Monday, March 18, 2019

Maybe spring?

Today, like yesterday, started with frost and climbed quickly with aspirations to hit almost 70. Roofing companies are out all over Tiny Town, taking advantage of nice weather to quickly fix shingles that departed roofs all over in the last bad blow. On the ground, contractors are fixing fencing with the brand new boards in sections looking amazingly bleached against greyed, weathered wood.On the highway, TXDOT crew are digging in the dirt in the median for some reason. In Itchy Paw Falls, electrical crews are digging like a pack of German Shepherds let loose to look for long-buried bones after the snow cover's gone.

So of course, I look at all this glorious earthmoving and decide it's a good day to start on the yard. I'd start on the garden, but Alma of Cat Rotator's Quarterly gave me the incredibly valuable rule of thumb for local weather: "If you start on your garden before the mesquite blooms... you'll be doing a lot of replanting."

Four bags of mulch replenishing the flowerbed later, and roughly 100sq ft. of hardpack red clay dirt broken up and mixed with compost, then a roll of mulch/stabilizer/fertilizer/grass seed laid down and cut to fit in all the patches it's being tested, and watered, and then more white rock moved, and potting soil and fertilizer added to all the herbs that overwintered, the overlooked branches broken up and tossed out...

I suddenly found myself too tired to make dinner. Yeah, maybe I ought to put off trying to build a square foot garden 'til next year; this yard stuff is work!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Can racks

Elsewhere, I was asked how I keep my cans organized, after I mentioned that we'd consolidated, grouped, and set the cans so we always keep 14, 8, or 5 or so on in stock. The first part of the answer is pretty simple, and it's cardboard organizers.

You can see 'em here:
But the principle is pretty basic; it's a cardboard box with an angled insert and a slightly-bigger-than-can opening at the back. So you pop the newest cans in the top of the front, and they roll down the length, drop to the bottom level, and roll to the front. This makes is very easy to do FIFO - First In, First Out, or "always use the oldest first."

(There are several inventory methods, but most practical setups default to FIFO or LIFO (last in, first out.) You don't want to do LIFO on anything that expires, because the oldest stuff gets shoved to the back. Copper plumbing parts don't care, but there's a reason the drink companies have set up racks that stock from the back and make it very hard to take any bottle but the oldest one in the front. And yes, when you google the terms, you're likely to get inventory cost accounting instead of inventory management, but that doesn't mean the beancounters own the terms.)

Now, which cans to keep in what quantities? Ah, that's the not-simple part! We started by taking what cans we had on hand, and stuffing them in cardboard organizers, and then at some point we filled those up with more of the same kind. Then we started getting the inevitable small pile of cans on the side - and some of those we looked at and went "Yeah, we get that a bunch" and filled another organizer; others are in the rack of one-offs.

(I very rarely make clam chowder. When I do, I need one can of clams. So I have one can in stock, but I certainly don't need 4 cans for something I make 2-3 times a year at most.)

Ideally, once a year we go through the cans - in reality, it's been closer to two and a half. But Peter took the time to go through the racks recently and pull everything that was expired or close to expired. The expired stuff got tossed - not because it instantly turns bad on the expiration date, but because it's stuff we got for a single purpose, and we haven't eaten enough of to turn over in years. The stuff close to expiration, and even the stuff far from expiration but that we realized we never used, got bundled up and given away. (With a few exceptions. The one-off can rack is a wire rack filled with "one of these, two of those..." for a reason)

The survivors? We had an interesting and thoughtful conversation about those. Most are "common ingredients in food" - like the rotel (diced tomatoes with green chilis. Very common.) Others are, despite being anything but keto, quick "I feel awful and want comfort food", like the chicken noodle soup. (Good intentions to keto are fine. When flu and strep stalks the household, the red and white can of instant comfort, just add boiling water, trumps good intentions.)  The third sort are common ingredients in easy, fast, good cooking that can be done even if we lose power... like canned beans.

