Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cooking Days & Eating Days

...or how we got suckered in to (thinking we should be) cooking every day.

I am the first to admit that this post sort of fits in with the Tweets of Middle-Class problems. But it doesn't change the fact that some days after baking my eyes on my over-bright iPad, I simply cannot figure out what to make for dinner, a.k.a. crap - What Time is IT!?   Those days that simply end on me, and I have no clue what to do.

Except for when I am in one of my "super cooking phases" or have been away from home and good food for too long, I do have the, "Oh just order something!" moments.

Gramma's house contains
some lovely trashy treasures.
As a child and a mere eater of food, and a survivor of the age of all-beige cuisine, leftovers were real.  And often really scary.

But many of us have fond memories of a few things that did "left-over" well.  It might be meat-loaf sandwiches, black-bean soup that's better after a few days in the fridge, pot-roast that makes amazing enchiladas, the turkey soup that emerges from what was a dry Thanksgiving meal...

The current love-affair our pop-food-culture is having with the fresh and obscure has caused many of us to lose sight of the the best of the left-overs.

Certainly - a delicious, fresh cooked meal - where the hot side's hot, and the cool side's cool, the crispy is crunchy and the soft is fluffy and light - this is wonderful.  But often lots of work, but fun and luscious when you can have it.

And then, there is food that takes a long time to cook, but you can cook LOTS of it.  Often, it simmers in the background, needing little attention.  Even often-er letting it sit, and reheating makes it better.

These trends are jumping out at me as I delve into the world of cooking meat.  A few cuts of meat are quick to cook, and are awesome-est straight off the burner.  But a large number of cuts, and most of the best deals, require some serious prep to be their best.  And the thought of putting all that time and energy, and then even more time in to something that is only one single meal can get frustrating.

Nailing down the "cook once, eat several times" approach (or that will also feed a crowd) is an important part of what I want to create.  There's the cook part, but then there's the storage part, and the making sure the reheat instructions are excellent - and don't ruin beautiful food.

RR - you are a fount of ideas.
 But not all days are cooking days.
Some days just need to be eating days.
That means I have to start with two things:
1) Research


2) Emptying the Freezer

So, watch out for the piles of books, a few mix and match meals as I clear out the Korean spiced potato turnip soup, the saag (needs paneer), and the crab cakes will just keep on coming.

(Did I mention we caught 70 crabs this year?)

And watch this space for the good and the bad.  (e.g. No - do not pan sear a cutlet cut from Chuck.  You will still be chewing it next week.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Sharpening Your Own Knives

It is a little bit scary, getting started.
What if I do it wrong?  What if I mess up my knife?  How do I even know if I'm doing it right?  Is it even worth it?

Turns out it is actually pretty hard to completely mess up a knife.  That said, start with a cheaper one, or an older one, or one that isn't particularly special.  Heck, take a tip from the people at Chef Steps  and get some knives from a thrift store to practice on.  You can make them nice and sharp - though they won't hold an edge for long.
And if you screw them up while you are figuring things out - meh.  The best part - no matter how badly you mess things up - including breaking off a tip! - can be fixed as you learn technique.

I am, by no means, particularly qualified to give any advice on how to sharpen.  But I can say, that after just a few tries, I started to get results.

The "paper test"
Try cutting a piece of paper with your knife
(Hold the knife up - and try to slice through the
paper starting at the edge you are holding.
The tomato test is good too.
I went to work on my oldest, best loved knife.  I bought it when I got my 1st apartment out of college.  I hone it regularly, and have had it professionally sharpened once.  I have run it through a home sharpening machine.  All I'm saying is it is one tough knife.

However, it was getting darn dull.  I figured, heck, it is already doing a terrible job.  How much worse could it get?

It only got better.

Could it be sharper?  YES!  Do I need more work on my technique?  YES!

But am I already better than before I started trying?

And is my very dull knife sharper?
Very Much Yes.

So - spend some money on some sharpening stones - and then just a little more on some crappy thrift store knives if you can't bear to start on your own.  It will be worth the time.
Your knives will be safer, and you'll be a faster cook.

Classic Brussels Sprouts and Bacon

Sous Vide braised lamb shanks and Brussels sprouts tossed with bacon.  This is the sort of food that keeps me happy on a cold, cold night when I just want to huddle under a blanket and stop for a bit.  The lamb shanks are just stupid easy - the only thing you need to do is remember to start them 2 days ahead.  Follow the link for the recipe, add different herbs if you want.

