Sunday, October 28, 2012

I'm not fat, I'm FLUFFY!

Here we are again on cranberry lane! (Is that a space on the Candyland game? It should be.) Have you tried cranberry chicken yet? Are you anxious for favorite cranberry recipe #2? I am! I haven't stopped thinking about it since I posted the first recipe a couple of days ago. I should clarify that just because this recipe is the second one I am posting does not mean it is any less a favorite than the first. It is equally as delicious and dear to my heart.

Many years ago I was part of a great group of friends that continually frequented plays and concerts in the Salt Lake City area. We saw and heard some fantastic performances! Before attending any event, we always went out to dinner. We even had a rotation for who had to choose where we'd be eating The Roof restaurant at Temple Square became a favorite of the group. While it was too expensive to eat at on any kind of monthly basis, we did make sure we at there every Christmas season and usually for Valentine's Day. Now, if you've been to The Roof buffet before you know the high price is well worth it. The bite size sampler foods, soups, vegetables, peel-and-eat shrimp, rotating main dishes, prime rib and heavenly desserts combine to create a culinary masterpiece. I could make a list of 20 foods there that I adore. And guess what? One of those is a cranberry recipe--CRANBERRY FLUFF SALAD!

(picture from The Albert Lea Tribune via Google)

While the majority of the buffet items at The Roof rotate, a few of the salads remain the same visit after visit. Luckily for me, the cranberry fluff salad is one of those. Rarely did I roll out the door leave after dinner there without saying to myself, "I have got to figure out how to make that salad." It is a perfect blend of tart and sweet, creamy and crunchy. After a couple of years it finally occurred to me that I actually owned a copy of the now out-of-print original Lion House recipes. Since the salad never rotated off the buffet, it must be a classic for the restaurant and might be in the very book I'd owned all along. Guess what? IT WAS! Imagine my joy! Now that I have it, and am still as in love with it as I ever was, I want to share it with you!

Lion House Cranberry Fluff Salad
2 c raw cranberries, ground
1/2 c sugar
2 c diced apples
1/2 c chopped walnuts or pecans
3 c miniature marshmallows
1/4 t salt
1 c heavy cream, whipped
Combine cranberries and sugar; cover and chill overnight. Add apples, nuts, marshmallows, and salt. Fold in whipped cream. Chill. Makes about 12 servings.

This dish is a great alternative to a fruit or a jello salad. It would be a great addition to any Thanksgiving dinner! (I may need to put it on my menu this year.) Since I know you are all anxious to make this delightful dish, let me pass along a couple of things to be aware of.

First, the sugar will bring out the natural juices in your cranberries as they sit overnight. (Ever heard of the term "maceration"?) The juice is what gives your salad it's lovely pink hue. To get your cranberries nice and fine, give them a spin in a food processor. Second, I never peel my apples. You can peel yours if you'd like, but I don't mind the skin (think off all those vitamins!) so I don't take the time. Third, the original recipe calls for walnuts, but I listed pecans as an alternative. My dear hubby is allergic to walnuts, so I always substitute pecans. And finally, make sure you don't sweeten up your whipped cream out of habit. Your berry and sugar mixture will do that for you.

Oh yeah, one more thing. There are several versions of this salad that use crushed pineapple. I've never tried it that way. While I'm sure it's tasty, I am going to cling to my original version for now.

So there it is, cranberry recipe #2. Does anyone else want a bowl right now as much as I do?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's THAT time of year!

Doesn't that title just make you want to start singing the Christmas Waltz, "It's that time of year when the world falls in love, Ev'ry song you hear seems to say..."? While THAT time of year is rapidly approaching, I'm actually referring to something completely different. Ladies and gentlemen, it's (drum roll please)...CRANBERRY SEASON!

I know, I know. It's October and everyone is pumpkin happy. Don't get me wrong. I like pumpkin foods, especially pie (I would happily eat a whole one), but cranberry season is one of my favorites of the year. A few years ago I was not aware of the fact that there is, indeed, a season when these delightful little flavor balls could be purchased. Ever tried to buy a bag of cranberries in your grocer's produce section mid-June? I have! It's impossible. While there are whole and jellied options available in cans year round, their unprocessed counterparts are only available to purchase from about October through Christmas. (I actually saw the first bags of the season at Costco last week.)
You may wonder how I cope with the berry shortage the other 9 months of the year. It's easy. When cranberries are available for sale in the fall, I stock up and keep them in my freezer. Unlike other berries that can get mushy after being frozen, these little gems don't change at all when they go from fresh, to frozen, back to fresh. The nice part is that you don't have to repackage them in any way. Just toss the bags in the freezer and pull them out as you need them. I do transfer the cranberries to a gallon size resealable bag only after I've opened the large bag size from Costco and not used them all. This makes it easier to get out the amount I need without having to deal with the original unsealable bag.
One note about freezer-life. I've heard it said that a bag of cranberries will last one year in the freezer. To that I say PE SHAW! I've had my current supply for two years now (I bought about 12 pounds back in Nov of 2010) and it's still perfect.
So, in anticipation of all the cranberries I know you are all going to rush out and buy--and since all the other food blogs are loaded with pumpkin recipes--I'm going to post my four favorite cranberry recipes over the next week! Let's start with my favorite...Cranberry Chicken.
Three years ago when I was visiting my dad in Florida (just before boarding a glorious 7-day cruise), his sweet wife shared some of her favorite recipes with me. One of those recipes was Cranberry Chicken. A couple of months later I made the dish for a Sunday dinner when we had guests over. And then I made it for people again...and again...and again...all throughout the year. It got to the point where we'd invite people for dinner and they'd be overjoyed to find out Cranberry Chicken was on the menu. In fact, I started having to double the recipe each time I made it because we and our guests loved it so much.

