Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day

I am exhausted.

We had a wonderful Christmas. Rose being only 2 1/2 did not get up at o-dark-early but her usual time of 7:15. Rose was thrilled that Santa ate the cookies and drank the milk set out and that the reindeer ate the carrot. And she wanted more cookies. Our modest Christmas was done by 9:00. Rose wanted pancakes for breakfast so I whipped some up. Maybe this will be a Christmas tradition?

The rest of the day I spent cooking. While the pancakes were cooking I made homemade rolls for dinner and a loaf of white bread. They came out spectacular. One of the few times I use bleached flour but I wanted that vibrant white for the rolls.

Then I started the green beans. The beans were from by garden this summer. I froze quart bags as I picked them. I always loved my Grandmother's green beans growing up. Green Beans and Shellies (canned). She always made them with an onion and a ham hock and cooked them a-l-l day. I do the same except I have to leave out the shellies since Dinah is allergic to pinto beans, much to her dismay as they are one of her favorite foods. The beans were excellent but needed more salt.

I overdid it on the mashed potatoes. Probably making up for Thanksgiving. I bet I made enough for a dozen people, we had three and a half. I went old school and boiled the spuds with the skins on. I don't really know why but that's how my Grandmother did it. Then I pressed them through a potato ricer before beating them smooth in my stand mixer. I love and prefer homemade mashed potatoes but I hate lumps. The mashed potatoes were good but could have used more butter and salt but that is easily fixed at the dinner table.



My coup de grace though was my rĂ´ti de porc au lait, pork roast with a milk sauce. It was so, so good. Maybe a tad too much thyme, maybe. Twice as much as I needed to make but we've got good leftovers. I almost pulled it off without a hitch but as my wife said, if I had, I wouldn't have had anything to write about. My thermometer let me down. I don't know why but when I started slicing the pork, it was still rare in the middle. Bummer. So I had to finish it in the microwave. Oh well, at least I didn't loose my cool. Now I have a good excuse to get that super fancy thermometer I've had my eye on!

If it wasn't so late I'd take the bike for a spin. Fifty degrees here in the mountains, no snow, but a lovely Christmas day nonetheless. Might be about time for a sweet snack.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And Iran, Iran is Far Away

Sing it out loud and you'll get it.

Tonight I made an Iranian dish, Persian if you would like to be more romantic. Yes I know it is Christmas Eve. Doesn't mean anything, it just fell in the cooking schedule that way. My apologies to my Muslim friends, I made my Khoresht-e Gheimeh Sabzi with pork not lamb. Not very Halal of me, but it is what I had on hand. Try to find lamb here at Ingles.

Here is where I get to be a little elitist. Dinah took the leftover Curry Chicken Casserole to work and her boss complained about the smell. Apparently made some Indian crack too. Ya know, there is more to like than meat and potatoes and the international flavor is broader than the aisle of pasta, tacos and soy sauce at the grocery. People who aren't willing to challenge their taste buds, eat something they can't pronounce or is just foreign really irk me. Yes, I look upon ye of bland palette with disdain. Live a little!

When I was working this month, my friend asked if I had liked the travel to Germany. I'm like, HELL YEAH, I wish it had been more often! "Yeah, well you're a foodie," he said. YES I AM. The more exotic, the more I want to try it. The whole reason we went to Montreal for vacation last year was so I could eat at Au Pied du Cochon. I did indeed plan a vacation around a restaurant and my wonderful wife allowed it.

Khoresht-e Gheimeh Sabzi (lamb and herb stew) would be extremely popular here in the South, in my opinion. It is essentially hunks of meat simmered in wilted spinach and parsley, a la greens, with cannellini beans. Unfortunately I erred on the beans tonight. I did not grow up eating beans, being a Yankee. Never had them, never cooked them. So I don't know how. The last time I made this dish I used a can of beans. This time I used dried beans. I soaked them. I didn't know I had to cook them first. They were like slivered almonds. Ah well, live and learn.

MERRY CHRISTMAS to all and to all a good night!!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cookies Galore!

When I was a kid I went to Catholic school. Once a Catholic always a Catholic. I'm just non-practicing now. If They make some changes regarding Their stance on women and gays, maybe I'll come back...But anyway, we used to always, always have fundraisers. I used to have to lug this cardboard suitcase door to door hustling junk. I hated it. Then there were the candy bars and the M&Ms. The walk-a-thons. I hated it all. Well I liked easting the chocolate but I doubt my Mom liked paying for it.

Nowadays kids don't work for it. They don't schlep like I used to. They give their mom and dad their order forms and mom and dad take it to work and con and guilt their co-workers into ordering buckets of cookie dough, frozen loaves of cinnamon bread, boxes of Girl Scout cookies, etc., etc.,etc., and so forth. Yeah, yeah, I know there's a safety issue, pedophiles and what not. Like they didn't exist or something when I was a kid.

But there's got to be someway that the kids can learn some responsibility and not just feel they can always dump the job on mom and dad. Fortunately I've got a few years to figure that one out.

Our friend Arwyn had fund raiser for school selling magazine subscriptions. I think I did that one too. Get this. Did she just dump this on her mom? Nono! She mailed us the subscription information and forms in a handwritten envelope and with a note she wrote herself. Sure, maybe it was her mom's idea but that's initiative. And as broke as we are we had to reward that kind of gumption. I got a subscription to Gourmet.

My first issue arrived this week and I've made it through the Letters to the Editor. One letter immediately caught my attention, directing me to their web site. Check THIS out! Fire up the printer I've got a lot of pages to go. Need to buy some ink pronto!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Eat Mor Chikin

We had chicken tonight, again. It was an accident, not by design. I don't normally like serving similar meats back to back like that. And I'm not that fond of chicken to start with.

The plan was a dish called Chicken Anaheim. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned and I ended up with something that wasn't Chicken Anaheim.

I admit I have a temper. I like to believe that even though I can still fly into a rage, my rages are less often now and less intense. I've mellowed. Really. But it still happens. Things not going as planned sets me off and having a dinner not go right really sends me into orbit. Fortunately by the time Dinah and Rose got home, I had mostly calmed down, mostly. But the food was cold by then and I was still a little pissed.

This dish has three parts, a bed of noodles, grilled chicken and a cream sauce. I use fideo noodles to add some Mexican authenticity but broken spaghetti noodles work just fine. I remember saying out loud, "no need to buy any spaghetti since we have at least three boxes." Well we have none. I don't even like spaghetti so I don't know where it all went. I guess I used it up without realizing it. So I ended up using elbow macaroni. It worked but wasn't what I wanted. Maybe I should have busted open some packages of ramen. (The idiot kids in my class call it Roman noodles).

But what really sent me into orbit was my peppers. I froze all the peppers from my garden. They freeze well and allow me to have some nicer peppers than what I can buy in the grocery at any given time. I needed to char the skins of my Anaheim peppers and rub them off. I've learned tonight that I need to find a good way of doing this. In the past I used the side burner on my propane gas grill and it always worked perfectly. Problem now is one, that burner doesn't work any more and two, it's 19 degrees outside (yes, in Georgia)! I have tried using a bottle torch. It didn't work. Later I saw it done lickity split on TV with the same torch I have. I don't know how they did it. This time I tried the broiler in the toaster oven since I only had two peppers. I got the skins to char, mostly. I sweated them like usual. When I tried to peel the skins off, my peppers shredded. I had nothing. Dammit. I've got to find a better way.

But in the end, the meal tasted good even if it wasn't what I set out to make. These things happen, I know. And it's Monday.

PS I got paid today!!!! I might just buy my wife a Christmas present after all.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Curry Chicken Broccoli Casserole

I made this dish for dinner tonight. This was one of my favorite dishes growing up, one of the few ways my Mom could get me to eat broccoli as a kid. Hey its got meat, rice, vegetable. Its almost a complete well rounded meal!

If you try it, let me know.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Changes in Perspective

Just when was it Christmas tradition to sit by the fire and tell ghost stories? I never remember doing that.

I'm amazed at how perspectives can change. Not that long ago we were Double Income, No Kids (DINKS). We weren't rich but that was nothing we couldn't do. We had a house. I drove my beat up, rusted out pickup truck. But if we wanted to go on vacation, we went. I wanted to eat steak, I ate steak. We wanted to eat out, we did, and often. We had no monetary worries, no wants and bills were paid.

