Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Quick Tip - Greek Week

The weather here in my little town has turned and this means that the grill is calling out to us. As such, I'm reaching for the crazy versatile Greek seasoning from Penzey's. Awesome on chicken sautéed in olive oil, delectable on broccoli, and essential on venison steaks. Essential. I'm not kidding. It's transformational. Brush the venison steaks with olive oil, sprinkle on the Greek seasoning, grill to taste (medium at my house) and serve. No marinading or sauce necessary.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Brining pork and poultry

Brine. That's a cooking word that used to intimidate me. Once I tried brining, I realized why. It's magic, and magic is a little scary.

The magic of brine is that it adds moisture and flavor to lean cuts of meat. It's a very easy technique to master. This version is perfect for 6-8 servings of smaller cuts of meat: halved, boneless chicken breasts or pork chops.

Quick Brine Recipe

1/3 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup white sugar
2 cups very hot water
1 cup cold water
1 cup ice
5 crushed garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cracked peppercorns
Bay leaf
6-8 servings of halved boneless chicken breasts or pork chops

Put salt and sugar into a reseal-able plastic gallon bag. Add 2 cups of very hot water and seal. Shake until salt and sugar dissolve. Add cold water, ice, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Allow to cool, then add chicken or pork. Press out as much air as possible and seal. Meat should rest in brine for at least 90 minutes prior to cooking.

A couple of additional tips:

  • I don't recommend this particular brine for more than a 3-4 hour soak. The meat takes on more salt than I like.
  • Remember to drain and dry the meat before grilling, broiling or sautéing for best results.
  • When cooking meat after using this brine, remember to watch your temperature and consider keeping it a little lower. The added sugar means browning will occur much faster.
  • If you buy your meat in larger quantities to save money, try brining prior to portioning and freezing. You streamline your process and the brined meat loses less flavor and texture than when 'unbrined'.
  • You can add other spices to the brine. Try cayenne, juniper or rosemary, or use brown sugar with pork.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Quick Tips - Homemade pizza crust

Over the years, I've tried to compete with the local pizza places for the stomach and hearts of my family. For a very long time, I have lost to even the average chains, let alone the local mom & pop joints.

I usually cheat and buy the sauce, and everyone likes it just fine. We wouldn't know a gourmet pepperoni from a Hormel, so there's no trouble there. The problem seemed to center on the crust. We prefer a deep-dish style, and my first several attempts were unsatisfyingly soggy.

I've tried various solutions, and finally feel that we can save money and truly enjoy pizza from home as much as takeout. Here's what works best for us:

  • Skip the premade doughs and use a bread machine. I use my bread machine on the dough setting to make the crust. I prefer a simple white/whole wheat dough from the great Bread Lover's Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger. 
  • Beware of yeast in small packages. I buy yeast at a food service supplier like GFS, or at a warehouse like Costco. The price of yeast at a grocery store is shocking by comparison–up to 4 times the price per ounce, the last time I checked. A pound or more might seem like a lot, but yeast has a very long shelf life when stored in the refrigerator. I've never had a package of yeast lose its efficacy.
  • Add a little texture. Before you empty your bread machine pan, dust your countertop or pastry board with cornmeal instead of flour. It prevents sticking and adds a little crunch to your finished product.
  • Roll out the dough, let it rest. Simply pressing the dough into your pan makes for an unevenly baked crust. Take the 5 minutes to roll out the dough to size. Cover the dough and allow to rise a little more (25-30 minutes). 
  • Be generous with the EVOO. Brush your pizza pan (we use a jellyroll pan) liberally with olive oil before placing your dough.
  • When it comes to baking, keep it low and use something as a pizza stone. Baking the pizza on a higher rack results in overly browned toppings and an underbaked crust, so before preheating your oven, place a rack in the lowest position. Stick your pizza stone or tiles on this rack. If you're like us and don't have a stone or tiles, try our MacGyver solution: an upside-down jellyroll pan. Let it preheat to 450ºF for 25-30 minutes along with your oven. Stick your pizza pan on top of that when it's time to bake.
  • Topping order matters. Put about 2/3rds of the cheese directly on the crust, followed by the sauce, then the toppings. Finish with the last 1/3 of cheese and bake.  For a 17"x11" rectangular pizza, I use 3-4 cups of cheese.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Corned beef

If you're looking for a celebratory St. Patty's Day meal, you probably have to consider corned beef and cabbage.