This dish is super easy to throw together. It has a slightly long cooking time at 45 minutes, but you can prep it in minutes. I've only made one small change to the recipe as it was given to me. Let's take a look at the recipe and then I'll tell you about my change.
Cranberry Chicken
6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 c chopped onion
1 c ketchup
1 c brown sugar
1/4 c maple syrup
zest of a large orange
1 1/2 c fresh cranberries
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place chicken breasts in a baking dish large enough to allow a bit of room around each one. Bake for 20 minutes. While chicken is baking, mix remaining ingredients. Pour over chicken and bake 25 additional minutes. Serve over rice. (Spoon some of the sauce over the rice too!)
See, how simple is that! Remember I told you I've made one change? It's with the chopped onion. The original recipe said to saute the onions before adding to the sauce. I have found this to be completely unnecessary. I did it the first time I made it and never done it again. The dish bakes long enough that the onions get nice and tender in the oven. I don't see any need for the extra work and dirty dish.
Would you like a couple of hints? Oh good. First, the cranberries. You can use them thawed or straight out of your freezer. I never defrost them first. Either way they will get nice and soft while cooking and lots of them will pop. YUMMY! And don't worry, the brown sugar will help tame the natural tartness of the berries.
Second, the sauce. I don't always have an orange on hand for the zest. I try to, but for those times when I don't I use a teaspoon of orange extract instead. I like the zest best, but the extract an o.k. alternative. If you don't have either, no problem. Just move forward without it. Also, I never measure out the syrup. I just eyeball it. I figure if add a bit of extra, OH WELL!
Finally, make sure you give your chicken some room in the pan. I've found that if I put the breasts too close together, they can come out undercooked. Plus, if you don't give them a touch of room, the sauce can't fully coat the meat. I'm not talking about a lot of space, but don't let the breasts touch. You can see from the picture above that I have about a cranberry width--give or take a bit--between each one. If your particular chicken breasts are very large, which mine tend to be, don't hesitate to cut them in to smaller pieces. I find the dish easier for people to manage if they can serve themselves smaller pieces.
Want a money saving hint? You will save money on cranberries if you can buy them in a large (48 oz) bag at a warehouse store rather than buying four individual (12 oz) bags at the grocery store. I'm all for saving pennies where I can!

 That's it favorite cranberry recipe #1. I absolutely adore it and I've never served it to a single person that didn't love it. With cranberries starting to pop up on your grocery store shelves, this is definitely a recipe worth trying. Stay tuned for favorite recipe #2!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Faux-ly Cheese Steak Sandwiches

One of my most favorite foods is a delicious sandwich. And one of my most favorite sandwiches is the philly cheese steak. There's a restaurant by my husband's office that is only philly cheese steaks (a variety of kinds) and I love it! The Our Best Bites girls have a fabulous recipe for philly cheese steaks here. And Pioneer Woman's sandwich called "Marlboro Man's Favorite Sandwich" is an excellent taste-a-like.

However, early on in our marriage my husband made me something he called philly cheese steaks. But he warned me: "It's not really like a REAL philly cheese steak sandwich. It's like a cheap knock-off. But tasty." Boy, was he right. And many times since then when I haven't felt like making dinner or had a really strong craving for a philly cheese steak I have convinced the husband to whip these up for me.

The real trick to them is that you don't use actual steak. It's grilled up deli meat. Sometimes, if the husband is feeling really good we will go get really good deli meat from the counter at the grocery store but often times when we whip this up last minute we just use packaged lunch meat. We pick out 2-3 kinds of lunch meat we like (usually ending up with roast beef, turkey, and ham) and go for it. Hence the name, FAUX-ly Cheese Steak Sandwiches.

Also, I apologize that the recipe isn't a bit more exact but you should just make them with as much of everything as you want. This really is more of a guideline.

Faux-ly Cheese Steak Sandwiches
2-3 kinds of deli meat, whatever kind you want
Provolone Cheese, or whichever kind of cheese is your favorite
Really good deli rolls (we like kaiser or club rolls)

We like to use a our flat-top electric griddle. But, you could use a fry pan if you don't have one.

Spray your griddle with non-stick spray, or butter it if you are feeling lucky. Cut up enough of the deli meat for however many people you are feeding. We usually cut up the amount one of us would have on a sandwich, plus 1-2 more slices. How much meat you fry up will depend on how many people you are feeding, how much meat they really want and how big your rolls are. The bigger the people/desire for meat/rolls, the more meat you will need. Then toss them on the griddle and fry them up until they are nice and hot and a little brown-er around the edges. Don't burn them. That does not taste good. You just want them hot and flavorful. Once your meat is done, turn the griddle down to low and put two slices of provolone on top. Let it melt until creamy and delicious and your mouth won't stop watering. While the cheese is melting, put some mayo on your rolls. If you are my husband, you will coat them. If you are me, you will put about 1/2 the amount. Load your rolls up with the meat/cheese mixture and then run to the table to hurry and enjoy. Best when fresh and warm!

Banana Muffins

You know how sad you get when you find a piece of fruit that has seen better days? It's got a nasty, brown spot or perhaps even (and this never happens in my house, I assure you...OK, maybe not) a little furry spot. And you see that little spot, and you get so sad. Your mind starts to race with thoughts of what a waste of money it was, how you should have eaten that delicious apple instead of the three (OK...five) chocolate chip cookies. 