Then we were Double Income, One Kid (DIOK?) Pretty much the same. We went on vacations. We did what we wanted. Enough people gave us baby shower gifts that we had little need to buy that kind of stuff. And add to that overindulgent grandparents, we had no monetary worries, no wants and bills were paid.

Then I stopped working. OUCH! Sure we are both loving the extra time I have with Rose and my wife is now spoiled that I am home to take up the slack. But now we are literally living hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck. We can't eat out. No vacations in sight. And I can't say that every bill gets paid. I've learned that the size of the paycheck doesn't matter. People I know who are making $25,000/year are in the same boat as people I know making $150,000/year. The debt/income ratio is the same so the issues are the same.

A week ago we were at a skate party for a friend's seven year birthday party. At the end of the party they started throwing out the leftover food. Two years ago I wouldn't have thought anything of it. Now I'm horrified. I was able to step in and save the cold cuts, cheese, carrots and grapes. That was my lunch for a week.

I saw a thing on the news about the Grocery Game. Needing to find new places to cut costs, I checked into this. In college I was Coupon King and later in the early days of my first marriage. I stopped though because I found I was buying things that I just didn't need but bought anyway just because I had a coupon. I've noticed that most coupons are for unhealthy processed foods. I just didn't need to save 30 cents on three bags of Doritos. I didn't need the Doritos to start with. Or any host of frozen foods like pizza rolls.

But I decided to try this Grocery Game anyway. I'm looking for an edge. I paid a dollar for a four week trial and then the cost is $10/8 weeks/store. We only have one grocery that I am willing to shop at so the per store cost is not an issue for me. The the trick is to 1) buy things to build your own person stock. 2) Combine the coupon savings with instore sales and the store frequent shopper card. 3) Shop every week for just the things on the list. I'm still having a hard time getting my wife to remember those details at times, "well I don't need that right now," that's NOT how it works! We're buying for later. I like the concept so far and I hope that I am actually saving money.

The first week was a waste since I had no coupons. The second week was a little better since I had a piddly few coupons. The third week we didn't go because we had no money. Last night was the fourth week. Because I get a list of the best deals I can go through it and only pick the items that I KNOW we use. I think this helps me with out of control spending. Last night our total instore+coupon savings = $70. We had a full cart of groceries. It cost $150. The previous month we spent $250 on a full cart of groceries. Three months ago I spent $350 on a full cart. So I think we are moving in the right direction. My month is up but I am going to renew for at least another eight weeks. They tell you it takes twelve weeks to realize the full potential. We'll see.

I have a freezer stuffed full of frozen meat that I bought 30%-50% off. We froze three loaves of bread. So I'm feeling good about success. Funny how I've changed. I saved the turkey carcass to make stock. I'm making my own lard. I'm not throwing out the bacon grease. I'm not throwing out bread but finding ways to use it. I'm baking my own bread. It's like I've gone back in time. I wonder if my great-grandparents would be proud?

Friday, December 19, 2008

FINALLY !!!

The Christmas gift is FINISHED!!!



At least two years late. Originally supposed to be a Mother's Day gift. Then a birthday gift. Then a Christmas gift. Then repeat.

Now I can get back to the rest of my backlog of pressing things to do, like fix the leaky on carb on my motorcycle.

Cookie Swap - A Rant

This rant is actually about food!

My wife went to a cookie a swap last night. She made macaroons the night before. Not my favorite cookie, but I do like the crispy ones. I'm just not a coconut fan. She took three dozen and of course they exchange them for everyone else's tasty treats. She came home with three dozen various cookies.

Well almost three dozen.

#1 Raw oatmeal mixed in melted chocolate and allowed to cool on wax paper into some type of brown, but tasty, turd, is NOT a f@$ing cookie.

#2 Buckeyes, as much as I LOVE them (the treats not the fans) are candies, sweets or treats but NOT f@$!ing cookies.

#3 Finally, if you don't make your own cookies to take to a cookie swap, you are a loser, lame and I have no respect for you. And no, Pillsbury Bake-N-Break does NOT f!#%ing count. You have to put some effort into it and do homemade. Otherwise just take Oreos. You had a month's notice. you had enough time. I didn't think my wife would have time. I offered to bake her some cookies to take but she said no and did it herself. If she had time, anyone has time.

Pathetic.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ideas Sought

I need to come up with something besides hot dogs for Christmas dinner. Only three of us so I'm not interested in roasting a turkey. Any ideas welcome and appreciated!


Am I the only one who despises these Lexus Christmas commercials? ESPECIALLY the one with the pompous little bitch who got a pony.

Sourdough, Round II

Did you know there is an XM Radio station just for ABBA?


Yesterday I made a second attempt at sourdough. I've been just adding to my starter rather than just halving and replenishing and it was time to pare it down. I used a slightly different recipe and put the rest of my starter in a crock in the fridge to hibernate.

Again my plan was to do loaves rather than rounds (why is it that plural of loaf is loaves and elf becomes elves but leaf can be leaves or leafs?). I was amazed that one loaf doubled in about six hours but the other I had to let sit overnight, same dough, same quantity.

I baked the first loaf last night but in a dry oven with no steam "injection." As I noted before about maybe baking at too high of a temperature, this time I baked at a lower temperature. I did forget to slash the top. In my opinion this loaf came out much, much better than before. Not nearly as crunchy of a crust but still that fresh bread crispness. The second loaf I baked this morning. This loaf was a little lighter in texture, I think from sitting out longer it had more air in it. On this loaf I did do the steam "injection" and I'm not sure I can tell a difference. I think the second loaf was a little tarter, again I am guessing that's a result of rising longer.

I didn't get any oven spring, no significant rising in the oven. So while the texture of the bread was right, I kind of expected taller loafs. I did not oil the loaves as they rose. Every bread recipe I have seen calls for this except for every sourdough recipe I have read. I don't know why it would be different with sourdough. The oil is supposed to help prevent the surface of the dough from drying out, which mine did. Of course my expectation may just be off the mark. Need more practice.

I really, really have to work at baking. I can pull of even a complicated ethnic dish with little hitch but ask me to bake bread and it will be fortunate if the bread is edible. I've come to use my temperature probe as a crutch and this has drastically increased my success rate with bread. I'm not sure if my cooking instructor would approve but after 15 minutes in the oven, I rotate the loaf pan and insert my temperature probe setting the alarm for 200 degrees. I've had four perfectly done loaves now in a row. A first for me to have even one not doughy in the middle. Worth the small hole from the probe in my opinion.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Simple Mexican Casserole

I had two goals for yesterday: work on the Christmas project, fix dinner (which I failed at the night before).

Hey sometimes you have to have simple and attainable expectations. But the cat boxes did get cleaned yesterday! I packaged up all of the turkey stock. I ended up with 14 cups! Ran out of freezer bags and Gladware though. And I unpacked and cataloged half a box of CDs. I was tired of doing important goal oriented stuff. Apparently I am a big Eric Clapton and Natalie Merchant fan, though I don't know when the last time was I listened to any of those CDs. I also really like The BoDeans. I knew that but I have a lot of emotional baggage with them.

When you're busy or broke, (or both!), you can't beat crock pot or casserole dishes. And if you need one, the absolute best place to find one is in any local community cook book. I have several including a giant one from the bank. You'll have no problem finding at least 20 recipes for each in any God-Loves-Our-Church-the-Best cookbook. And as bonus, at least as many recipes for cheese balls. The down side is that after awhile, every crock pot or casserole dish starts to look or taste the same.

Knowing this I pulled out three such cook books from my collection and started thumbing through looking for a recipe that matched up with the few ingredients we have left in house. We've got plenty of frozen meat because I have been stocking up when it's on sale. Piddly few vegetables though and a whole lot of nothing else. Finally found one that I had mostly enough to make. I was horrified that my stash of various canned tomato products was gone!

I bet everyone has a Mexican casserole dish in their repertoire. I have a good authentic Chilaquiles al Chipotle recipe, but I needed something simple. This recipe was it, but I didn't like the technique and I was missing a few ingredients. I've come to believe that technique is the second degree of separation from being an OK cook to Really Good cook and I like to believe that I spend more emphasis on technique than most people. (The first degree is good, quality ingredients by the way). Eventually I'll write this up for my files but here is what I did.

In a few tablespoons of oil, saute a cup or so of chopped carrots and onions until the onions are soft and translucent. It is important that you chop the carrots so that the pieces are uniform in size. This was they will cook evenly.