Corned beef is a hunk of brisket that's been sitting around in a brine-y bath of seasonings, usually with, but sometimes without, nitrates. It is a traditional part of a kind of 'boiled dinner': meat, carrots and cabbage. It's pretty simple, as this recipe reveals.

I prefer the meat on rye with mustard, or better yet, coleslaw, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, but the price per pound can run pretty high at the deli counter. That's why right now is a great time to try and do it yourself. If that idea scares you a little, you're not alone. At my very first restaurant job, we cooked our own corned beef for sandwiches. When they told me I would have to do that as a part of our prep, I was nervous. It seemed exotic and somehow risky. Turns out you just throw it in a pot with enough water to cover or nearly cover the meat, bring it to a boil, turn down the heat, cover and simmer until it's cooked and tender, about 4 hours for a 3-5 pound brisket. Slice across the grain, and call me. I'll bring some slaw.

If I'm not available, you can refrigerate the meat for a 2-3 days, or freeze it for future use.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Boneless Western-Style Pork Ribs

It seems like you can find boneless, western-style pork ribs on sale every other week for around a dollar a pound. Last week I picked up a family pack and made two dishes.

Chinese Barbecued Boneless Pork is great to cook and freeze. The boneless ribs are an excellent substitute for the strips of pork butt or shoulder. We slice it thin and toss into fried brown rice or reheat it in barbecue sauce for a quick sandwich.

I used the rest to test drive my friend's pressure cooker. I've never cooked with one. While I'm not excited about the $80-$100 price tag, it did make a delicious mexican-style pork stew with this tougher cut of meat in about 45 minutes total. The cooked chunks of pork shredded quickly, transforming the texture from soup to 'fork-worthy' stew. My boys cleaned out the pan.

Next time I buy this cut, I'll try adapting the pressure cooker recipe to the stovetop or slow-cooker. Or maybe I'll try this chipotle-pork chili.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Slow Cooker - Boneless Chuck Roast

My personal tastes run toward the ridiculously expensive. Take my relationship to beef. I wait until I have a few extra bucks and splurge on ribeyes, our favorite cut. This means I sometimes forget about the simple beef roast. But when I give it a chance, I'm always pleased.

I grew up on chuck roast, and I still enjoy that cut and flavor: satisfyingly beefy. It was on sale this week,  and I was excited. It's a great cut to cube for beef stew or Hungarian goulash, but I really wanted to make it in the slow-cooker.

While this is not their recipe, I've got to give a special shout-out to America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I've learned a lot about cooking from reading the recipes and tips, as well as everything else published by the folks at Cook's Illustrated magazine. I love everything about it. If it were a wine, I'd describe it as 'nerdy but accessible'. It's ad-free, well-illustrated, and scientific. The recipes are so detailed, they're practically foolproof.

A few thoughts:
  • Set aside the extra 15-20 minutes and brown the meat and vegetables. It will add depth to your finished dish. If you don't want to take my word for it, believe my mom. She's not a foodie. She's a very practical woman who doesn't like to fuss over a dish, and I can remember her standing over the frying pan awkwardly turning big ol' roasts - because she could taste the difference. 
  • If you don't do wine, try a 'dry' juice like cranberry or pomegranate.
  • This recipe would suit a 6 quart slow cooker. Mine is 5 quarts, and there was about 3 cups of liquid that just wouldn't fit - but still plenty of delicious sauce. 
  • Served with baked potatoes and salad. We're planning on leftovers with noodles.
  • My estimated cost per serving is $2 for the main dish, salad, and potatoes (had a nice coupon for the meat)
Slow Cooker Boneless Chuck Roast and Sauce
Makes 8+ servings

5-6 lbs. chuck roast (I used two smaller roasts for a total of 5 lbs.)

1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 dashes cayenne
2 dashes paprika
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dried ground thyme

1 tablespoon canola oil
2 onions, coarsely chopped
6 carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
8 oz. sliced mini-bella mushrooms
1/3 cup chopped celery (fresh or frozen)
1 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
1 beef bouillon cube
2 bay leaves

In a small bowl, mix kosher salt, cayenne, paprika, pepper and thyme. 

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Pat the top of the roast dry with a paper towel and  sprinkle with a teaspoon of the salt mixture. When oil is hot, place roast seasoned side down in pan. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon salt mix on top. Brown roast on both sides, 5-10 minutes, and place into slow cooker. If working with two smaller roasts, brown each one individually.

