took long, except the slow cooked chili, and nothing was to hard or too intricate.  I love cooking!

So how is everyone else bearing up to the winter?  Are there any recipes that make you feel warm?  Or do you prefer to embrace the cold and reflect that in your meals?

Feel free to share the post far and wide.

As always,

Post #683 Top Five Favorite Salads

December 15, 2019 at 1:02 PM | Posted in Basics, Main, Vegetable | 6 Comments

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about a salad.  It’s one of my favorite things to eat and I’ll get into that in a minute, but I thought I’d let you know how I’m feeling after the operation.  In a word, weird.  I’ve got four “hole” in my abdomen that are healing up.  These holes are where the instruments went in and the diseased gall bladder came out.  Should have only been three but years ago I had an umbilical hernia repaired so the fourth hole was to make sure that nothing happened to that.  Since the gall bladder is gone, I’m having to rediscover the things I can eat and tolerate versus those I should avoid.  So far, it’s all been good, no real troubles.  I haven’t had any cheese yet.  I’ve had real butter once and did okay.  I had some pre-processed foods and didn’t act up, but I was still pretty doped up too.  I’ve also had a glass of wine that was so much fun!  But it’s time to get serious about this and figure it out.  Partner/Spouse has been Tony the Tiger Grrreat! throughout all this.  So, once the full recuperation is completed we’ll both be paying close attention to what goes in and what goes out.

Luckily, salads can be as no-fats as you need the to be.

Whenever I say “salad” there are a few memories that come rushing to the front of my brain.  As a kid, salad was always eaten with anything that was cooked on the outdoor grill.  Didn’t matter if it was burgers, hotdogs, steak, chicken, or anything else.  If it was cooked outdoors, there was a salad.  And it was always the same salad.  Iceberg lettuce torn to shreds, chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and onion of some kind.  There might be other things in there, but those four were the basic.  If they weren’t there, it wasn’t salad and wasn’t put on the table.  The dressing was typically Italian, French, and/or Thousand Island.  We weren’t too adventurous or inquisitive in those days.  In my teen years, we branched out more.

When I moved to go to college, I was living with my sister and her husband and one of the weekend go-to dinners was what she called The Big Salad.  They’ve always eaten fairly healthy, but in those days it was a religion for them.  I dubbed it the Garbage Salad because they put things in it that I would have tossed, but I quickly grew to enjoy the salad.  The base was a whole red cabbage sliced thinly.  They did that so it would last a couple of days without wilting.  They also put grated cheese in it, something I’d never done before but made absolute sense when I thought about it.  They put in every fresh vegetable they could find in their garden and from the produce section of the store.  Tomatoes were always in there, the fresher the better.  And they put bacon-flavored soy bits in it.  I hated those things.  And they put firm tofu chunks in it.  And something called vegetable protein bits.  And if we’d planned it right, seed sprouts, which were actually kind of good.  The only dressing was lemon juice from fresh squeezed lemons.  I became addicted to these salads.  For years, the only dressing I’d have on salad was fresh lemon or lime.  I’d never had a salad as a meal before this and it’s still a staple for me now.

When I moved to DC, the two guys I shared the apartment with nominated me to be the cook, which was fine.  They said they liked salad with their meals, so I kept putting salad on the table, which they ignored.  After a couple of weeks, I stopped.  There was no comments made either way, until after several months they started complaining about the meals.  I asked them again what they’d like, and they again asked for salads.  I explained they hadn’t eaten a single mouthful of salad I’d made and they said, “You put stuff in it I don’t like.”  When we finally pared it down to the what would be eaten, it was shredded lettuce.  When I put out a bowl of shredded lettuce, it disappeared.  Go figure.  But that’s what they’d eat, so it made an appearance a couple of times a week.

When I was traveling for the State Dept, I was in Northern Ireland for a couple of weeks by myself.  When I was with a team, we usually would find a restaurant for meals, but when I was alone, I’d find something cheap, easy, and cheerful.  There was a convenience store on the walk back to the hotel that had a nice sandwich counter at the back.  I ordered a sandwich and they asked if I wanted salad?  I said, yes, absolutely, whereupon they put a pile of veggies on top of my sandwich.  I mentally shrugged and accepted it, went back to the hotel, scraped my salad into a bowl and ate it separately alongside my sandwich, which had just enough veggies on it to be interesting.  I did that every night I was there, partly because the shop owner kept me a copy of the USA Today paper every day.  She was sweet.

So, now, when I eat salad, it’s either as a side, or as a meal.  We usually have it with the grilled flesh of some animal on top of it.  We’ve become quite attached to the salad kits because they’re the perfect size for the two of us with no leftovers.  They’re also pretty versatile.  In recent years, we’ve steered clear of any kit that has Romaine lettuce, indeed, Romaine lettuce of any kind, but that’s only re-opened our eyes to all the other fun salad greens out there.

If you like a nice wilted spinach salad, instead of making a hot bacon vinaigrette, try heating a half cup of your favorite dressing, whatever it is.  Use that to wilt the spinach, then top with whatever will complement the dressing.  We’ve used Catalina, blueberries, walnuts, and gouda to create a different salad with spinach that tasted great.

We’ve also started making our own croutons.  My younger brother, when we were in our early twenties, went with his welding crew to our state capitol to work on a job.  He was gone a week and was telling us about his adventure.  They ate at McDs for the most part to save money, but on their last night decided to treat themselves to a nice dinner at Denny’s.  Yeah, I know.  He said, “They put dried up stale bread crumbs all over my salad.”  I laughed and explained what they were, and that they were supposed to be there.  “I don’t care what you call ’em,” he said. “I made them take it back and take them off.”  He eats croutons these days because I showed him how to make them properly.  So easy.  Heat a couple of crushed cloves of garlic in oil until they start to sizzle and remove them.  Cut some bread into half inch squares.  When the oil is shimmering and just starting to smoke, add the bread and stir them around till they brown.  Take them out of the oil and drain them, then add to the salad.  He eats them now like popcorn.

We also make taco salad with the leftovers when we make tacos for dinner.  When you look at it, tacos are designed for leftover taco salad.  I used to think that when I was a kid, but wasn’t allowed to try it out.

So, what are your favorite salads?  Do you prefer fruit salads or vegetable?  Combination?  Let us all know.

as always,

 

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,

 

 

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