Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Using-Up What You Put-up

Last spring, I canned a jar of pickled garlic scapes.  They're a little too garlicky for my tastes eating straight-up, but I've found they add a nice mild garlicky vinegary crunch to sautéed dishes like this frittata we had for dinner tonight.

They almost taste like green beans with a whole lot more flavor.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Choosing a Slow Cooker

I've had my slow cooker since I bought my first condo, so the poor thing is about 9-10 years old.  I didn't pay a lot for it--maybe $25.  It's a basic 6-quart Rival Crockpot brand with a dial regulator with settings for warm, low, and high.  While it has never worked nearly as well as the 1970's avocado green model I found at a consignment shop (I'm kicking myself for not buying the orange/red one I found a week later), it has served its purpose making whole chickens and sitting on buffets.

Unfortunately, you get what you pay for.  The first to go was one of the rubber feet, so it sat at an odd angle on the counter.  Then, I lost the plastic knob on the cover.  That got replaced by a "ghetto fabulous" doorknob.

The last straw was when the carrying handles broke.  Now, it couldn't be moved when hot, so traveling to potlucks was out of the question.

So I started to do some research.  I knew I didn't want another Rival.  They're made cheaply.  I also knew I wanted a built-in timer with a keep-warm setting that kicked-in after the cooking time expired.  I was willing to upgrade to a better model, even if it meant paying upwards of $150.  However, most of the nicer name brands (Cuisinart, etc.) had fancy multi-cookers that were so huge and boxy, they wouldn't be good for travel. Also, I was concerned that a model made to sauté (for pre-browning) wouldn't regulate correctly on the slow-cooker setting.  Most had teflon-coated metal inserts, which scratch easily, and the heavy ceramic crock is part of what makes a slow-cooker heat so evenly and efficiently.

I kept coming back to the Hamilton Beach Set 'n Forget 6-Quart Slow Cooker, which before Christmas was selling for under $50.  It had generally good reviews and a great feature set, including:
  • A timer that lets you set in half-hour increments.  Some have presets of 2, 4, 6, 8.
  • A built-in silicone gasket on the lid to keep moisture in while cooking and  liquid in while traveling.
  • Built-in locks for traveling to keep the lid secure.  No Velcro strap or rubber band nonsense like my old one.
  • A probe thermometer that fits through a hole in the lid and will stop cooking a hunk of meat at a certain temperature.
There were a few complaints in the Amazon reviews:
  • Some people reported a defect where the timer would crap-out and they'd come home to cold food.  This seemed to not happen recently and there was a newer model number available, so I opted for that and hoped for the best.  Either way, I'd expect them to honor warranty service.
  • People complained that power outages (other than a flicker) caused the pot to not come back on with the power.  This is, quite frankly, a limitation of any computerized unit that I was willing to accept.
  • People reported the locks getting in the way because they don't fold-down all the way.  Again, I decided this was nit-picking and now that I have it, I agree...it's not a deal-breaker.
I ended-up receiving the pot from my wife as a Christmas gift (Thanks, Honey!) and I'm very happy with it.  So far, I've made red sauce, a whole chicken, the breakfast casserole, and a pot of ham and bean soup (recipe to come soon).  It has worked as advertised and is way more convenient than my old pot.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Going Slow-Cooker Crazy: Overnight Breakfast Casserole

If you've been following this blog for a bit, you know that I'm not really a "bag of this, can of that, package of those, dump-stir-bake" kind of cook.  I'm not above the occasional convenience food--especially for nostalgia's sake, but usually, if I can make something from scratch (and often save a buck), I will.

When my Dad mentioned bringing this Slow Cooker Breakfast Casserole for Christmas breakfast, I was intrigued.  However, I had already planned to make a similar dish, so I turned it down.  Okay, and I'll admit, I was probably trying to be a show-off entertainer for the holiday and didn't want something I hadn't tried to turn-out bad on Christmas morning.  Call me a food snob.  :-)

But it didn't move far from my mind.  I had gotten a brand-new Slow Cooker for Christmas and I've been itching to find atypical recipes for it, meaning not soup, stews, braises, chili, etc.  This recipe fit the bill.  So when we needed breakfast for a work event, I suggested letting the company pick-up the grocery tab and me doing the work.

The recipe calls for cooking it 6-8 hours on low, which, if you're sleep-loving person like me, is disconcerting.  What if it's done at the 6-hour mark and I'm still fast asleep?  I hate overcooked eggs, which seemed nearly impossible with this dish even at 6 hours.  Nonetheless, I picked-up all the items, sautéed, whisked, dumped, and stirred and set the timer as directed.

I happened to get up for a bathroom break at around the 5 hour mark and it seemed almost done.  I hemmed and hawed about resetting the timer to end it early, but reading in the recipe that "the sides should brown," I stuck it out and went to bed.  It looked kind of gummy at that point and the sides were pulling away like modeling clay (go cheese!).

