Monday, June 23, 2014

Baked Beans...Finally!

I have a confession to make.  I can turn-out a Thanksgiving feast for 30 people, bake complex desserts and even dabble in candy-making with great success.  However, I can't for the life of me cook dried beans.

That's right.  Those little suckers, cheaper than chips at a little over a buck a pound and more nutritious than just about anything, stump me every...darned...time.  I've read most of what there is to read on the subject and no matter what I do, they either explode into mush or turn out crunchy in the center after cooking all day long.  Salt, don't salt.  Add a pinch of baking soda.  Pre-soak, or toss them in dry.  Pressure cooker, slow cooker, stove-top.  Doesn't matter...I miss the boat every time.

This is a tragedy, really, because I love me a big 'ole pot of Boston-style baked beans with a summer picnic and opening a can of Bush's or B&M just doesn't satisfy me.  However, I'm pleased to announce that I've finally cracked the code.  This recipe has proven to work for me three times now as I fine-tuned the flavors and I'm happy enough to publish it.

So without further ado...

Boston-Style Baked Beans in the Slow Cooker

1lb dried beans (see head note)
3 cups water
1/4 cup real maple syrup
3 strips bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/4 cup Bottled BBQ Sauce
1/2 onion, sliced (about 1 cup)

Choosing Beans - My family has traditionally made these with Navy beans, a small white bean.  Sometimes, they're labeled "small white beans".  However, I've also used pink/light-brown pinto beans and canellini beans with great success.  If you like a larger bean, go with it.  You can even mix them.

The Secret - The secret to perfect baked beans for me turned out to be the "quick soak" method described below.  For some reason I can't explain, an overnight soak just doesn't work for me.  Perhaps it's my water or perhaps I'm not using enough water.  I also have had better luck with beans from the Whole Foods bulk bin than supermarket bagged beans.  I suspect it has to do with the age of the beans.  For whatever reason, the quick soak method levels the playing field and it comes out great.

1) Sort through the beans, picking-out any rocks, sticks, or any bean that doesn't look good.  Place into a saucepan with enough water to cover by 1-2 inches.

2) Bring beans to a boil.  Boil exactly 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand 1 hour.  This is called the "quick soak" method.

3) Drain and rinse the beans.  Add them to your slow cooker.

4) Add the remaining ingredients except for the water to the slow cooker.

5) Add enough water so that it stands 1 to 2 inches above the the beans.

6) Cook covered on low 8 to 12 hours.  Beans should be tender and should have absorbed most of the water, leaving the remaining liquid syrupy.  If all water disappears during cooking, add water a cup at a time.

Note: This can be done on high instead of low heat, though in my experience the results aren't the same.  It will likely still take at least 6+ hours to cook and the beans are more likely to split.  Also, the sauce won't get quite as syrupy as if you'd done them on low.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Taking The Internet With a Grain Of Salt

As a trained scientist (of sorts) and someone who spends a great deal of time reading and writing about food, I get frustrated when I see things on Facebook and other social media that are half-truths, junk science, and just generally bad information.  People are so quick to forward stuff on when they see something they haven't heard of before that sounds reasonable that they forget to stop and ask themselves, "Does this really make sense?  Maybe I should look this up to see if it's true before I forward it on to my friends?"

The thing about the Internet is that it's more or less a completely open publishing platform.  Anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone and an Internet connection can set-up a free blog and zoom!  You have yourself a web page.  After all, that's how I got started.  I think most people have the best of intentions...they really believe the information they're putting out there.  However, they sometimes leave scientific backing in the dust at the expense of spreading their beliefs.

Recently, I happened upon a web page with a video bearing an accusatory headline such as, "Look what happens when you mix Coke with milk!  You'll never drink Coke Again!"  The embedded video depicted a guy pouring a little milk into a fresh bottle of Coca Cola soda.  He let it sit for a period of time and when he came back, the milk and most of the brown color had settled to the bottom and solidified, leaving a clear brownish liquid on top.  It wasn't said, but the implication was obviously, "Ewww...look what this stuff does to milk.  Imagine what it's probably doing to your body."

Folks, this is what I like to call, "Appealing to the Ick Factor."  There's absolutely no scientific background to support that conclusion, but the creator of the web page dumped that video on there, added a few carefully worded sentences to lead you where they wanted you to go, and let you take it the rest of the way.

To prove my point, let me show you a video I found on Youtube.



Around the 1:50 mark, you'll notice he adds vinegar to the milk and the milk solids begin to separate out from the whey.  Those milk solids become the ricotta cheese.  Sound familiar?  That's because it is.

It's no secret that Coca Cola is extremely acidic.  When you mix milk and soda, the same thing happens as with cheesemaking.  The milk solids separate from the liquid and float to the bottom of the bottle.  Because Coke also contains lots of caramel coloring and other ingredients, those too mix with the solids, making the cheese at the bottom brown and leaving the whey brownish as well (and probably incredibly sweet from all the sugar that's also there).  That's right.  The demo showed a guy making "Coke Cheese."  It's probably not very tasty.

Now I'm not saying soda is exactly a health food.  It's certainly not and we can talk at length about empty calories and limiting sugar and sodium intake and High-Fructose Corn Syrup and a whole host of other health concerns when it comes to soda consumption.  But mixing two liquids together and getting a chemical reaction doesn't allow us to draw the conclusion that either of the two liquids is inherently poisonous.  If you believe that, then put down that mozzarella stick right now!

What I'm saying is think before you share.  There are a lot of reputable sources on the internet that are only a Google search away.  There are even entire sites dedicated to proving and disproving common myths and forwarded internet claims like snopes.com and truthorfiction.com.

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.