Reduce heat to medium. Add onions and cook about 4 minutes. Add carrots and cook about 4 more minutes. Add mushrooms and cook an additional 3-4 minutes or until the vegetables begin to brown. Add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen and browned bits. Add the Worchestershire sauce, tomato paste, chicken stock and bouillon cube and bring to boil. Add bay leaves.

Pour liquid and vegetables into the slow cooker over the browned roasts. Cover and cook on low for 8-9 hours or on high 6-7 hours.

When meat is fork tender, remove from liquid and place in serving dish (a large casserole would work well here). Remove as much fat from the liquid as you can (I used a gravy separator) and purée the vegetables in batches. Transfer to a gravy boat if you're feeling fancy, or just put in a bowl with a ladle. Serve.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Quick Tip - Chicken broth and stock

Grocery labels are often one part deceptive: the front part. Great example–yesterday at Meijer, I needed low-sodium chicken stock. I'm always looking for the best value for my family, and it looked like the Meijer 'blue can' reduced sodium broth would be the clear winner. The Meijer Naturals brand was a teeny bit cheaper, but I prefer a low-sodium product.

I decided to take a look at the nutrition panel. Unless I misread this, the reduced-sodium product contained 60 mg MORE sodium per serving. Glad I checked.

The Meijer Naturals brand also claims to be gluten-free. If that's one of your concerns, I contacted a friend who avoids gluten, whey (casein), MSG, and sweeteners. She recommends Kitchen Basics or Emeril's. 

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grandma's Oatmeal Cookie Mix

I've got some great cookbooks on my shelves, some beautiful, some practical. But in amongst Chez Panisse: Fruits and Cook's Illustrated hides the treasure of my collection: a stained paperback with a plastic brown binder. It's Family Recipes: Sharing Our Roots from a 1990 family reunion at Maplewoods Farms.

It's fun to skim and sample the offerings of my aunts and uncles and cousins, but this book goes beyond fun. It holds meals from my childhood, recipes from my grandmother Martha. She died when I was a baby, but I know her through her food.

(page 55) I picture Dad cracking eggs into fried rice while mom and I mix the sauce for eggrolls: hot mustard powder and water to dab into a teacup of thinned plum jelly.

(pages 70-71) I remember the smell of onions browning for arroz mexicana and mashing the pinto beans for frijoles fritos.

Page after page of memories. And after each one of these storied recipes, her directions and her name.

Martha was a collector and creator of recipes, including this oatmeal cookie mix. In a short-lived entrepreneurial jaunt, my sister-in-law and I used this mix as a base for a successful line of quart-jar cookie mixes. When I was a kid, I would sneak a spoonful of dry mix right out of the container. These memories lead me to suggest that if you have a food processor, or lots of people to help cut in the shortening, try doubling the recipe.

Grandma's Oatmeal Cookie Mix
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup shortening
3 cups rolled oats

Sift flour, baking soda, sugar, baking powder, and salt together into a large bowl. Cut in shortening until it resembles corn meal (a food processor makes quick work of this step). Add rolled oats. This makes a double batch of cookie mix. Store in an airtight container. I recommend using the mix within 3 months.

To make 2 dozen cookies:

1 egg
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups cookie mix

Preheat oven to 375ºF. Beat egg, milk and vanilla together. Add cookie mix and stir until combined. Drop by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Add any of the following to a batch:
1/2 cup chopped nuts (the original recipe uses the lovely phrase nutmeats)
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 teaspoon cinnamon and pinch nutmeg

I hope you enjoy these, and leave you with this quote. I read it and re-read it whenever we had taco night, and I love that my aunts copied it into this collection:

"A la mejor cocinera se le va un tomate entero - the best of cooks will sooner or later pull a boner."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kitchen Table Budgeting

Money's tight everywhere. What resources do you use to maximize your grocery money?

If you live in the Mitten, Smart Shoppers of Michigan (yahoo group, also on facebook) is a great resource. 

SSM founders teach classes in the southeast portion of the lower peninsula, with their next two-part class at 10 a.m. on March 14th and 21st at Hillside Bible Church. You'll walk away more confident about couponing and be able to stock up while spending less.

If you'd like to share a method that stretches your food dollar, email me at inmylittletown[at]gmail[dot]com. Use the usual symbols instead of the bracketed words - I like things cheap, but can't stand spam. In any form.