This is what I woke-up to (as well as the strong odor of muddled breakfasty goodness).

Browned and bubbly, as advertised.  I turned the pot off and trucked it to work.  The guys loved it and ate most of the pot.  The store-bought muffins did not get eaten that day.  There you go.

Some thoughts on the recipe:
  • This recipe makes a TON.  I calculated about 5 pounds of food going into the pot (sausage, cheese, eggs, potatoes) and it came within an inch or two of the top of a 6-quart pot and then cooked-down a few inches.  For a family meal, you might want to halve it, though it might cook in less time so that might be an experiment for the daytime and serve it for dinner.
  • The "browning" is really more like "burnt cheese edges," which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  If you don't like browned cheese, back the time off an hour or two.  Obviously, you'll need a cooker with a timer and keep-warm setting.
  • The recipe calls for salting each potato layer on top of the salt in the eggs.  Plus, some frozen hash browns already contain salt and cheese is salty.  I'd recommend backing-off on the salt wherever you can.
  • If you're looking for a perfectly layered strata, this is not that dish.  Everything bakes into a big solid mass that you can scoop or cut out in chunks and because of the overnight cooking, the flavors muddle together.  Again, not a bad thing, just set your expectations accordingly.
  • There's already plenty of fat and calories in this, but a nice hollandaise sauce would brighten it up a bit.  Maybe some crusty toast.  Why not?
  • I'm amazed that this thing never stuck to the sides.  In fact, it left less residue in the crock than a whole chicken does.  Probably has to do with the greased pot and the amount of fat in the cheese.
  • If you make the recipe as directed, expect the ingredients to set you back about $16, which isn't bad if you're feeding a crowd.
Overall, I'd make it again.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Complete Thanksgiving Round-up

I'm going to admit that my intentions were to get a whole bunch of recipes, tips, and tricks for thanksgiving out to you before today but it just didn't happen.  I had planned to take some time off from work this week to do personal things, prep for the big day, and catch-up on the blog, but I ended-up with a 4mm kidney stone (ouch!) last week, which resulted in a hospital visit, a lot of discomfort, and prescription painkillers.  And it's still not gone.  :-(

With that said, it IS Turkey Day, so let's get on with the festivities, shall we?

Here's a sort of random list of thoughts, tips, and things I've learned from hosting Thanksgiving over the last couple of years.   I hope it helps

To Pot-Luck or Not?
I spent the first couple of years trying to control the menu so I could plan the perfect Thanksgiving meal and have all the food on the table and hot at the right time.  It failed miserably.  For most people, Thanksgiving is a holiday filled with family traditions.  Guests at your table want to share their traditions with you and they want to "help" you by bringing a dish...or two...or three and you can rest assured that they'll all show-up while you're trying to make the gravy, heat the dinner rolls, and carve the bird and they'll want oven or microwave space to reheat their dish.

To this I say, embrace the pot luck.  Start assigning dishes to people that you know they like to make or bring and plan ahead for how that dish will be reheated or served.  If you can have a separate area or an extra microwave just for reheating, all the better, as it allows you to finish doing whatever you have to do in the kitchen and they can do what they need to do in that other space.

You may also find that space at the table and serving dishes and spoons get to be at a premium when people are bringing food.  If you're hosting, consider setting-up a buffet where people can fill their plates and then sit-down at the table together.  This keeps a family dinner atmosphere while leaving some elbow room at the table.  When assigning dishes, ask folks to bring their dishes ready to serve, including any special utensils.  When I attend a pot-luck, I even label my utensils so that they go home with me and if I know I'll be leaving early, I'll use disposable or discount store ceramic serving pieces so they can be left with the host.