Having lived in places where food supplies were unreliable, and electricity is usually unavailable right when fresh food shipments are, too... I am a very, very big fan of canned beans. They're delicious, filling staples that don't require clean water to soak, or the time and fuel to boil - the kind of thing that even if the flood water took the labels off the cans, sterilize the outside and you have good food waiting inside. Add some spice via rotel, and you have a tasty, hot, filling meal.

Like dry socks, a tasty hot meal makes the world a far, far better place. (And if you have both dry socks and a tasty hot meal? Things are gonna be okay.)

Please note: I am not recommending everyone copy the following list for their own. This is what I'm currently using and cooking with, as it suits my spice cupboard and cooking habits. Your own spice cupboard and cooking habits are likely very different from my own. But for the gentleman who asked, this is going to be a practical, real-world example of what can happen when you combine a love of cooking with a house with a large pantry. (And this is specifically my can racks, not my bottles or jars or bags)

7 pinto beans
7 chickpeas
36 tuna I like
36 tuna Peter likes
18 canned salmon (the small flat tins)
14 black beans
14 kidney beans
14 white (great northern) beans
12 chicken noodle soup
12 cream of mushroom soup
5 coconut milk
7 canned green beans
14 rotel (diced tomatoes with green chilis)
14 italian seasoned diced tomatoes
14 flame-roasted diced tomatoes
14 plain diced tomatoes
14 tomato paste
8 canned mushrooms
14 canned corn
5 mixed vegetables
14 diced rutabagas (great low-carb alternate to potatoes, no peeling!)
5 diced pineapple
5 sliced pears
8 canned boneless turkey* (27 oz. Grabill meats)
8 canned pork chunks* (27 oz. again.)
21 canned beef
21 canned chicken

*Grabill Meats. Rarely used because I have fresh and frozen on hand, but if I need to make something and either have no time to cook the meat, or have no power, these are really good canned meats.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Chicken Pot Pie

Yesterday, when eating the leftovers from the Superb Owl party, I was staring at the sad remnants of the veggie tray and had An Idea. So the ranch dressing was tossed, and the rest came home with me, to be made into Chicken Pot Pie, the easy version.

Note: this low carb variation calls for a specialty ingredient called "carbquick" - this is just a low-carb variant of bisquick. You can use any biscuit recipe, or just plain use whomp biscuits, if it makes you happy. I used this, because it's what I have on hand.

Leftovers Chicken Pot Pie (carbquick version)

2 oz butter and/or tasty grease like bacon fat or duck fat
2 oz carbquick (or arrowroot powder for paleo, medium carb)
3-4 cups chicken stock
2 bay leaves
1-2 tsp garlic powder
1-2 Tbsp onion flakes (unless you're dicing an onion in the veggies)
1 tsp black pepper
1-2 tsp mesquite smoked salt (or regular, if you don't have any smoked)
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Veggies. (I used the remnants of a veggie tray, cut to small chunks, and a bag of frozen stir-fry veggies, and a can of diced rutabagas, rinsed three times to get rid of the canned taste. So... whatever you have that needs using.)
1 can chicken breast, drained (or up to 2 cups of leftover chicken meat, rough chopped)

Topping: (something biscuit-like, dropped in spoonfuls)
1.5 cups carbquick
3/4 cup half & half
1 egg

Preheat oven to 400F
In a dutch oven, heat 2 oz butter until hot, add 2 oz carbquick/arrowroot. Stir constantly to prevent roux from from sticking to bottom and scorching, until at least the colour of peanut butter.
Add chicken stock, bay leaves, spices and salt, stir.
Add veggies & meat, stir, return to a boil & reduce to simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a separate bowl, mix biscuit topping (or, if using whomp biscuits, just whomp it open on the counter edge.) When the veg has simmered for 10 minutes, turn off stove, and spoon biscuit topping on top of veg & gravy mix.
Put in oven and bake for 30 minutes or until biscuits are well browned.
Pull out, turn off oven, and let sit for at least 5 minutes so you don't sear the inside of your mouth.