Add in about a pound or so of ground beef and brown evenly. Drain off any fat as necessary. Then stir in one can of Mexican tomatoes. This is the kind with garlic and green chiles in it. Stir in about a tablespoon of chili powder and half a tablespoon of cumin. Let that simmer for a few minutes so that the flavors meld.

Take half of the meat and spread it out on the bottom of a small casserole dish. I think the one I used was about 9" x 9" x 4". Cover the meat with a couple handfuls of shredded cheese. Cover the cheese with crushed Tostitos (that's not an endorsement, use what ever you have. Fritos would have been tasty). I used about 2 cups crushed. Then layer the rest of the meat and another layer of crushed chips, a little thinner this time. I used about one cup.

Bake at 350 degrees for half an hour. Sprinkle another handful or so of cheese on top and bake for five more minutes. This lets the chips on top be crispy instead of soggy under the melted cheese. Let it rest for a few minutes before serving.

Like I said, everyone probably has a similar recipe and they become very similar to each other over time, but this was pretty simple. I think all told, under an hour from start to finish.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Priorities

I had high hopes for today. I wanted to get the dining table cleared off for Christmas gift work space. I need to clean the cat boxes. I have to get to the gym. It's been a month and it shows (on the positive side though I've saved $20-$30 per week in not going). But priorities dictate that I get off my ass (actually sit on my ass) and work on finishing my parent's Christmas gift. It should have been done over a year ago and was supposed to be two Mother's Days gifts or a birthday gift at some point. Now there are only ten days left until Christmas and I need to get cracking!

But not to be a complete waste, I did get five or so loads of laundry in and my first attempt at making a soup stock. Inspired by this blog post, I saved the remains of the bird from Thanksgiving, bagged it and put it in the freezer. I emphasize inspired because this level of stock making is a little beyond me; I haven't got that far in class yet.

Not knowing really how to begin, I cracked open my three best tomes: the aforementioned On Food and Cooking Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking, which I had to buy after reading Julie and Julia (one of the best books I've ever read and for the life of me I don't know why this isn't a 5-star rated book on Amazon. Too many Little Brains. Quick name that movie), and my Joy of Cooking. I've met people who cook that don't own a copy of the Joy of Cooking. Inconceivable!

I did not make a mirepoix as inspired because none of my three books called for it. Harold McGee says that I should use 1-2 liters of water per kilogram of meat and bones. That didn't cover everything up though. So I took the body out, still frozen and hacked at it with my meat cleaver. Worked great except little bits of frozen turkey went flying everywhere. The dog (deaf and blind) and cat were thrilled though. I ended up using 3.5 liters of water just to cover up all the bones.

I started out cold and slow just like the books said. I never did get much gray scum on top that is supposed to be scooped out. Much? I'm not sure there was every any. After an hour and a half of barely simmering I said screw it and added my vegetables. Just to be different I used two bunches of green onions instead of a chopped whole onion. I also used two leeks. Chopped up some celery, yay much and four chopped carrots. A made a non-classical bouquet garni of one bay leaf, some dried thyme, some peppercorns, some cloves, some whole cloves of garlic and some fresh parsley that I grow.

I think it came out pretty good. Smells awesome. Might be a tad too much onion flavor but I like it. Right now it is chilling over night in the fridge. Tomorrow I'll scoop out the fat that rises to the top and then bag up the stock in two cup units and freeze. I thought about trying to clarify it, but I've taken on enough for a first time turkey stock project and I've got to finish this Christmas gift!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Corn Syrup

One problem I have is too much free time, or more correctly, too much free mental time. Gets me in trouble a lot. I can think myself into a depressive funk. I also spend a lot of time thinking about arcane stuff. For example, corn syrup.

I'm talking about regular corn syrup, not HFCS. More on that later. My fascination comes from its historic use in sweets and candies, neither of which I cook much of. But I have this love of history. And food. And science. So I am fascinated about how and why an ingredient is used and what it does.

So I started doing some searching because I know it is more than just a sugar substitute. I needed to kill some time in hotel rooms this week anyway.

But the Internet is a really dangerous place to learn stuff. I still remember my first engineering class how we were instructed to vet our sources and how to be able to determine whether a source we referenced was a credible "good" source or not. I've been taught how to do this and it has been drummed into my head. On the great WWW though, 99.9% of people have not been taught this and it shows. Here for example is a forum post I found.

Most of the comments here a junk. For example the back and forth blending of "corn syrup" and "high fructose corn syrup" being the same. They're not. Even more egregious is this statement: "Candy did not traditionally contain corn syrup in the past, as this is a relatively new ingredient." And look how many concur. No, NO, NO, NO!

Let's define relatively new. High Fructose Corn syrup was developed in the 1950s. That's relatively new. Of yeah, I should site a reference. Wikipedia is good for general knowledge but it is by no means a credible source (in this case note the wiki-author has the date wrong). A university is usually a credible source; here's a report from Rose Hulman University, page 3. Also note that major industrial use did not occur until after the 1980s after more efficient production methods were developed (same source). I'll save my conspiracy theory on New Coke for a late time.

So this means that the above statement is patently false. To further back up that claim, I know taffy existed prior to 1950 and I know that one of taffy's ingredients is corn syrup. So that corn syrup prior to 1950 wasn't HFCS. I could find sources to back that up too, but it is rather basic intuition so we'll let that slide for now.

When I got home I decided just to cut to the chase and open up my copy of On Food and Cookingby Harold McGee. If you are a food geek enough that you need to know the science behind food, this book is a must have. This is another legit source. According to McGee, corn syrup was developed in the early 1800s and prior to that simple sugar syrup, malt extract or honey was used in candy production, with an unpredictable acid modification. So from 1850 to 1950, a period of 100 years, corn syrup was used in candy production and that is not relatively new.

And I finally learned that corn syrup is used in candy production to prevent sugar crystallization. I should have just started with McGee and not bothered surfing the Internet. I would have saved a lot of time.

But I did learn the Karo brand syrup, the number one brand sold in the world, is now a blend of regular corn syrup and HFCS. My wife said she could have told me that, "it tastes different now." I think the only way to get real corn syrup is to buy organic corn syrup.

Interesting side note. When we moved to Hell, the next town over was Cairo pronounced Karo and it was Home of the Fighting Syrupmakers so naturally we confused it with Karo but the syrup they are referring to is cane syrup not corn syrup.

<breathe>

Personally, I avoid HFCS if at all possible. I don't think it is as evil as some claim it to be, but I still think it is evil. You know, kind of like I thought we should invade Afghanistan not Iraq because there was more evil there than in Iraq and that Vladmir Putin really was nothing more than a punk dictator not a "man of character" because he was more evil than anyone from France. But I digress. And this ad campaign by the manufacturers REALLY infuriates me. Why? Because it is NOT safe in moderation because you almost cannot moderate the stuff. HFCS is EVERYWHERE. Just read labels. It's even in bread! Look, it's one thing if you don't think red meat is healthy (I do btw) but it is relatively easy to avoid red meat. But they put HFCS in everything to the point that sometimes there is no alternative. THAT I do have issue with. So I avoid it at all cost.

HFCS is actually one of the reasons I started cooking more, a lot more.

And don't get me started on the "same calories" claim.

Wow. This turned into more of a rant than I had expected. I don't even remember what the point was I was trying to make. Whoops. Oh well. Maybe I should make bread again.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Here I Am (non food post)

Here I am, sitting here "watching" The Muppet Movie (I've created a monster).

Sorry for spoiling everyone with almost daily posts, but if you will remember I was actually working this week! I got back Thursday and was home yesterday with the little one who has strep (you'd never know). Nothing food related to report since we were working in a shit hole called Warrenton which is really just a cross roads and staying 15 miles way in Thomson . Thomson has one, count it with me, one sit down restaurant inside the Best Western (I'm not counting Ryan's). Everything else is Zaxby's, McDonald's, Burger King, Huddle House, etc. That was rough. And let's compare, Thomson population 6800, Blairsville population 700 and we have at least ten sit down restaurants and even our own equivalent of Ryan's.

Now we're watching the The Muppet Show, First Season.

Get this, I played sidekick for three days at this foundry putting in a new raw material for them that no one seems to be comfortable with, not even the idiots selling it and it came off without a hitch (I'm not bragging, but I am the only expert on this material in the US. I'm the only one who sold and serviced it in the US for the past nine years. But I "retired" in May of this year. The guy from Europe who was supposed to come over for this project had surgery, so they called me in as a second choice). And yesterday I got a call that they are closing the shop first quarter next year. I guess the demand for disc brakes for trucks has fallen off. Ya think! Well It's not the first plant I've "helped" close down.