On a more pedestrian note, the classic bacon and Brussels sprouts.  I did these stove top because I can use the same pan for the bacon and the sprouts, and I get to cook the sprouts in the bacon fat.  Win-win.  This can be done in the oven - but I would cook the bacon separately and stir it in at the end.  Bacon and sprouts cook at different speeds, and there is too much risk of burt one thing, and undercooked other.  (You could cook the sprouts at one end of the pan, and the bacon strips at the other - just keep an eye on the bacon, and pull it when it's done.  See Savory & Sour Brussels Sprouts for info.)

Stove Top Brussels Sprouts & Bacon

Brussels sprouts (5-8 sprouts per person is typically a good number, know your diners)
2 slices bacon (for every 25 - 30 sprouts) 
(1/4 water)
paper towel - folded into quarters

cast iron pan/heavy sauté pan
knife & cutting board

Cut the larger sprouts in half, leave the smaller ones whole.
(If you have raw sprouts, put the sprouts in the pan with the 1/4 water, place the pan over medium-high heat ad cover.  Bring to turn down to medium heat and steam the sprouts for about 5 minutes).  Dry out the sprouts over medium high heat (do this whether they are thawed or you just gave them a steam).
Cut the bacon into strips about the width of your pinky.  Then cut the strips in to squares

Cook the bacon 1st.
The way sprouts cook would cause limp,
flabby (possibly burned) bits
if you cooked them together
Quickly wipe out the pan with the paper towel so it doesn't have any water in it.  The pan will still be pretty hot, so a quick wipe with the thick folded towel is all you need.  Add the bacon and fry over medium-high heat until well browned.  Scoop up the bits, and place on a paper towel.
Put the dried (steamed) sprouts in the bacon greasy pan.  Cook over medium/medium-high heat for at least 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  They should have some charred spots.  Test one sprout to see if it is cooked through in the middle.  If not, cook 5 or so minutes more.
When the sprouts are cooked through, stir the bacon back in, add salt and pepper so it tastes awesome.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Savory & Sour - Brussels Sprouts

Now that I have 10 bags of Brussels sprouts in the freezer, it is time to start eating some of the buggers.

There are 2 pretty straight forward ways to take care of them - stove top sauté, and oven roasting.  There is also the boil/steam method, but that's hard to get right, and even if you don't end up with slimy, mushy sprouts, the fart smell in the kitchen is unavoidable.

If you are starting with fresh sprouts, and haven't blanched them - all I have to say is, "I'm sorry, there will be stinkyness.  And that's why I blanch."  If you have questions about said blanching - check out a previous post:  The Battle of the Brussels

However once that's done, you can oven roast your sprouts, douse them in some lemon juice and apple cider vinegar to give them a "sauerkraut" tang.  This is handy when you have a meal that craves something sour, and you don't happen to be a home fermenter (what? you aren't?  Oh, and if you are... you can make Brussels sprout sauerkraut.)

This recipe uses oven roasting.  You can also do this stove top (see Classic Sprouts & Bacon)

"Sauer" Roasted Sprouts 

Brussels sprouts (5 - 8 sprouts per person is typically a good number - know your diners)
cider vinegar - 3Tbs
lemon juice - 2 Tbs

baking sheet
knife & cutting board
measuring spoons
small bowl
hot pad
serving bowl

Cut the sprouts in half.  (You can leave any teeny-tinies whole).  Heat the oven to 425˚F.  If these are thawed sprouts, let them dry out in the oven while it is heating up.  When your oven is preheated, go ahead and remove the dried sprouts from the oven.  Toss the sprouts with just enough oil to coat them.  Sprinkle with a little salt.

Place the oiled and seasoned sprouts in the hot oven for 12 minutes.  While they are cooking, mix the vinegar and lemon juice together.  If you have lots of sprouts, double or triple the amount of dressing (6Tbs vinegar + 4 Tbs lemon juice and so on).
Flip and stir the sprouts, and pop them back in the oven for 8 more minutes.  (If you don't do this - you may get some overly burned spots)

Place the hot sprouts in the serving bowl, and pour the sour dressing over.  Stir, check for salt and add what you think it needs.

I admit - they get a bit "army green" but the sour/sauer is worth it!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

It is time to get back in the writing game.