Serves 4 hungry people without any sides.

My husband tried a bowl, and hunted me down in my study. "This is great! You need to make this again!" Um... okay, but the leftover veg is never the same from day to day, so I can't promise the same results...

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Learning curves

Cookbooks tell you a lot about the tastes of the cookbook author, and the standard go-tos in their kitchen that they build into every recipe. For example, the guy who runs cast iron keto is very fond of spicy. He likes to stick jalepenos in just about everything. He also likes cheesy foods, thing that are pretty dense and heavy on the stomach. Which makes great comfort food when it's cold outside, but I will definitely be cooking more of his recipes in the winter than in the summer.

For the summer, well, I'm working on learning to cook in the instant pot. It's a steep learning curve, and being at the bottom of the learning curve is frustrating when I'm used to being near the top. You're not going to be seeing "This awesome instant pot creation!" recipes here any time soon, unless I can figure out why my the recipe swears eggs cook in 4 minutes at high pressure, but after 14 minutes at high pressure, I finally just finished the eggs off in the microwave.

So far, the score when following directions is: 2 failures (how did that turn out both mush and charred?) and 2 mediocre meals. Fortunately, this is why G-d gave us a Mexican restaurant in town, and gave me a patient husband with a good sense of humour.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on tweaking things for improvement. When delving into "Why are the keto rolls slightly bitter, when the fathead dough pizza crust I make isn't?" The answer seems to be that the standard baking powder, when used in that quantity, is to blame, and I should switch to an aluminum-free baking powder.

So I headed to the pantry to very what baking powder I had, and that I could just mix up a stopgap batch from baking soda and cream of tartar. (I can.) But I also found a bag tucked away behind the baking soda, fresh from Bob's Red Mill, of double-acting aluminum-free baking powder. Peter strikes again! When reorganizing the pantry, he must have noted that I'm getting low, and gotten a replacement while ordering more (requested) almond flour. I love my husband, I do!

As for the way my spinach & artichoke-heart dip is rather... robust, it turns out I'm using frozen spinach, which I should have realized isn't a one-for-one replacement for fresh. So the dip as it's called for has a lot more water to make it gloopey, and I have a lot more veg to make it stand up.

Next variations to include in the experiment: close examination of the photo on site indicates that the recipe creator might have used red onion while merely calling for onion, and the local supermarket's awesome spinach dip also includes chopped water chestnut for crunch. Those might not stand up to the heat of cooking, but I bet a handful of pine nuts would...

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Scalloped turnips, iteration 1

This post is on an in-process dish, so I can find the notes the next time I'm making it. Usually, these are scribbled on a post-it stuck next to the recipe, and then once I've made a couple more iterations and firmed up the final recipe, written in the cookbook in pen. So, cook at your own risk. :-)

Scalloped Turnips

3 large turnips
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp butter for sauteeing
3 Tbsp butter, cut in 1/4 Tbsp blocks or smaller, as preferred
1 tbsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp mesquite smoked salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
8 oz (1 block) cream cheese

First, peel & thinly slice the turnips. (I used the thinnest setting on the mandoline.) You may have to trim a little bit off the edge of the turnips so they fit in the mandoline for slicing. Next time, try rinsing the turnips & draining after slicing, to cut down on the heavily aromatic turnip smell. This is a great dish as is, but with the smell of turnips filling the kitchen, there's no way to fool yourself into thinking this is a scalloped potato replacement. When done, preheat oven to 350 F.

Second, dice onion. Heat 10 inch cast iron skillet on stove, add a little butter/grease/oil, and saute the onions, thyme, salt, and black pepper. When the onions are translucent and starting to brown, add garlic, stir for 30 seconds, then remove from heat and transfer onions & garlic to bowl.