Now we're watching Bambi.

So did I miss it? Yes and no. I've been doing this type of project work for the past nine years, and I've been the only one in North America for this company, but this was the first time that I was called in to assist and not lead an installation. The first day was OK. I was bored halfway through the second day. I was ready to go at the end of the second day and we still had one more day to go. My curse in my career-life seems to be that everything in the foundry comes quickly, easily and naturally to me and I'm surrounded by idiots who just don't get it. And the more YOE (years of experience) they have, the more of an idiot they are. It frustrates me to no end. It's just not that hard. I'm not saying it's easy, it's just not that hard. (You'll hear me say that a lot. I feel the same way about raising my own kid(s)).

Would I go back? I'd like to get back into the foundry, but the closest foundry in Georgia is (was) this one and it is still four hours away. That's a heck of a commute. Unless Dinah gets pissed off at work we're not moving for any foreseeable future and there is a very small finite number of places to live that have foundries. Add to that, that number is dwindling every day. I'd like to get back on the metal side. I've been doing the sand side for the past nine years. But then there are all of those idiots. (The shame is that I am REALLY, REALLY good at it, but I don't like it).

I could go back to the consulting/material support that I did for the past nine years, but that's so much travel and then there are all those idiots. So maybe I'll just keep an open ear and do these once in a while projects as they come along. This company has three of four salesmen (they call them technical people, HAH!) retiring next year, so I bet there will be plenty of opportunities to pick from.

So anyway, that's where I've been. Now to get back on theme. I've had corn syrup on my mind the past few days...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are

Wild yeast that is.

I've wanted to make sourdough bread for a long time. I love sourdough. The REAL thing that is. A lot of what you buy in the stores isn't really sourdough but more like sourdough flavored bread.

I found this web site and felt inspired. Especially since I have access to a lot of locally stone ground flour which seems to be the key ingredient for making your starter. I was thrilled when my starter took off in one day! I did run into a problem with it being very active but not doubling in volume. On a guess I added more flour without any water. That was the trick. Now it had enough body to double instead of being soupy. I emailed the web site author and he confirmed my tactic. He also told me a needed to switch over to regular flour now that it was a growing starter. When I have some money I'll be making a donation in thanks.

So today was bread day! Everything went very well except I had no idea how time intensive this was going to be. I'm disappointed I never got to the gym but I was able to get some cleaning in in between the four or five rises needed. All things considered, it came out well. It had a nice pleasant but light sour taste. Could be more sour for my tastes. The crust was way too dark and crunchy for me. My fault I'm pretty sure. As usual, I just can't follow directions verbatim. Maybe that has something to do with my "has issues with authority."* Instead of making two boules, French for rounds, I decided to make two loaves in loaf pans. My guess is that with the loaf pans I need to bake at a lower temperature. Oh well, I'll just take another week to grow some yeasties and try it again.

*From my management psych evaluation when I worked in SC.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

One Month Off

I checked the NGTC calendar today. My class ended early because as soon as we took the Serve Safe exam, we were done, but the official end of the term is December 17th. Classes resume on January 7th. I've been very worried that I wouldn't be able to afford a class next month but I got a call about a consulting gig. Three days next week should pay for the class. It's about half of what I used to get for consulting but sometimes you've got to take what you can get, especially these days. I would prefer it not to be Mon-Wed since Monday and Tuesday we have little wiggle room with Dinah's schedule, but again, sometimes you take what you can get.

The good thing will be that I'll be able to get my last class hurdle out of the way. There are about three prerequisite classes for the culinary arts program. I have Professionalism and Serve Safe out of the way. Next term will be Principals of Cooking. After that I can take anything I want whenever I want. Whew!

By the way, I got a 96% on my Serve Safe exam. Passing was a 75%. It is strictly a pass/fail thing. I aced every section except two. I think there were only three questions on food allergies and I got a 67% on that section. I also misses a few on general food questions, I think I got an 85% there. Not bad for barely trying. Like I said, it's mostly common sense. Odd, grades are not posted yet for the class though.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Snow in the Mountains

Today is a rare snowy day here in North Georgia. Rose decided to stay home with me since the everything closes if it snows around here. We ran around until she got cold.









Then... hot chocolate. I believe it was Rose's first hot chocolate.

She liked it.

Technically it was drinking chocolate, though I'm not sure of the difference. Some may remember the short lived Chantico at Starbucks. GOOOD stuff. Worth it? Well I guess it depends on how much your NEED for chocolate was at the time. And the more depressed you might be the better the deal. I have a case of Cadbury's Drinking Chocolate from the now defunct Great Tastes Of... (which will probably end up as Christmas gifts). My belief is that the fact that it didn't sell says something about this area. People who don't love chocolate can't be trusted. It's a genetic defect in my opinion.

I have wondered about cooking with it, possibly substituting it for cocoa. It is more than that, it has sugar, spices, a preservative or two I think, but I wonder if I could tweak a recipe to use it somehow, maybe add some extra punch to what would normally be just cocoa.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What To Do With That Left Over Turkey?

Here's what my family does. My mom has made Chicken Strata with the left over turkey for as long as I can remember. I'm sure she found it in a magazine or some other source lost to time, desperate for a way to use up the left over turkey instead of throwing it away. You can only have so many turkey sandwiches. It became our traditional day-after-Christmas breakfast. And while we always ate it for breakfast, I have been making it as a dinner for years by just frying up chicken breast instead of using left over turkey, hence why I have named my recipe chicken strata not turkey strata. Guess what we are having for dinner tonight?

This dish has become so associated with my family that I made chicken strata kits last year and gave them as Christmas gifts.

I think you will easily become as addicted to this dish as I have become. After all, as my wife says, how can you go wrong with a dish that calls for gravy?

Let me know if you try it what you think.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Corn Bread Dressing by Demand

Here is Ed's recipe for Corn Bread Dressing. My wife's family has this every Thanksgiving and Dinah likes to have it a few more times during the year. When Dinah makes it we just use Heinz's brown gravy. The dressing is pretty good with gravy, I think it needs it, but I'd still rather have stuffing.

I wish I had known Ed longer. I only got to meet him a few times early on when Dinah and I were dating. He was our best man at out wedding. Shortly afterwards Ed fell at home and had to go to the hospital. On check in they found he had bone cancer and it had spread through most of his body, unbeknownst to him. He died in just a few days.

This is his recipe as Ed wrote it, I just reformatted it and adjusted some measurements to what is common at the grocery.

Enjoy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Happy Thanksgiving


We hosted Thanksgiving this year since leading up to it no one could seem to decide what to do. I think it came off excellent.

Our dining room is a little undersized for seating more than six but we had eight adults and three kids. It worked out. I wouldn't want to do that every day though.

I baked two pumpkin pies (pungkin as Rose says) the night before. I have made the real deal before with real cooked pumpkin but the can really is the way to go if you want to be sure that the pumpkin itself is going to taste good. But you have to buy the canned pumpkin not the canned pumpkin pie, big difference. I used store bought pie crust too. I wasn't in the mood to go homemade on that. I still got rave reviews. My secret? Mace and nutmeg.

I picked up the smoked turkey on Wednesday. This worked out great. We just needed to reheat the bird for two hours in the oven. Since our target was 11:00AM, this sure beat getting up at 4:00AM to pop it in the oven, not to mention the labor saved in not having to prep and season the turkey. It came out perfect. I let it rest for about 30 minutes before cutting into it and the legs just tore off. I barely had to use a knife. We got a 13 pound turkey and I carved half for serving and the other half for leftovers for people to take home.

Our bread was a combination of yeast rolls I picked up when I got the turkey and frozen biscuits I got when my coffee shop closed. The yeast rolls went over better than the biscuits but I preferred the biscuits.

Dinah's mom brought the traditional squash casserole and baked sweet potatoes. I don't like yellow squash but this casserole is quite good. I attribute it to the crushed crackers. Rose normally likes it but not yesterday. I'm not a sweet potato fan, especially the traditional pan with marshmallow on top. I was grateful that Dinah's mom's version has brown sugar and pecans instead of marshmallow. It was very good. Rose had three helpings. I thought it was adorable that she spit out a "seed." I had missed a pecan in serving her. Good girl.

Dinah's dad brought scalloped potatoes. They were out of a box and I LOVED them. Always have. The funny thing was he had never made them before and bought a bag of potatoes with the two boxes. Apparently Debra teased him about the potatoes already being in the box. And they were!