Why you ask?  Well, I dove into the teaching game for a year.  And dove down deep.  I had a blast teaching my "Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll & Yelling at Your Parents" class.  What you say?  Yes, I got to spend the year talking to 7th graders about Addiction, Stress, Puberty, Sex and why figuring out who you are, what stresses you out and makes you mad can make you a better person.

THAT- people is how much I adore teaching.  I will even teach that.  I will happily jump up and down and choose to teach that - excitedly.  OK, it is partly because kids want to learn a bunch of this stuff (at least the way I taught it), so that makes it awesome.  But I love teaching people things they might actually use.

So it is back to the knives.

And just for fun - what got me back on the Blog train?  The best damn chile rellenos I ever had on a recent trip through Holbrook, AZ after seeing the Petrified Forest.

A completely adventurous Spring Break.  Dried out so much the poor kid got bloody noses.  But we survived.

And I'm back to the writing and cooking and writing thing.

Battle of the Brussels

That magical time of the year when they are selling edible trees.  Brussels sprout trees.  My local grocery was no exception.  I ended up with this:
My very own fortress of Brussels sprouts
A huge pot of water to boil

You don't need to get 4 of them.  But it bugs me the utter amount of time and water blanching takes.  So when I do it, I do it in bulk.  I also like it because it preps fresh veggies for excellent freezing.
And another to quick-cool the
hot, blanched sprouts 

Working with the Brussels sprouts on trees is more work, but when you look at the prices of of the tidy, pre-trimmed nets of those tiny, tiny cabbages, setting aside some time to conquer the stalk seems worth it.  Oh, and working my way through this project continues to remind me I cannot do this professionally.  I would get so fired, so fast, because I am relatively slow.
Ewwww! Baby slug.
Oh, well - off you go.

The first thing you'll realize it this is full of surprises.  The trees have passengers.  And there are some bum sprouts.  Depending on the size of these less than prime sprouts, you can cut off the bad bit, or dismantle for leaves.
Oh dear, this one is not prime.

Look - my sprout has
minnie sprouts!
But you will also get to see the awesome fractal nature of the sprouts.  When you get the pre cleaned sprouts, where everything looks like these lovely firm miniature cabbages, all these interesting aspects of the sprouts are lost.

To get this rodeo started, you need to remove the sprouts from the stalk.  This is pretty easy, and one kids can help with.

 Then, look through for passengers, and icky spots.  Remove them, trim off long stems, and remove any leaves that are hanging off loose from the cabbage head.

I used to throw those away, but since reading, eating out, and wasting my life watching cooking shows, I have come to see those leaves (only the sound ones - nothing yucky) as their own prize.  They get set aside for their own use.  These I rinsed and blanched for about a minute before using.  I planned to char them a bit, so I spun them in a salad spinner to dry them.

The sprouts, once all trimmed made quite a stack.  You'll notice some of them are cut in half.  It is important to have all the sprouts in shouting distance of the same size.  Since some of the sprouts at the top are teeny-tiny, and some at the bottom are huge, cutting the very biggest ones in half solves the problem.

Time to blanch.  I put the sprouts in the water in batches so I don't lower the water temp too much, and cause the water to take too long to get back to the boil.

3 minutes in boiling water.  A dunk in the ice water to cool them off, and then use a slotted spoon to let them rest in a colander and drain some more while I work my way through the pile.

When they are cool and well drained, I divide them up into dinner size portions (for the 3 of us that's a quart freezer bag with a loosely pack layer of sprouts.  FWIW)  I also suck the air out of the bag with a straw (well didn't have a straw last night, so I was a little closer to that patented plastic zipper tech.)
10 dinners.  I may have to come up with something other than bacon
and Brussels.  Miso?  Vinegary sauerkraut inspired?  Charred
sprouts and charred carrots with caramelized onions?
The leaves got charred (on purpose) in my wok - and then added in to a veggie rice (carrots, celery, green onion, ginger, garlic, and sauce added in at the end.)

If that all seems like too much work, here are a few recipes for roasting the sprouts on the stalks.  However, I cannot recommend strongly enough giving your stalk a full inspection looking for passengers and sub par sprouts and trimming them off before you go ahead with the recipes.

Trader Joe's offers a sweet and savory take

or Nutmeg Nanny with a straight up roasted version