Third, in the microwave, soften cream cheese & heat cream, then whisk together with smoked salt and cayenne pepper. Set aside.

Fourth, in the now-cooling cast iron, place turnip slices in a layer, careful not to burn your fingertips. Sprinkle a bit of the onions, add a couple dots of butter, then repeat until you're out of turnip slices, onions, and butter. Pour the cream sauce over the whole thing, cover with aluminum foil, and slide into the oven.

Bake for 30 minutes covered, then carefully pull the foil cover off (avoid steam burns!) and bake another 40 minutes uncovered, until golden brown on top.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Keto cornbread?

Last night, my darling husband announced he was thinking of going strict keto or paleo. I did not quite break into dance and song in great jubilation, but I did perk up noticeably, because that sort of thing is really, really hard to do if your household isn't on board with it.

Peter also had a specific website he wanted me to check out: Cast Iron Keto.

If it helps both of us lose weight, why, being able to sling cast iron about is something that two years of weightlifting has made easily able. Let's do this! First recipe up was their keto cornbread - which I've seen before, elsewhere, and wondered about. And today is as good a day as any to start - why wait for the new year, when we can get on good habits right away?

So here it is: first round followed their instructions:

One minor difference: I did not use the jalepenos called for. Next time, I may add some frozen diced hatch chilis in (after thawing), because that would go well. Oh, and I used smoked cheddar cheese I grated in, instead of just regular shredded cheddar, because I had it to use up.

Verdict: smells awesome, tastes awesome, slightly too moist, so it came across slightly quiche instead of cornbread. Next time, I"ll either pack the almond & coconut flour into the measuring cup, or use heaped measurements. (Also, since I have 12" cast iron, will likely double the recipe.)

One last note: if you stick your cast iron skillet in the oven as it preheats, then it's easy to add a dollop of duck or bacon fat to grease the pan, and it ensures the crust will be crispy and browned. 

Here's to a another year of experimenting with recipes, getting great food, and sharing it with people I love!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Pure Comfort Spaghetti Sauce

One of the amusing things about being an adult, is noting how utterly juvenile things many labelled "adult" are. As CS Lewis noted in On Stories, people who are adults don't have to worry about whether or not the things they like are labelled as adult; only children are overly concerned with whether something is "adult" enough for them to be acting and doing.

Truly adult entertainment, in my world, doesn't involve watching strangers strut their sexiness; it involves finding a way to cook dinner for six without having to change out of my PJ's (until just before everyone arrives), and thus have dinner ready without having to deal with strangers or non-family people at all, all day! Score! (Yes, I am an introvert.)

This dinner was a bit of a challenge, because some folks are low-carbing and others are not, and more importantly, I hadn't been to the grocery store in over a week (and the last time I went, I didn't get much, because I was going on a road trip to family Thanksgiving.) So when everyone around me is straining to finish their leftovers, I have a pretty barren fridge.

Thus, the "spaghetti" that this sauce went on was actually one packet of pasta shaped like grape clusters (I bought it at 501 Winery), a packet of mini-shells from the depths of the pantry (I don't even remember where that came from), and, in a separate bowl, one large spaghetti squash (not large enough for 6 people, though).

By the way, all that nonsense about cutting the raw spaghetti squash in half and scooping out the seeds, then baking for 45 minutes? Pffft! Stab the thing with a knife a few times, like you do with a fork and potato but scaled up, then stick the whole thing in the microwave for at least 10 minutes. This monster took 18, small 2-person squashes might be done at 8, just cook until it's clearly done. Then let it sit in the microwave and cool off a while, and finally take it out with oven gloves (I have great silicone ones), and cut it in half so the superheated steam that didn't escape can now do so. The seeds and pith are easy to scoop out, and you can hold the thing with one paw in an oven glove and just scoop the flesh in its spaghetti-like strands into the bowl with the other. Ready to serve in half the time, and no trying to hack a tough raw squash in half!!