Why is it that you never feel that way when you come upon a darkening banana? I'm thrilled when my bananas finally cross the threshold into baking territory. Sometimes, I even throw them in the freezer to speed up that process. Come to think of it, there's a couple bananas browning away in my freezer right at this moment. 

Well, I came upon some browned bananas last week and decided it was time for some banana muffins. I love this recipe. It is the perfect blend of banana flavor. Oh, by the way, I'm not a huge banana lover but I love banana bread, but not when it's TOO banana-y. This is perfect. If you wanted a little crunch, toss in some walnuts or pecans. Or if you want a little extra sweetness, toss in some chocolate chips. As for me, I think the next time I whip them up, I might put a little cream cheese frosting on top.

Banana Muffins
Makes about 12 muffins

1/4 c. butter
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2-3 large, ripe bananas
1/2 c. water
1 t. vanilla 
1 t. soda
1 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt 
2 1/2 c. flour

Cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and beat slightly. Add other ingredients. Fold in nuts or chocolate chips, if you are adding some. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-18 minutes. ENJOY!

By the way, a lot of banana bread recipes call for mashing the banana before tossing it into your mixing bowl. I NEVER do this. If the bananas is browning already, I just toss the banana into my mixing bowl and call it good. Also, I've been known to toss a little banana baby food (AKA: banana puree) in when I didn't have enough or any bananas. It works fantastic! 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Most Delicious Homemade Bread Ever

Quite some time ago, I went to the grocery store in search of a healthier bread. Now, I live in what I feel is the middle of nowhere, actually referred to as the California High Desert, and there isn't a health food store within driving distance. So, I went in search of said bread at my local Super Target. I just wanted bread that had the basics. Did you know that's pretty much impossible? Everything had enriched wheat flour, preservatives, caramel coloring, etc. I thought to myself, "Shouldn't bread just be flour, water, maybe sugar, and some salt?" So, I left discouraged and decided I needed a breadmaker.

Flash forward to a few months ago, I finally had enough money to purchase my own breadmaker. I scoured Amazon and google attempting to find the best, reasonably priced breadmaker. I wasn't really interested in anything too expensive but I knew I wanted something that would be a good price and still church out the best bread possible. I ended up going with a Sunbeam model found here. Let me tell you, I love this breadmaker! It's cheap, only about $55, but it works great! Never once have I had a problem with it (knock on wood) and it makes delicious bread. I've heard a lot of people complain that bread from a breadmaker comes out with a "machine/factory" taste. I've never had that problem with mine. I highly recommend this breadmaker and, apparently, so do the 499 people who have given it 5 stars on Amazon. 

Then I went in search of the perfect recipe. I checked out a bunch of books from my library and tested as many different recipes as I could. That being said, if you get a breadmaker, get this book. It has fantastic recipes for sandwich loaves, fancy loaves, rolls, sweet doughs. I love this book. 

After finding the perfect recipe, I went searching for some good bread flour to buy in bulk. Let me here, do a small, but not discreet, plug for my husband's company. Buy from Honeyville Grain. Their bread flour has produced the most delicious bread ever. I use the Cal Best Bread Flour because it has a dough conditioner already mixed in the flour. Dough conditioner is a product you can add to your dough to help preserve it for a little bit longer--bear in mind, homemade bread doesn't last anywhere as long as store bread. But I've found that the dough conditioner in this bread flour adds at least 2-3 days. (It's a personal decision if you want to use bread flour. Bread flour is best because it has a higher gluten content than your basic all purpose. However, if you prefer to not use bread flour, you may need to add a little bit more yeast. I've always used bread flour and they really turn out great.)

That being said, on to the recipe!

Most Delicious Homemade Bread Ever 
For a breadmaker
Recipe is for a 1 1/2 pound loaf

1 egg plus enough water to equal 1c. and 2 T. 
3 c. bread flour
1 T. plus 1 t. sugar
1 t. salt
6 T. butter, softened, cut and diced
1 t. bread machine yeast (or active dry)

Pour egg and water mix into breadmaker pan. Sprinkle the 3 c. flour evenly over the top. Put sugar, salt, and butter in opposite corners of pan. (Also, I am completely guilty of not leaving 6 T. of butter out to soften before I make my bread. Sometimes, I just chop it up and throw it in cold, other times I plop it in the microwave for 10 seconds or so. Sue me. It works.) Make a well in the middle of the flour (not deep enough to hit the water) and sprinkle in the yeast. 

Turn breadmaker to the color setting you like, I do light, and the size of loaf (1 1/2 pound.) This will go on your basic bread making setting. 

If you would prefer to do your kneading and rising in the breadmaker and the baking in the oven, put it on the dough cycle. If you prefer to do your kneading and rising by yourself, I applaud you, however, I'm not 100% sure how to tell you to use this recipe in that way. I imagine you could just follow the procedure you would for any homemade bread. Knead, rise, knead, rise, bake until done. But, don't quote me on that. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What Did I Do Wrong?

As a result of our recent move (Mr. C and I relocated two months ago), I have found it overwhelmingly necessary to clean out many of my old cooking magazines and cookbooks.  As I unpacked what seemed like endless boxes of personal possessions, I realized I had six...YES SIX...boxes of cookbooks.  As if that wasn't bad enough, I had two boxes of cooking magazines and several manila envelopes filled with "recipes to try" that I've been collecting over the past 10 years.  It is just too much, so I have decided it is time to pass a few things along to our local thrift store.