Deana brought the dressing and gravy. I grew up with stuffing, My Mom makes a traditional oyster stuffing with wild rice and croutons. She leaves out the oysters though. Every year half was stuffed in the turkey and half was cooked in a casserole. And every year we sobbed when the stuffing from the bird was gone because is always tasted better than that made in the casserole. Don't let anyone tell you they are the same. I LOVE stuffing. I'm still not up on the dressing thing which is made in a pan and cut and served like brownies. It's dry and needs gravy (graby as Rose says). I know this was an old family recipe. I like it but it just isn't the same. There was very little left though.

Rose didn't seem to care for any turkey at the beginning of the meal. I think the sweet potatoes preoccupied her. But near the end she asked me for "chicken." She had two helpings of white meat. Good girl. The turkey really was excellent. I think because it was smoked and only reheated it was much juicer than any I've had before. It barely had any smoke flavor and they must have brined it because every now and then you'd get a taste of something sweet or a bit of spice. And best of all was the crispy skin because I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE turkey skin and I'm the only one who eats it. It was mine, mine, mine.

So who knows what's missing?

MASHED POTATOES!

WTF? Apparently there was a communication break down and we ended up with none. I had planned on making them in my super-duper-can't-live without-anymore stand mixer, even looking forward to it, but I pulled off since I was told they were being brought. If there is anything close to being sacrilegious with Thanksgiving it is no mashed potatoes. I sobbed but we all survived fine.

And the best part? Aside form the food and family, we got to leave Rose with Grandma and the two of us went to the movies! Four Christmases was HYSTERICAL!

PS

I forgot about the cranberry issue. I grew up with real cranberry dressing. A bag of cranberries cooked down with sugar and spices until the berries start to pop. My wife's family eats the cranberry equivalent of spam. I'm not sure what this gelatinous red bile in a can is but there is no way I can eat. I've tried, it's not happening. It was nice to know that Debra was equally revolted, so I was not alone for once.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Schnitzel Holstein

Yesterday I found three boneless pork chops tucked in the freezer. Trying to figure out what to do with them I thumbed through my German cookbook and hit on schnitzel. Ok, schnitzel is supposed to be veal but I didn't have any and heck, my grocery doesn't sell it either, so pork schnitzel it was. I saw a variation called Schnitzel a la Holstein which involved topping the schnitzel with a fried egg, anchovies and capers. Hey, I had that in Germany once. I don't remember the anchovies but since I like them and had a can, why not.

The cool thing was that the baguette I had bought for serving with the fondue had gone rock hard before I got around to making the fondue. Rather than throwing it out like I normally would I decided to grind it up in a my food processor and make home made bread crumbs. And lo and behold I was able to use those very same bread crumbs to make the schnitzel. Cool.

Funny, up until a few years ago I was revolted by runny eggs. That yolk had to be fried hard and stiff for me to eat it. I don't know what changed, maybe the business trips to Germany, I don't know. But I do enjoy them over medium now. I'm still not a sunny side up kind of guy, I like the yolk kind of thick, but loose. As I told my wife last night, just mentally tell yourself it's gravy and you'll have no problem.

Buy that's an awkward paragraph. Anyway if you would like to try your hand at schnitzel, here's my version of Schnitzel Holstein.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Eggcellent


If you remember from my second post, hard boiling eggs really riles me up. Every time they tear, break, membranes stick. I end up with half the egg thrown out with the shell. It wasn't always like this. I remember years and years of happy egg boiling. Then one day it all changed. I've always blamed the eggs.

My mother-in-law gave us a microwave wave cooker. To say I am skeptical is an understatement. On Saturday my wife popped four eggs into this gadget, zapped it in the microwave and then dashed off to her mom's leaving me to figure out what to do with it. I figure it sat on the counter for a good 15 minutes before I got around to it. I plucked the four eggs out, nearly burning myself, they were like hot stones, and shoved them in the fridge door.

A couple hours later, home alone, I'm scanning through the fridge and my eyes stumble on the eggs. They're cool now of course. I grab one. What the heck. If Dinah want's them for egg salad I can always cook more.

It peeled perfectly.

Impossible! What the?

I grabbed another one.

Perfect.

Impossible!!!

Both were perfect. Think AJ. What's different? More importantly, what is the same about this microwave gizmo that is the same as back in the good ol' days when hard boiled eggs didn't stress me out?
nearly burning myself, they were like hot stones, and shoved them in the fridge
Somewhere I read that you are supposed to quench the cooked eggs in an ice bath to stop them from cooking. This prevents a sulfur reaction that causes the yolks to discolor. I never had an issue with gray rimmed yolks but I want to do things correctly so I started quenching my eggs in ice water. I never connected any dots.

I had to quickly test my theory. I grabbed the four remaining eggs, tossed in my super-duper-color-changing egg timer and boiled on high like the good old days. When my timer turned purple all the way through, I poured out the water and put the eggs in the fridge to cool.

I waited, impatiently, a couple of hours and grabbed the first one.

It peeled perfectly.

Impossible! Amazing!

I gave the next one a few more hours to cool just to be sure.

Again perfect.

I was so excited I jumped on my motorcycle and ran to the grocery to buy more eggs (luckily it was 55°F and sunny).

I saved the other two for the next day just to be sure. Again perfect. All four were perfect!

So my conspiracy theory was wrong, the eggs haven't changed. It was me all along. I wonder what else is like that?

Non Food Rant - #1

I can't believe it has taken this long.

Rant ON

I'm mad and I need a place to vent. Our fearsome leader today announced another, that's right #2, bailout for Citibank. Enough! Is anyone keeping track? I am:

$29B to JP Morgan/Bear Stearns - the FIRST time
$33B for IndyMac
$200B to Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac
$85B to AIG - the FIRST time
$38B to AIG - the SECOND time
$15B to Bank of America
$3B to Bank of New York
$25B to Citibank - the FIRST time
$10B to Goldman Sachs
$25B to JP Morgan - the SECOND time
$10B to Merril Lynch
$10B to Morgan Stanley
$2B to State Street
$25B to Wells Fargo PLUS this
$27B to AIG - the THIRD time
$6.6B to US Bank

That's almost 545 Billion Dollars right there. But wait there's more. There are another 20 or so banks that have gotten money that aren't in that list.

But wait there's more, the government has only spent half of the $700B bail out bill. $700 Billion??? I count $850 Billion. remember they had to add an additional $150 Billion dollars just to get people to vote to pass the $700 Billion bill. You know $200K to Rose City Archery, $192M to Puerto Rico for rum, $33M for American Samoa. Oh wait, I bet you didn't know.

I see a TRILLION DOLLARS and growing with a BIG Capital T.

Meanwhile, as we struggle to make ends meet along with nearly everyone else I know, all of our credit card companies raise interest rates, add fees and cut limits AND GET BILLIONS OF DOLLARS FROM THE GOVERNMENT. And who the hell is going to pay for those BILLIONS of DOLLARS. When is the American People going to get a helping hand?

But I want to know one thing, why the F*(^ do we have to wait until the end of January for Obama to do something???? What the hell is Bush doing? I've held from day one that he is the WORST president we have ever had. CASE AND POINT.

Sorry.
Rant OFF.

I think I should probably go pound some schnitzel now.

Fondue You

Most of my experiments I send on with Dinah to take to work to be disposed of. It's rare that something comes out inedible and those that do go straight into the trash. Our motto at home is, "if it's no good, we'll go out for dinner." So the office does fairly well with experimental cookies, practice brownies and left over stews and such. I really try to avoid trying something new on guests. It's one of those unwritten rules about entertaining that probably should be written down someday. I'm not saying I've never done it. I did very well with a first time chocolate-espresso cheese cake once, but it's best not to practice on guests.

So with that in mind we had cheeseburgers last night with a fondue appetizer. I've never done fondue before and I needed to check two things before I spring it on company. One, can I do it. Two, is the alcohol content noticeable. On the first point the answer is yes. It came out wonderful. It is after all difficult to go wrong with melty cheese but I was worried at the beginning that it would be lumpy and stringy. I just needed patience. I went with a autumn themed recipe of white wine, Emmenthaler cheese, Monterrey Jack cheese, apple-cranberry juice, mustard, and a hint of garlic. I couldn't find my brandy so I left that out.