Anyway, the sauce was a minor challenge, as I have no jarred spaghetti sauce. I may need to put that on the shopping list.

Comfort spaghetti sauce

2.5 pounds sausage, cooked at least until firm enough to slice, sliced diagonally
2 Tablespoons ghee (or olive oil, whatever you have for sauteing)
1.5 onions (half a leftover red onion + 1 yellow onion)
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup sliced sage leaves (from the back yard)
4 sprigs thyme (from the back yard)
1/4 cup red wine (open a bottle that'll go well with the meal & pour some for the cook, too!)
1/4 cup chopped sundried tomatoes (from a jar in the fridge)
1 can tomato paste
1 can diced tomatoes, flame roasted
1 can diced tomatoes, plain
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon baking soda (to cut acidity)
1 teaspoon italian herbs (I actually used "breakfast sausage mix" from Amarillo Grape & Olive)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (I actually used a saffron paella mix from Rumi spice)
1/4 teaspoon red pepper (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (to taste)

So, 2.5 pounds sausage is 10 links, which is what I had in the deep freezer. That doesn't divide well for 6 people, so I stuck them in a pan with about a cup of water, and simmered said water until the sausages were nice and firm. Mine were still pink in the middle, but that didn't matter, given they'd be further cooked in the sauce. (feel free to cook yours thoroughly.)
While they were cooking, I located the inevitable half an onion*, and a full one, and sliced them, rough chop about 1/2" square on the biggest pieces. I also went in the backyard and cut off some thyme sprigs, stripped the leaves from them, and got a handful of sage leaves and chopped them small.
Transferring sausages to a paper plate to cool for ease of slicing, I added oil (in my case, ghee) to the empty pan, and dumped in the onions, thyme, and sage, and salt.**  While they're cooking, chop the sausages.
Once the onions were translucent, I added the garlic, let it all saute about a minute longer, then deglazed with a splash of red wine.
Once deglazed, I added in the chopped sundried tomatoes, and dumped in the cans of diced tomatoes & tomato paste, and more red wine. It still looked too thick, so I added some water.
Then I added the herbs, spices, and roughly a teaspoon of baking soda, and stirred it all in until the foam subsided.

Baking soda, upon contact with acid, creates a salt and a water. It has a very foamy reaction while doing this, as we remember from science fair volcanoes. In the case of tomato-based dishes, we're adding a lot of acid ingredients together, and we can either try to smooth the acidity by adding lots of sugar (ketchup, commercial tomato sauces), or by removing it - thus a tiny bit of baking soda. Not too much, because tomato sauce just doesn't taste right without some acid.

Once the dish wasn't foaming, I added the sausages, stirred so everything was combined, and put the lid on. Once it achieve a beginning of a boil, I stirred it again, reduced heat to simmer, and let it simmer to itself for about an hour.

No, you don't have to do an entire hour. But spaghetti sauce, like chili, tastes better the longer you let the flavours meld. About ten minutes before serving, I had my husband taste to see if any of the flavours needed adjusting. (I had a mouthful of red wine at that point, so I asked him.) He declared it perfect, so I turned off the heat to let the sauce cool  for serving, and started the pasta.

Oh, and dessert? Boxed brownies. I could have made them from scratch, yes, but looking through the pantry for anything pasta-like turned up a box of Ghiradelli double-chocolate brownie mix. I just followed directions, no extra additions, and popped it in the oven. People were happy, and I now have one less carbalicious temptation in my pantry calling to me.

*There's always half an onion left over from something, right? It's not just me?

**Important Note: please note my spice mixes are salt free. Because there's salt in canned tomatoes, and in sausages, and baking soda + acid produces water + salt, the only salt I intentionally add is at the beginning, to help the onions cook down. If your herb or spice mixes have salt, cut the salt with the onions.