Since I have a whole year of Cooking Light magazines waiting for me that have never been read (a gift from a former boss), I decided to put them in my bathroom and glance through them time allowed.  (Is that TMI?)  As I was "glancing" this week, I came across a very interesting article that I think will be helpful to pass along to all the cooks, or wanna-be cooks, or struggling cooks, out there in blogland.  The article is from the March 2010 issue and is titled "OOPS!  The 25 Most Common Cooking Mistakes and How to Avoid Them for Success Every Time."  As I read the article, I noticed that I've made nearly every one of the 25 mistakes.  I appreciated the helpful hints on how to avoid the problems.  I hope you do too!  (You'll see the information from the magazine first and then my comments in italics if you'd really think I am smart enough to write the magazine stuff!)

1. You don't taste as you go.  Result: The flavors or textures of an otherwise excellent dish are out of balance or unappealing.  Recipes don't always call for the "right" amount of seasoning, cooking times are estimates, and results vary depending on your ingredients, stove, altitude, and a million other factors.  Your palate is in control.  Tasting tells you if more seasoning is needed, if beans or vegetables are tough, or if a fruit needs a little sugar.  Taste early and often.  (This is one of my worst offenses...especially when I'm teaching.  I am becoming a firm believer in taking a tiny taste of a sauce, a veggie, or a pasta noodle to make sure things are how I want them.)

2. You don't read the entire recipe before you start cooking.  Result: Should-be-tender meat turns out tough, flavors are dull, entire steps or ingredients get left out.  Follow the pros' habit of having your ingredients gathered, prepped, and ready to go before you turn on the heat.  If you don't, you may leave out an ingredient or compromise the recipe by shortchanging a crucial step, and that's a tragic thing.  (Me again!  In fact, just last weekend I got part way in to mixing up ham and cheese muffins when I realized I had no sour cream.  I was able to find a substitute by turning to Google for help, but that isn't always the case.  This is one I need to work on FOR SURE!)

3. You make unwise substitutions in baking.  Result: You wreck the underlying chemistry of the dish.  When it comes to baking, this is as much science as art, and it requires a lot of trial and error.  For best practice, follow the recipe.  If you want to experiment, as we all do from time to time, regard it as and experiment and expect a few failures along the way.  (I once heard some advice that you should always make a recipe just as it is written the first time you make it.  This way you know how it should look, taste, and cook.  After that first attempt you can start experimenting since you have a point of reference for how the finished dish should look and taste.  Do you agree?)

4. You boil when you should simmer.  Result: A hurried-up dish that's cloudy, tough, or dry.  This is one of the most common and perhaps least recognized kitchen errors.  For clarification: simmering is when a bubble breaks the surface of the liquid every second or two.  More vigorous bubbling than that means you've got a boil going.  The difference between the two can ruin a dish.  (Despite watching a segment of Emeril on this very topic, I continue to make this mistake again and again.  I like the clarification the article provides.)

5.  You overheat chocolate.  Result: Instead of having a smooth, creamy, luxurious consistency, your chocolate is grainy, separated, or scorched.  The best way to melt chocolate is to go slowly, heat gently, remove from the heat before it's fully melted, and stir until smooth.  If using the microwave, proceed cautiously, stopping every 20-30 seconds to stir.  If using a double boiler, make sure the water is simmering, not boiling.  It is very easy to ruin chocolate and there is no way back.  (Isn't that the truth!  If I had a dollar for every batch of chocolate I had ruined by doing this very thing...I could buy a whole lot more chocolate!  I find that I most often have problems when I am using the microwave, although I've ruined plenty on the stove top by not taking the time to use a double boiler and trying to melt the chocolate directly over the heat.)

6. You over-soften butter.  Result: Cookies spread too much or cakes are too dense.  We've all done it: forgotten to soften the butter and zapped it in the microwave.  But it's a baking error to excessively soften, let alone melt, the butter.  Better to let it stand at room temperature for 30-45 minutes.  You can speed the softening process significantly by cutting butter into tablespoon-sized portions and letting it stand at room temperature.  (Guilty!  Enough said.  Although, I am happy to report that the microwave in our new home actually has a "soften" feature and you can choose from butter, cream cheese, and other foods in the menu.  Still, I should just plan ahead--as suggested by mistake #2--and let it sit on the counter.)

7. You overheat low-fat milk products.  Result: The milk curdles or "breaks," yielding grainy mac and cheese, ice cream, or pudding.  Cook lower-fat dairy products to a temperature of only 180 degrees or less.  One alternative: stabilize milk with starch, like cornstarch or flour, if you want to bring it to a boil; the starch will prevent curdling and will thicken the milk too.  (This one I am not sure about.  I only use fat-free milk in my cooking, even when the recipe says otherwise, and I have not noticed any real issues other than it taking longer to thicken on a couple of occasions.  Obviously the starch alternative is a good resolution for that, but I haven't noticed any curdling or breaking in my baking.  I'm not sure if it's not happening or if I am just not noticing.)