The Bird
I'm not going to tell you how to cook your bird.  There are 100 techniques and most of them have sound food science behind them (except for Grandma's method of starting at 5am and basting it every hour...that one is bunk).  Serious Eats did one of the most complete jobs I've ever seen done on different styles and techniques, so I'll just point you there.  I'll also say that I'm trying "bird in a bag" this year, which is a unique and old-school choice and I'll let you know how it works out.  Here are some general thoughts:
  • A smaller turkey will cook quicker and juicier than a large turkey.  What this means is if you're feeding a crowd and can get 2 pans that fit side-by-side in your oven, two 15 pound birds will cook faster than one 23-25 pound bird and you get more of every part of the bird.
  • If you do the two-bird thing above, take it from my bad experience.  You MUST have them in separate pans.  Putting them in the same pan amounts to having one giant bird and will take as long to cook the middle of the combined mass.
  • I've used the "flip" method (developed years ago by ATK) for quite a few years and it works well.  you start your bird breast-side-down and cook the dark meat facing-up at a higher temperature first for about 2 hours.  Then you flip the bird over (no easy feat...get out some kitchen towels you don't mind getting greasy) and continue roasting at a reduced temperature.
  • Don't baste your turkey.  I know Julia Child and Grandma said to do it but they didn't have food science in their day.  :-)  If you want crisp skin, basting will make it leathery and chewy.  For crispy skin, oil or butter your turkey generously. 
  • Brining is great but will change the texture of the meat.  Some people like it, some don't.  The hardest thing with brining is how to refrigerate a 20-pound hunk of meat submerged in water.  If you really want to brine, Google "Dry Brining," a relatively new method that is akin to a dry rub and all the food science geeks are raving about it.  Personally, I never brine at all.
  • Spend the money on decent turkey.  You've all seen my rant about spongy supermarket chicken.  The same applies to most supermarket turkey as well...particularly the ones marked self-basting, enhanced, or pre-brined (that'd be you, Butterball).
There's lots of advice on whether to stuff the bird or not and why.  The bottom line is this.  If you stuff the bird, you need to get the temperature of the stuffing to 160 degrees in order to avoid food poisoning.  This results in the outside of the bird (the white meat) reaching "sawdust" temperatures.  There are a couple of strategies to help:
  • The obvious solution is to cook the stuffing separately.  I'll be honest and say that it won't taste nearly as good unless you have real turkey stock hanging around.  You can pour some turkey drippings over it towards the end if you like and stir.
  • Use a stuffing bag (a cheesecloth bag) to stuff the bird).  About 2 hours into cooking, once the juices from the turkey have run into the stuffing, remove the bag and mix it with any remaining stuffing.  Finish baking in a separate pan.  I've done this a few years in a row.  It's messy and requires timing, but it works well and preserves that "baked in bird" flavor.
Cranberry Sauce and Such
I wrote a nice little post about cranberry sauce with 3 recipes this morning, so I'll just point you there.

Repeat after me.  I will not buy canned gravy.  Okay?  Good.

Thanksgiving gravy bugs the crap out of me because people make it way more complicated than it needs to be.  Don't fuss.

Ideally, you make it during that hour of "rest time" while the turkey is waiting to be carved and you make it entirely from pan drippings.  In reality, the world needs more gravy than one bird can provide and the logistics never seem to work out quite so simple, so I often make a lot of it ahead from chicken stock and maybe add the pan drippings to it.  Just use a basic "veloute" recipe that involves making a roux from butter and flour and adding the stock.  If you're going to make gravy from pan drippings, use a flour/water slurry to drizzle into your hot liquid instead of the roux.

And guess what?  Lumps are no problem.  That's why they invented fine-mesh sieves!  ;-)

Above all, have fun and remember that it's about enjoying time with family and friends.

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

DIY Cranberry Sauce Gone Horribly Wrong (And How to Do It Right...and Super Easy)

I was in the grocery store yesterday picking up a few last-minute items for Thanksgiving and I happened across this product, parked in the produce aisle right next to the bagged cranberries.

"Make-it-Yourself Cranberry Sauce Kit...Includes Flavor Packet - $3.99"

I did a double-take and PLEASE understand that this is not one of those cases where I'm being a food snob.  I'm also not knocking those who reach for the can for nostalgia reasons or pure convenience.  However, making cranberry sauce is a dump-and-stir operation, folks.  It doesn't require a kit any more than mud pies do.  It has 3 ingredients (sugar, water, cranberries), takes about 20 minutes of your time start-to-finish, and is arguably easier than making tollhouse cookies from a tube of dough.

Curious, I turned the package over to see what their secret flavor packet had in it. Sugar, water, lemon, "natural and artificial flavoring," and a healthy dose of preservatives.  $3.99

Fresh cranberries: $2.50.  Sugar: Free in my cupboard.  Water: Free.

You be the judge.

Basic Whole-Berry Cranberry Sauce
1 12-oz package fresh or frozen whole cranberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water

1) Place water and sugar in a large heavy pot and bring to a boil.
2) Add cranberries and return to a boil.
3) Reduce heat and boil gently for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.
4) Remove from heat, pour into a glass container, cover, and cool.  Chill before serving.

Makes about 24oz

Jellied Cranberry Sauce
(This would be the slice-able stuff like in the can)

1) Prepare Whole-Berry Cranberry Sauce as directed above.
2) Before sauce cools, pass through a food mill, ricer, or press through a fine-mesh strainer.  This will remove the seeds and skins.
3) Scrape into a jelly mold, a clean aluminum can, or a straight-sided glass jar or bowl.  Cover and refrigerate several hours until completely set and chilled.

Shelf-Stable Cranberry Sauce
(This assumes you know basic canning procedures.  If you don't, read about them here.)

1) Prepare either whole-berry or jellied sauce using one of the recipes above.
2) Prepare a boiling water bath (BWB) canner.
3) Fill jars with 1/4 inch headspace.
4) Process jars 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.

For something a little different, try my family's recipe for Cranberry Relish!