I was concerned on the second point. Alcohol plays an important part in the suspension of the cheese. Now I had no qualms serving to my kid knowing that there was a lot of dilution and a lot of the alcohol would cook out but I'm not sure how others would feel about their kid. I've never heard of anyone getting a buzz from fondue. Both Dinah and I agreed that once melted, no alcohol could be tasted or felt so I deem it a go. We can have cheese fondue for guests as a starter.

Oddly Rose did not care for the bread or apples dipped in cheese. Plain, they were great though. Her loss.

I just need to practice a main course (oil or broth) fondue and a dessert fondue and we are ready for a fondue party. We must own six or more fondue pots for some reason, though I can only find two right now. The worst part of this experiment was that I had to order a set of fondue forks because I can't find the 50 or so that we already own. Someday maybe we will be completely unpacked.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hash Brown Secrets

I've been making a lot of hash browns this week. Why? Well number one is because I'm broke and have half a bag of potatoes laying on the counter. Ordinarily I would forget about a bag of potatoes until they started to rot and then throw the bag away. Almost like a government subsidizing program. But since I am penniless I thought I should do a better job of utilizing what I have. Not the best way to feed a family but it works for two meals a day for just me.

I LOVE hash browns. Especially extra crispy with cheese and onions. But homemade hash browns are amazingly difficult to make. I suspect that restaurants use frozen shredded potatoes to make theirs which is significant. I suppose I could do the same thing but then I lose out on the challenge, the reward and have to pay extra for it.

If you just shred your potatoes and then fry them you'll either end up with a soggy mess or burnt potatoes and pan if you're going for that extra crispy style. Believe me I know. Try to add more oil to prevent the burning, it only gets worse and oddly, sometimes your hash browns smell or taste like fish.

I think I have found three keys, the potato, the pan and the fat.

On the potato it isn't which potato you use but how you use it. I've made great hash browns with Idaho baking potatoes, Yukon Golds, even blue potatoes. The problem with potatoes is that as soon as you cut them, they begin to oxidize. They go brown very quickly. Therefore you need to shred your potatoes and then put them in a bowl of water so that they avoid air contact. Even better is to shred them directly into water. If I'm not up to using my box grater, I use my food processor with a grating disc but fill the bowl half way or more with water. That way the potatoes shred directly into the water. If you want the whitest potatoes, add a dash of white vinegar. You won't be able to taste it but the vinegar will prevent the potatoes from browning once you take them out of the water. Good if you aren't moving fast.

There's one more key to the potato. As I said, I suspect restaurants use frozen potato shreds. Why is this significant? Because in order to get any crispiness to your hash browns you need to have DRY potato shreds. This is doubly important after you've had your potato shreds soaking in a bowl of water. At the minimum, spread your potato shreds out onto paper towels and press them dry. But if you really want to do this right, you need a potato ricer. The difference is night and day. Save your money and skip that cheap aluminum one at the store. I busted one of those on my first press. Get a nice stainless steel one that you can run through the dish washer. I have this one. And please don't make the mistake of many a moron and try to press a whole potato through your ricer. You will break it for sure. Ricers are for pressing boiled potatoes into fine mush before whipping into mashed potatoes. This ensures no lumps. But they are also great for squeezing the moisture out of some foods. After you've pressed the water out of your potato shreds, spread them out on a paper towel and pat out any remaining surface moisture.

Now the pan. I've tried every pan I own and I think I've got it now. The pan does make a difference. Stainless steel and anodized aluminum (Calphalon) will give you nice crisping of your potatoes but they will also stick to your pan, no matter what temperature you use or what you fry in, oil, butter, Crisco, lard, doesn't matter. They'll taste good, but you'll be frustrated. A non-stick pan removes the frustration of your hash browns sticking but you'll have a hard time browning them. That's the nasty secret no one tells you about non-stick cookware, it doesn't brown. The only way you can get any browning with non-stick is to use butter. But you have to be careful of not burning the butter. So if you must use non-stick, use a 1:1 combo of butter and oil. Just remember by the time you get the butter to brown your hash browns, they'll most likely be burnt.

So which pan works? Good ol' seasoned cast iron. I fried up my hash browns in my 12 inch cast iron skillet this morning and not even the first shred of potato stuck. It was beautiful. I found it works best to spread the potatoes over the full surface of the pan (scattered a la Waffle House) and then after they have begun to brown, scrape then back to the center into a patty just bigger than your spatula. Let them continue to get brown and crispy on the bottom and then flip the patty over to brown on the other side. Ideally you only want to flip once. This method gives a crispy outside with tender cooked hash browns in the center.

Last but not least, the fat that you use for frying is important. Forget spray, it won't work. Butter has two problems. One it burns at a low temperature and two, part of butter is water. Remember, you need dry potatoes. Adding oil to the butter helps, but the results are disappointing. Oil is an option but then you end up with your potatoes floating in oil and my experience is they soak up the oil by the time it's time to flip and then the potatoes burn after you flipped them.

So today I used my recently rendered lard. Cool, huh? Just a tablespoon. And at $2.38 to make my tub, it was far less expensive than oil or butter. And using only a tablespoon, it's probably better heath-wise than either the oil or the butter. But the result was amazing. The hash browns were perfectly crispy but lighter than any hash browns I've made before. WOW!

So to recap, to make great home made hash browns:
  1. Prevent your potatoes from browning by plunging under water.
  2. Press your potatoes shreds dry with a potato ricer.
  3. Use a large cast iron skillet.
  4. Fry in a tablespoon of lard.
  5. Only flip them once.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Look Out!

I was making biscuits today when I bumped into the dishes drying on the counter and knocked my 7" non-stick pan off the counter. It landed on my foot and hurts like a sunufabich. I had no idea I needed to wear my old metatarsals in the kitchen.

This pan is made by Look Cookware of Iceland (sometime sold as Evaco in the US). I read somewhere that if you buy a non-stick pan you should buy from a company that specializes in non-stick cookware, not a company that makes good cookware and has a non-stick line. So that's what I did. This pan is made from pressure cast aluminum and is every bit as heavy as my All Clad stainless steel pan of the same size. The coating is some type of Teflon-titanium coating and is oven safe. And as I mentioned before, no damn rivets, like on my All Clad pan.

The coating has held up well so far though the edge is wearing away, I think from having other pans rubbing on top as I toss it in the cabinet for storage. The wear doesn't affect cooking and there is no risk of it chipping, flaking or coming off into the food I am cooking. I use this pan almost exclusively for frying eggs. I can see no reason for using a non-stick pan other than for frying eggs. I give it a light spritz of oil with my Misto and eggs never stick. You can almost clean up with just a paper towel. That's the only downside of this pan, it is hand wash only. Well that and it hurts if you drop it on your foot.

I highly recommend Look if you want a great non-stick pan. They are nearly impossible to find though. You have to search hard on the Internet. I bought mine from this place.

Progress

I made another batch of brownies yesterday and made some progress. I followed a basic Devil's Food cake recipe. I left out the baking soda and replaced the butter with a 3:2 oil and water mix. It seemed like my dry mix was the same amount as two boxes of brownie mix so I kept the two eggs. This time I had to spread the batter in the pan rather than pour it out like before.

The result? I updated my requirements in the previous post to include moistness. This new batch was not moist. But they did have that fudge quality I was looking for. I didn't get the flaky top like I wanted but I did get a crunchy top rather than the cake-like top from the previous batch. There was a wonderful chocolate aroma but not as much chocolate taste as I would have expected.

Dinah's comment was that they tasted like Betty Crocker's.

So I'm feeling good about this experiment. I need to tweak the ingredients some I think. I'll have to ponder how. It feels like I need more liquid or more fat or both. I think I need to compare my dry weight ratios with a box mix and see if I am adding enough oil and water. Six ounces of oil and four ounces of water seemed like a lot, but maybe it wasn't. I also might want to replace half of the cocoa powder with baking chocolate. I think this would add more flavor but also increase part of the fat content with cocoa butter hopefully adding some moistness.

Other options to explore include replacing the water with milk or substituting part of the sugar with light corn syrup. The previous recipe indicated that the corn syrup addition provided chewiness.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On Brownies

As I mentioned before, I thought I should attempt to make some home made brownies as the first step to approximating my favorite of brownies, Duncan Hines. I did so yesterday. But before I get to that, as an aside, if you didn't know, there really was a Duncan Hines. Before WWII, Mr. Hines would travel around eating at different restaurants and developed a rating system and a guidebook. His ratings were very coveted by restaurant owners. I believe this predates the more well known Michelin system or Zagat rating. It was later on in the 50s when he decided to get into the packaged food products for the busy American housewife. Anyway...