8. You don't know your oven's quirks and idiosyncrasies.  Result: Food cooks too fast, too slow, or unevenly.  Ideally an oven set to 350 degrees would actually be 350 degrees, but many ovens aren't and some change their behavior as they age.  Always use an oven thermometer.  Next, be aware of hot spots.  To test for spots: arrange bread slices on a baking sheet large enough to cover your middle oven rack.  Bake at 350 degrees for a few minutes and see which slices get singed.  If you know you have a hot spot, avoid it or rotate accordingly.  (I am living this nightmare right now since I have a new oven that cooks much differently from my last one.  I haven't yet taken the time to sit down and read the manual for it, but that is a MUST for this week.  When I took a pan of peanut butter cookies out of the oven this week, however, I did notice that the cookies nearest the oven door were significantly browner than those in the back.  Guess I don't need to do a bread test!)

9. You're too casual about measuring ingredients.  Result: Dry, tough cakes, rubbery brownies, and a host of other textural mishaps.  If you add as little as two extra tablespoons of flour to a cake recipe, for example, you may end up with a dry, tough texture.  This can happen if you scoop your flour out of a canister or tap the cup on the counter.  Both yield too much flour.  Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups, then level with a knife.  If you are measuring the flour by weight, it doesn't matter how you get it out of the canister.  (I confess to being a scooper, yet I do level my scoop with a knife.  Does that mean I'm only making 50% of a mistake?  I don't think I've ever tapped, so I'm finally clear on something!)

10. You overcrowd the pan.  Result: Soggy food that doesn't brown.  All food will release moisture as it is cooked, so you need to leave room for the steam to escape.  Trapped moisture turns browning in to steaming.  (I heard this on "The Chew" the other day in reference to hash browns.)  It's easy to overcrowd, particularly when you are in a hurry.  Leave breathing room in the pan and you'll get a much better result.  If you need to speed things up, use two pans.  (I have done this so often without realizing what I was doing.  When I heard this "steaming" issue being discussed on tv the other day, my first thought was "that's me!"  I need to remember that taking a little more time and spacing out the food in my pan will yield a much better dish...not to mention Mr. C will finally get crunchy hash browns!)

11. You mishandle egg whites.  Result: The whites won't whip up.  Or, overbeaten or roughly handled, they produce flat cake layers or souffles with no lift.  Egg whites require care.  Separate whites from yolks carefully; a speck of yolk can prevent the whites from whipping fully.  The best tool for separating is your hands because cracked shells can have jagged edges that will puncture the yolk.  Also, separate eggs in to an individual bowl before transferring it to your mixing bowl to avoid contaminating the entire batch if some yolk slips through.  Whites will whip up better if they sit at room temperature for a few minutes.  (Been there, done them all--overbeaten, broken a yolk on a shell, and contaminated a dozen egg whites that were waiting to be made in to angel food cake when some yolk ended up in my bowl!  I also learned the hard way not to try and whip egg whites in a plastic bowl.  What a disaster.)

12. You turn the food too often.  Result: You interfere with the sear, food sticks, or you lose breading.  Learning to leave food alone is one of the hardest lessons in cooking.  Food won't develop a nice crust unless you allow it to cook, undisturbed.  One sign that it's too early to turn: you can't slide a spatula cleanly under the crust.  It will release when it's ready.  (I will admit to doing this on some occasions, however, my dear Mr. C is a worse offender...especially when grilling.  It seems like the more he flips and flips and flips, the longer things take to cook.  Whenever he says, "I'm going to go check the grill," I know he means he's going to go flip stuff again.  It makes me crazy at times.)

13. You don't get the pan hot enough before you add the food.  Result: Food that sticks, has no sear, pale meats.  The inexperienced cook, or hurried cook, will barely heat the pan before adding oil and tossing in food to saute.  Next comes...nothing.  Silence.  No sizzle.  A hot pan is essential for sauteing veggies or creating a great crust on meat, fish, and poultry.  It also helps prevent food from sticking.  Some professional chefs say, "If you think your pan is hot enough, step back and heat it a couple more minutes."  Only add the oil when the pan is hot, just before adding the ingredients.  Otherwise, it will smoke and that's bad for the oil.  (This is actually something I have tried to work on lately, even before I read this article.  Looking back on our meals this week, however, I can still see that I am not getting the pan where it should be.  I guess I'll have to try the "if you think it's hot enough, step back" idea and see how that works.)

14. You slice meat with--instead of against--the grain.  Result: Chewy meat that could have been tender.  Look at the meat to determine the direction of the grain (the muscle fibers) and cut across the grain, not with it.  This is particularly important with tougher cuts such as flank steak or skirt steak.  (I am absolutely horrible about this.  My problem is that I can't ever seem to figure out the grain.  My solution?  Ask Mr. C to cut the meat.)

15. You underbake cakes and breads.  Result: Cakes, brownies, and breads turn out pallid and gummy.  (What the heck does pallid mean?)  Overcooked baked goods disappoint.  Less experienced bakers are more likely to undercook--that is a travesty.  Really look at the food.  Even if the wooden pick comes out clean, if the cake is pale, it's not finished.  Let it go another couple of minutes.  It's better to err on the side of slightly overcooking than producing gummy, wet, unappealing food.  Once you've done it a few times, you'll know exactly what you're looking for.  (I hate this one because I have ruined a few quick breads this way.  It's not an issue I generally have with cakes, although I did do it once with a pan of cornbread, but quick breads can be a killer.  Perhaps I should be using my eyes as much as my tester like the article suggests.)

16. You don't use a meat thermometer.  Result: Your roast chicken, leg of lamb, or beef tenderloin turns out over- or undercooked.  The meat thermometer is one of the most valuable kitchen tools you can own.  Using one is a surefire way to achieve a good dish because temperatures don't lie and appearances can deceive.  Try a digital thermometer that allows you to set the device to a desired temperature.  (Mr. C and I purchased a meat thermometer a few years ago after Alton Brown said it's the best way to ensure a perfectly cooked turkey.  While Mr. C uses it all the time on the grill, I never used it with daily cooking until a couple weeks ago when my co-blogger, Mrs. E, suggested I use it for meatloaf.  The result was spectacular!  I found that I cooked my mini meatloaves way shorter than I thought I would have to.  They were perfectly cooked, moist, and delectable.)

17. Meat gets no chance to rest after cooking.  Result: Delicious juices vacate the meat and run all over the cutting board, leaving steak or roast dry.  Plan your meals so that your meat has time to rest at room temperature after it's pulled from the heat.  The resting rule applies equally to an inexpensive steak or a premium one.  With small cuts like a steak or a boneless, skinless chicken breast, five minutes is adequate.  A whole bird or standing rib roast requires 20-30 minutes.  Tent the meat loosely with foil to keep it warm.  (Finally, a mistake I don't generally make!  Well, one that I don't make anymore.  After years and years of watching Food Network, this is one practice I started years ago.  Mr. C is especially careful to make sure all his grilled items--whether from the outside BBQ or the indoor Foreman--sit as well.)

18. You try to rush the cooking of caramelized onions.  Result: You end up with sauteed onions, which are nice but a far cry from the melt-in-your-mouth caramelized ideal.  If you want real, true, sweet, creamy caramelized onions, you need to cook them over med-low to low heat for a long time, maybe up to an hour.  Know that caramelized onions take time, and plan to cook them when you can give them the time they need.  (I think I have only attempted caramelized onions once, but I can't really remember.  If I did, I am positive that I did not cook them for an hour, so I likely ended up with sauteed onions instead.  Good point to remember for the future.  French onion soup anyone?)

19. You overwork lower-fat dough.  Result: Cookies, scones, piecrusts, and biscuits turn out tough.  Recipes with lots of butter are more likely to stay moist and tender even if the dough is overmixed or overkneaded.  Without all the fat (remember, this article is coming from Cooking Light), you absolutely must use a light hand.  Knead dough gently or pat it out instead of rolling.  Mix just until flour is incorporated.  Stop machine mixing early and finish by hand.  (Since I don't tend to bake things with lower fat dough, this one isn't really an issue for me.  Hooray!  A second one I can claim to be free of!  In my daily cooking I cook very low fat, but in baking, I don't.  I try to compensate by eating a smaller portion.  Notice I said "try," not succeed!)

20. You neglect the nuts you are roasting.  Result: Bitter nuts, with a sharp, bitter flavor.  The nut is a mighty delicate thing--in an oven it can go from perfectly toasty to charred in seconds.  Arrange nuts in a single layer on a heavy baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees for as little as two minutes for flaked coconut to five or more minutes depending on the type of nut; shake the pan or stir frequently so the nuts toast evenly.  They tend to brown on the bottom more quickly.  They're done when they've darkened slightly and smell fragrant and toasty.  If you burn the nuts, toss them and start over.  It is not recommended to toast nuts in a pan on the stove top; it's almost impossible not to burn them that way.  (Hmmm...rather than tell you whether or not I've done this, I simply present this photo that was taken just seven short days ago:

Those are were pecans.  I attribute this frustrating and annoying disaster--especially because pecans are so dang expensive right now--in part to mistake #8 above.)

21. You don't shock vegetables when they've reached the desired texture.  Result: Mush.  If you don't shock vegetables when they've reached a vibrant color and crisp-tender texture, the cooking process will carryover and continue to cook them to a bad color and texture.  This is not a concern if you intend to serve the vegetables immediately.  This is also a convenient method for pre-cooking vegetables for a complex meal.  You can refrigerate them overnight and warm them quickly the next day.  (Once again, been there, done it, will probably continue to do it.  I am usually WAY too impatient to do this...although I do it when I'm preparing to freeze extra veggies from my garden.)

22. You put all the salt in the marinade or breading.  Result: Fish, poultry, or meat that's underseasoned.  Things that are marinating will actually only absorb a tiny amount.  When you toss out the marinade, you also toss out most of the salt and its seasoning effect.  It's better to use a little salt in the marinade, then directly sprinkle the majority of the salt after it comes out.  The same goes for breaded items.  (Not really an issue for me.  I don't do a lot of marinating, or breading, so I manage to avoid this one.  Plus, I salt things TOO much, so I likely err more in that direction than this.  It's a good rule to remember though.)

23. You pop meat straight from the fridge into the oven or onto the grill.  Result: Food cooks unevenly; the outside is overdone, the inside rare or raw.  Meats will cook much more evenly if you allow them to stand at room temperature for 15-30 minutes, depending on the size of the cut, to take the chill off.  Smaller cuts like chicken breasts benefit from resting 5-10 minutes.  (Since I don't do a lot of meat roasting, I can usually avoid this mishap.  Although, I'd be lying if I said I had never done it.)