I followed a recipe from my The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook. This book rocks. I highly recommend owning it. I got rave reviews from Dinah and Dinah's coworkers for these brownies but I did not like them.

What do I love about Duncan Hines brownies? They are:
  1. Flaky on top.
  2. Moist.
  3. Chewy.
  4. Fudge-like (I think the same as chewy actually).
  5. Oily on the bottom (yes this is important).
The homemade brownies were definitely chewy but they were not flaky on top nor did they have the oily bottom. Looking at the ingredients, I am thinking that this recipe will not be a good base to build on. So let's do a recipe comparison of the main ingredients to see if we can find the secret. I don't have a box of Duncan Hines on hand but I can make some educated guesses as to what the ingredients are. The earliest credited fudge brownie is the Lowney Brownie from 1912.

































LowneyDuncan HinesKing Arthur
1 cup of sugarsugar2 1/2 cups of sugar + 1/3 cup of corn syrup
1/2 cup of flourflour1 1/3 cups of flour
2 squares of chocolatecocoa powder6 ounces of chocolate
1 stick of butter1/4 cup of water + 1/3 cup of oil1 1/2 sticks of butter
2 eggs1 egg5 eggs



Two quick notes, the Lowney Recipe is not proportional and I accidentally used 6 eggs when I made mine yesterday but I don't think that had any affect on my disappointment.

So the key difference appear to me to be in the fat content and type added and the emulsifiers content, i.e., eggs. It seems that fewer eggs equals more chewy (Duncan Hines' directions say to add two eggs for cake like brownies). So I'll carry that info forward for future experimentation.

The butter versus oil content is very interesting. It makes we wonder about how long the Duncan Hines mix has been around. Follow me on a short diversion. The cake mix that we are all most familiar with is the butter cake. The butter cake uses butter, flour, sugar, eggs and maybe baking powder. In the 1920s a guy named Harry Baker developed a cake called the chiffon cake. His secret was the use of oil as a fat instead of butter. Hmmm..... Chiffon cakes need egg whites to be whipped full of air for the cake to have body. That's not done with brownies. I'm not a food historian or even a food expert but it seems to me then that brownies then lie in a family of cakes in between butter cakes and chiffon cakes, a marriage of the two. By the way, Mr. Baker sold his secret recipe to General Mills/Betty Crocker after WWII and the rest is history. (I learned all of the watching Good Eats one day).

So I think the next step is to take a basic chocolate butter cake recipe, limit the egg portion of the recipe and replace the fat addition with oil. I haven't figured out the water role but maybe that is to rehydrate the cocoa powder.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pot Luck

Yesterday I made another batch of lard. I picked up a three pound bag of fat trimmings from my local meat shop and now have a tub full of premium homemade lard. Still no cracklins though. Haven't figured that out. Now I'm ready to be a biscuit and pie making fool.

But the process got me to thinking about equipment. You can find a lot of information out there, read books, read reviews, but nothing is more informative than experience. Being a more serious home cook than the average person, I thought I would take the time to relate some of mine.

Generally people have a slew of pots and pans. Maybe they were given a set as a wedding gift. Chances are most of them sit and gather dust. Chances are most of them are junk also. In the past five years or so I started to get a little more serious about the equipment I use. But unlike most others, my perceptions are colored my the fact that I am an engineer, and specifically a metallurgist. A dangerous combination when it comes to kitchen equipment.

If I could pass on one and only one mantra it would be:
All you need to be successful 80% of the time is ONE good knife and ONE good pan.

So focusing on pots, what have I learned?

I have several pots. I do not have any copper pots because they are extremely expensive and they are time consuming to clean and I'm not interested in all of that maintenance.

For boiling pasta and potatoes I have a tall aluminum pot, which I can't seem to find right now. In my opinion, only use aluminum for this purpose. There's some hype out there about aluminum being linked to Alzheimer's, (in conclusive in my opinion) but the bigger issue is that aluminum is reactive, meaning it reacts with acids in foods and can leach in to them. This will cause some off flavors and discoloration in light colored foods. Because aluminum conducts heat so well, it it perfect for bringing large amounts of water to boil. But because it conducts so well, I find it is difficult to fine tune the heat and things burn easily. I consider having a pasta pot to be a luxury so there's no need to have this pot if you don't have one.

I have several large stainless steel pots. These are all pretty big stock pots and I only use them when I need a big pot like for big batches of stew. Since I don't use aluminum pots there really is no other option for material. Yes, there are large anodized aluminum pots out there. I don't like anodized aluminum any more because 1) most are made in China, 2) most have riveted handles and I hate cleaning around rivets, 3) anodized aluminum is hand wash only. You can't run it through the dishwasher.

So the one pot I grab over and over, my Staub Round Cocotte (Dutch oven). I bought mine cheap from the Amazon Friday Outlet Store, patience paid off. Because I wasn't picky about the color, I got a good price. Mine is a nice green. Growing up, my parents had a set of Copco enameled iron cookware, made in Holland, which I would love to have now, chips and all. I have a bunch of Lodge cookware. You can buy it cheap from their factory store, but you have to make the trip to South Pittsburg, TN. But Lodge ware is not enameled and so you have the reactive issue. DO NOT BUY Lodge's enameled line. It is made in China and you risk lead contamination. Same with any Food Network line and the Mario Batali line.

I think Le Crueset is just as good as Staub, but it is pricier. I also like the dimples on the Staub lid that returns condensation back to the pot.

Reasons I always reach for this pot: you can boil and simmer at much lower heat settings on your stove. The enamel is non-stick. You can easily go from the stove to the oven with this pot. However, Harold McGee showed that cast iron is not a perfect distributor of heat, so it is possible to burn to the bottom of this pot, but it is just a matter of practicing lower heat settings. Oh yeah, no rivets! Yes, it is heavy. Get over it. Heavy is good because it won't warp and if you have a heavy boil, the pot doesn't move around. The more you use this pot, the less heavy it seems. And you can really do anything in this pot. There's no need to brown your meat in a skillet and then transfer to the pot to make a stew. You can brown the meat right in this pot.

If you could have only one pot, get a 5-7 quart enameled cast iron pot. Doesn't matter if it is called a Dutch oven, French oven or Cocotte. Just make sure it isn't made in China. I'm serious about that. China does not regulate their lead levels in their iron.

It's my favorite pot and I'm sure it would be yours too.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Busy Day in the Kitchen

Yesterday was a very busy day in the kitchen. Rose's favorite meal is breakfast (mine too!) and her favorite food is..... pancakes and sausage. So yesterday I made pancakes and sausage for breakfast. I rarely, rarely eat pancakes, but I do eat mine and mine are the best in town. I use Alton Brown's recipe from Good Eats. As I have said before, I idolize Alton Brown. He appeals to my quirky scientific engineering self. On his show, Alton Brown explains the importance of separating the eggs, which I usually do, but yesterday I decided not to separate the eggs. I don't think I could tell the difference. BTW, do use buttermilk. I found the pancakes to be inedible with regular milk.

Before Rose took her nap I made some cookie dough. The plan was to make cut out cookies after her nap.

While she was napping I made a pot of Brunswick stew. My favorite version is from Spanky's, where I would eat the many years I worked in Brunswick GA. There is an ongoing debate over who owns the rights to Brunswick Stew, Brunswick County VA or Brunswick GA. I'm loyal to the Georgia camp. Another twist on the soup though seems to be in its texture. Dinah prefers a pureed stew which seems to be the norm north of Macon Ga. I stick to the chunky classic.

The first part of the equation was to find some smoked pork. I didn't care for the Smithfield package at the grocery store and I didn't want to use the pulled pork available at the barbecue places around here (maybe next time though). I like to use smoked pork chops cut into cubes. I found some at a local meat shop on the south side of Blairsville. We ordered a smoked turkey for Thanksgiving while we were there and some extra chops for dinner last night.

For those not in the the know, especially all of my fellow Yankee friends, from my perspective, what makes Brunsick Stew unique is that is has a barbecue sauce base. In the past I would make the base, boil the potatoes, cook the chicken, then combine the base, potatoes, meat and vegetables. After the last time I decided to see if I couldn't do everything in one pot, just adding ingredients sequentially. It worked!

I still find my stew to be too sweet and not hot enough (Brunswick Stew should be on the spicy side). This time I halved the sugar addition. I think next time I will leave it out completely. On a side note, this is where weighing some ingredients is genius. It is a whole lot easier to weight out 50g of brown sugar rather than figuring out a packed 1/2 cup. How tightly is brown sugar supposed to be packed? Just weigh it every time.