24.  You don't know when to abandon ship and start over.  Result: You serve a disappointing meal--and you know it's disappointing!  It's human nature to try to cover up a seemingly minor error and proceed, hoping against evidence that the dish will turn out OK.  There is no shame in making a mistake; we all do.  While it may feel a bit wasteful to throw food in the trash, it's the right thing to do.  Start again fresh if you can.  (Oh, the stories I could tell you about knowing something was bad, yet I didn't take the time to start again.  There are the raw meatballs that I let sit overnight in a cream soup and turned it pink.  Did I take the time to put my meatballs in a fresh can of soup?  Nope.  I baked and served meatballs that looked like they were sitting in vomit.  Or, there was the tapioca based gelatin salad that I knew was overcooked.  Did I start again, even thought I had 24 hours to do so?  Nope again.  I served what has now become my legendary "after-birth" salad.  No one ate it, including me!  I could go on, but I won't.  If I do, people might stop wanting to eat at my house!  I am getting better though because I did choose to ditch the charred pecans pictured earlier and started again with a new batch.  It was a hard thing to do because I hate wasting food, and money, but the decision made for much tastier pecan rolls the next morning.)

25. You use inferior ingredients.  Result: Sigh.  We save this point for last because it's the linchpin of great cooking.  Good food begins and ends with the ingredients.  The dishes you cook will only be as mediocre, good, or superb as the ingredients you put in them.  Out-of-season fruits and vegetables also disappoint, even when it looks good.  Canned products may be a better option. Always shop for the best ingredients.  Your cooking will invariably turn out better.  (Ok, this one is a tough one.  I agree that great ingredients make great food, but my budget is what it is.  I do the best I can.  At times I have asked for help.  When I wanted to make a recipe that called for a piece of meat that was 15.00 a pound, I asked the butcher for an alternative that was similar in cooking style and texture but much less expensive.  He helped me find a great substitute that was only 2.99 a pound.  I am wholly supportive of not buying fruits and vegetables that are not in season.  Not only do they not taste as good, they are just too darn costly.  I take the magazine's advice and go for canned or frozen...or choose something else to make.  The one ingredient I am willing to splurge on?  Chocolate.  I truly believe you get what you pay for when it comes to chocolate.  When I'm using a basic chips for a cookie, I find a bargain chip to be just fine.  But, for anything else, I am willing to save up and buy as high quality chocolate as I can afford.)

There you have them, the 25 most common mistakes according to Cooking Light.  I think I only had three that I could not claim to have done.  How about you?  Oh well, at least we're in good company, right?!  Happy cooking!

Friday, March 2, 2012

BALT Melts

Lately, Mr. E and I have been on a slight BLT kick as of late. We found a DELICIOUS butcher shop near our house that has perfect thick cut bacon and we've been putting it in just about anything. Just an FYI: thick cut bacon on homemade bread is HEAVEN. So, I was scanning through my e-mails that I get from Pillsbury and I found a recipe for these. I thought it sounded perfect for the husband and me. 

I did modify the recipe a little so I'm staking my claim and saying I made this recipe up. :) The major changes I made from the Pillsbury recipe were to use provolone instead of cheddar and to make guacamole (my family's special guacamole to be exact) instead of the basic (and possibly boring) mashed avocado. 

When I made these my husband took one bite and said "Wow! These are great! These are really great!" Now, for some of you, that may be nothing but my husband never responds like that to food. Unless, his Mom makes it, or my Mom makes it, or we are at a fancy restaurant. He just kept going on and on and on about it. "These are a 10! Make these again!" 

They would make the most excellent appetizers! I wish I had had the recipe on Superbowl Sunday. Enjoy everyone! 

BALT Melts

1 can Refrigerated Biscuits (you can use the ones from the freezer aisle also, or homemade ones!)

Caesar Dressing

Cheese of your Choice (the recipe I based this on used cheddar but I didn't have much cheddar left and frankly, I think cheddar is too strong a flavor for these so I used my favorite cheese--Provolone)

Avocados (the original recipe called for just mashed up avocado but I recommend mixing in a small amount of mayo to make it nice and creamy and a few shakes of garlic powder and onion powder for flavor)

Tomatoes (cut into relatively thin slices, it will make it easier to eat)

Bacon (cooked, and crumbled up...I won't judge if you take a few bites for yourself, or a few pieces...)

Arrange the biscuits on a cookie sheet and cook to the directions on the package. 

When the biscuits are done, remove from oven and turn oven to broil. Carefully cut the biscuits in half and spread about 1/2-1 Tablespoon of caesar dressing on the cut side of the biscuit. Then arrange a little bit of cheese over the caesar. Put under the broil until the cheese has melted--this will be FAST so watch carefully.

Spread the mashed avocados (or made up guacamole) on top of the cheese and then put one slice of tomato on top. Then sprinkle a little bit of bacon on top of the tomato. 

My husband said he wouldn't mind having these as a sandwich so I think it might be great to sandwich everything between two pieces of biscuit with dressing and cheese on both slices. 


Monday, January 30, 2012

Salsa Dancin'

Don't you just love harvest time...cooler temperatures, college football, pumpkin flavored baked goods, and tomatoes. Oh, the tomatoes! When harvest time heads in to full swing, tomatoes are everywhere. They seem to be available at every roadside stand and are abundant in local gardens. In fact, I spent some quality time in the VERY warm fall sun last year picking my tomatoes that FINALLY decided to turn red. (I was for convinced for two months that my tomato plants were really just shrubs!) Look at this one I picked at the end of the season.  I swear to you it was the size of a newborn baby's head!  My palm is open as wide as it will go.

The nice thing about the abundance of tomatoes is that people are often trying to find somewhere to unload their extras.  Enter the "garbage disposal lady." (That's me, in case you are wondering.) I am always telling people, "If you have extras items from your gardens and fruit trees that need a home, CALL ME!" I figure if fruits and veggies are going to go to waste, they might as well go to use at my house. (Hence the 40 cups of shredded zucchini and the 19 frozen bananas in my freezer.) I have nicknamed myself the "garbage disposal lady" since I'm willing to be a dump for extra food.