I started with a recipe I found on the internet for Spanky's version. Strangely it has changed over time and the version on-line is not the same as the one I started with. You know, I thought there were some mistakes when I first started this. For now, I'm keeping my recipe a secret, but Spanky's version is here.

After Rose's nap we made cookies! This was Rose's first time making cookies. The dough was tasty. It was a little on the dark side because I only had dark brown sugar rather than light brown sugar. I'm at a loss as to why we refrigerate cookie dough prior to rolling. I need to research that. On first attempt the dough would just tear and crumble. We had to work it with our hands to get it to soften up a little. Flouring the work surface and rolling pin didn't seem to help much. This is probably why I so seldom make cut out cookies. But eventually we got it going. Rose tried to eat as much as she could in between rolling. She had a blast. I had made some frosting while she was napping and we frosted the cookies after they came out of the oven. Rose would spread the frosting onto the cookie and then scrape it off and suck the frosting off her knife.

The smoked pork chops for dinner were good but not as good as what we used to get from Jones' Meat in Climax GA. These were saltier and I thought had a sweet taste also. Jones' has gift packages for the holidays. Ordering a gift pack of smoked pork chops with their blackberry bbq sauce is well, well worth it. Give 'em a call, 229-246-3700.

Friday, November 14, 2008

End o' the Week Odds 'N' Ends

I didn't have much ambition today. I did melt down my trimmings from grinding my own beef in hopes of making my own tallow. At least I think I made tallow. I had ground the trimmed fat prior to running the lean meat through and then saved it. Today I put the ground fat in one of my medium sized cast iron skillets and put it in the oven at 225°F degrees. I think it took an hour or two. I poured everything off through some cheese cloth that I laid in a sieve. I bagged and froze the left over meat. Can't see anything wrong with eating it as ground beef. It's quite lean now I would think. I refrigerated the liquid fat. Interesting it separated into a think white solid on top and a thin yellowish solid on the bottom. I'm guessing the white part is the tallow. I assume that I can use it no differently than I would use lard. Maybe I'll make a candle.

I continue to practice making pizza. I'm getting pretty close to presenting I think. Today's dough was made without whole grain flour. I used unbleached all purpose flour. The crust was softer and lighter I think. I think I liked the taste of the whole grain flour crust better, but it is harder to work with. I have a pretty good supply of mill ground grain around here. I bought this last batch outside of Helen, GA, about 30 minutes from here. Instead of hand stretching the dough and baking it on the pizza stone, I used a jelly roll pan. Saved me the aggravation of my pizza peel always failing me. Dinah gave it a thumbs up and I am pleased with the results.

Apparently I had used up my supply of canned tomatoes in various forms in the pantry. All I had on hand was one can of organic diced tomatoes and one can of Mexican stewed tomatoes with green chilies and cumin. Bummer. So I made the sauce using both cans hoping the diced tomatoes would dilute the chile and cumin flavor of the stewed tomatoes. I grow my own herbs in my super-duper Aerogarden so I put in four good sized leafs of purple basil instead of the usual two. I also doubled the minced garlic. Taking a lesson from my Culinary Arts 100 course, I used my Kitchen Aid Immersion Blender to puree everything in the pot. Unfortunately by the time it was ready to cook the pizza the sauce hadn't cooked down thick enough so it was a little too thin on the pizza. BUT, I never noticed the chilies or the cumin.

I learned on the last pizza that REAL mozzarella on pizza is pretty nasty. You know the fresh kind packed in a brine, usually in small balls of cheese. Damn near flavorless on pizza. So while the bags of shredded low moisture mozzarella is the cheese to buy, I have learned that blending cheeses is the way to go. Don't use straight mozz. Tonight I put a thin layer of Parmesan on top of the sauce followed by a thin layer of shredded cheddar. Not enough cheddar to really be called a layer but enough to add depth. You can't even see it once it has melted. The top layer was a thick layer of shredded mozzarella. On one end though I used sliced mozz like you buy for sandwiches. I think that this actually tasted slightly better than the shredded mozz. It looks the same once melted but I also think there is a slight textural difference.

Almost ready to serve to others.

Being in the doldrums today I broke down and baked some brownies after dinner. I only bake and I only eat one kind, Duncan Hines. And I still lick the bowl. I've been doing it for 30 years at least and haven't gotten sick from raw eggs yet. You should have seen Rose knocking stuff down and toys out of the way scrambling to get to the kitchen to have a lick herself. And she's never had brownie batter before. That love is genetic!

I'm thinking maybe I need to research into making brownies from scratch. I agree with Dinah, Duncan Hines has it perfected but I would like to make a brownie as equally good in which I know what the ingredients actually are. Time to do some Googling and some reading.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sephardi Pie

Sephardi Pie

Yesterday I tore the kitchen up making dinner. One of the those multiple pots and pans recipes. Came out great though. Rose ate well and that is always a good measuring stick.

Apparently Shepard's Pie is not unique to the Irish. This dish was called Pastel de Papa and is a Jewish recipe from Argentina. Now my version is not kosher in the least because, well I don't use kosher beef, but more so because I use butter instead of margarine (always!) and I add milk and butter to the mashed potatoes to make them lighter. Two big nonos if you are Jewish. Remember that if you want to entertain your Jewish friends.

Pastel de Papa recipe.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

End of an Era

Saturday my local coffee shop closed up. Now I have no where to go in the morning. Unlike other regulars, I went because it was a coffee shop not for breakfast. There are two coffee shops in Murphy, but Mountain Java was only 2 miles from the house. Murphy is just not as convenient.

A sad day.

The owners are supposedly packing it up for the winter and heading back down to Florida. They told everyone "see you in the spring" but I wouldn't bet on it. Their son got "divorced" and moved back to Florida last month. Their daughter and son-in-law moved back last week due to lack of jobs here. So they have no reason to be here anymore. I see the writing on the wall but none of the other regulars seem to get it. Today a for sale sign went up in front of the building.

With the closing of the coffee shop came the end of Great Tastes of..., my specialty foods and spice stand. The past few months I've had to mark everything down 50% just to move 5 or 6 items. Chalk it up as another financial disaster in my history. Well I guess the remaining stock can be used for a few Christmas gifts. A small silver lining.

Anybody need some really good spice? I can repackage in small quantities.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Greasy News

Today I minded Rose since she came home from "school" yesterday because she was throwing up. I tried to get in as much stuff when she was distracted playing with play-doh or her trains or her oh too brief nap. I wasn't able to do any "real" cooking though.

While we were playing with play-doh I got out my small cast iron skillet and reheated my lard from the other night on the lowest heat setting on the stove. As it melted I could see a thick viscous white sludge settling on the bottom of the pan underneath the clear golden melted fat. I poured the liquid off and filtered it through some cheesecloth into a container. Capped it and put into the fridge. Now I had refined lard.

While I was at it I decided to do the same with a coffee cup full of bacon drippings I kept in the freezer. Same process and now I have some nice refined bacon grease. The solid lard is a nice white, the bacon grease a little brownish.

Later, after nap time while Rose was eating a snack, I decided to make some biscuits with my newly refined lard. They didn't turn out that great but the deck was stacked against me since I have never made biscuits before. I had a recipe for beaten biscuits. I think they might also be called blistered biscuits. Apparently once upon a time this method involved beating the biscuit dough 500 times with a rolling pin. The alternative is to use a food processor which I luckily have. (LOVE IT!)

These biscuits are a breakfast biscuit, especially for country ham. After I made them I realized what they were. I've had them before. Kind of hard to describe them. They aren't flaky and crumbly like you would find at Hardee's, McDonald's or Cracker Barrel, hence why they are ideal for breakfast sandwiches. They have a crunchy crispness to them kind of like the cheese biscuits at Red Lobster. I'll have to try to find where I've had this style before.

Mine did not turn out too well. One reason is they hardly rose. I don't have any biscuits cutters. I tried to roll the dough out into a log and use a sharp knife to cut rounds off, cookie style. Doesn't work. Second, they took longer to cook than the 20 minutes the recipe called for. Oh well. Finally, there is an ever so slight off aftertaste from the lard. It's not bad but it is there. Strangely it tastes like shortening. I bet the bacon grease would be good for biscuits. So I guess I need to get some nice sharp biscuit cutters to do this right.

Next time.