This year I planted three roma tomato plants--the only type of tomatoes Mr. C will eat raw--and three regular tomato plants. Between the six plants, I got a fair amount of tomatoes, but not enough to do all the canned salsa and tomatoes that I was hoping for. Thank goodness for generous neighbors. I got a call one afternoon from a neighbor whose mother has rows and rows of plants that had produced more tomatoes than she or her daughter could use. Much to my delight there were boxes and boxes (literally) waiting for me to come and gobble up!

That's just a small sampling of what you could see around the kitchen.  Believe it or not, I used tomatoes out of my cold window sills in to December!

With a good supply of tomatoes on hand, it was time to pull out my favorite salsa recipe and go to town!

Let me interject here the process I used to choose my salsa recipe. Last year when was also gifted with lots of extra tomatoes, I knew I wanted to make and can salsa. I researched a lot of recipes, read reviews, and asked around for recommendations. I narrowed my options down to three--one that won a salsa contest in a major Salt Lake newspaper, one from the Ball canning book, and one that was emailed out by a local food storage merchant that originated from a vegetable farmer she buys from.  One afternoon I made a small sampling of each.  Mr. C came home to a bag of chips and three unmarked bowls of salsa sitting on our table.  I subjected him to a good ol' fashioned blind taste test.  He diligently tasted each one while I worked around the kitchen doing other things.  I knew we'd found a winning recipe when I turned around and saw this:

Yes indeed, you are looking at an empty bowl and an empty 10 oz. bag of tortilla chips. Polishing off the entire bowl of one recipe, not to mention the newly opened bag of chips while doing so, proved to me that I had a winner.  And which recipe proved to be the grand champion you ask?  Drumroll please...the farmer salsa!

Here is the recipe, along with a couple of changes that I make:

Farmer Salsa
14 1/2 cups tomatoes, chopped and peeled (It's about 6 pounds and I never peel them)
5 - 6 jalapenos (I take the veins and seeds out of most of them, but not all.  The more you leave, the more heat you'll have.)
2 onions chopped (I always do at least 3 VERY LARGE ones. I like onion heavy salsa.)
1 1/2 bell peppers chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 T salt
1 T dried oregano
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
2/3 c apple cider vinegar or lemon juice (I use lemon juice)
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 4-oz can diced green chilies (I sometimes use a generous 1/4 c of fresh chopped and deseeded Anaheim Chile Peppers instead)
10 banana wax peppers, chopped and the seeds removed (I pour in some of the juice too!  This is the best part of the recipe to me.)
Mix everything in a large pot. Bring to a boil and them simmer for about 1 hour. Process pints in boiling water bath canner for 20 minutes. The recipe says it makes 6 - 8 pints, but I ususally get 9 or 10...probably from the extra onions.

The first year I made this salsa, I chopped everything by hand.  This year, no way!  (I was still on burnout mode from all my jam.) I pulled out my handy dandy food processor and put it to work.  I highly recommend this method.  Don't overly process things, just give them a few good pulses.  For example, here are my tomatoes when I put them in the processor and then after three quick pulses:

A couple of pulses are just enough for most things:

One side note about the yellow banana wax peppers.

The flavor they give this salsa is heavenly.  DO NOT LEAVE THEM OUT!  In fact, I even recommend putting in a bit of the juice.  With the seeds and veins removed, they provide tons of flavor instead of heat.  You can find a jar near the pickles and olives in any grocery store.  They are very inexpensive.  I have been buying mine at Wal-Mart for under 2.00.

When the salsa is first in the pot, it will look like a really chunky pico type garnish, but it will darken as it cooks down and reduces a bit. 



One side note about the processing time.  The recipe says to process your jars for 20 minutes.  I am not sure what altitude that is intended for.  I process mine for 30 minutes based on the altitude guidelines for my city in the Ball canning book.  Look how pretty they are!

Are you wondering what I did with the rest of my tomatoes?  Well, after making 24 pints of salsa (12 for me and 12 for my blog partner Mrs. E), I had plenty left over for canning.  I gave a case or so to each of my neighbors who canned quarts of their own.  As for me...

...I have have a new supply of quart jars that are anxiously awaiting the chance to be made in to homemade spaghetti sauce some time soon.  YUMMY!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

I've stated before that Peanut Butter and Chocolate are my very favorite food combinations. I would eat anything that came with those two things. So, last night when Mr. E was expressing his extreme need for a cookie (OK, he wanted the dough), he suggested making some cookies that appeared on his cousin's blog. THEY WERE INCREDIBLE! I  loved them. They immediately went into my permanent collection of recipes. 

What is so great about them is the peanut butter flavor is subtle yet perfect. It's just the right amount. I don't usually like PB cookies for that reason. The peanut butter flavor is so strong, it's almost artificial. But, in these it was just the right amount. I'm drooling just thinking about it.

Oh, and by the way, I added much more chocolate chips than called for. I always do!

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter softened
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar 
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups chocolate chips 
Bake at 375 degrees for 8 - 10 minutes.  Makes 5 dozen cookies.

The only changes I made was that I halved the recipe--we certainly do not need 5 dozen cookies around here. And I added a dash of vanilla. Every chocolate chip cookie recipe needs it. Oh! And when you measure out your peanut butter, whether you do 1 cup or 1/2 cup, make sure it's a HEAPING cup!