Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dinner With A Side Of Nostalgia

Pot Roast

Does anybody out there make pot roast regularly? I haven't made one in years, but I found this great grass-fed chuck roast recently at Noah's Ark in Placerville. There's just something homey and comforting about pot roast. It reminds me of my grandma (my dad's mom) who passed away a little over a year ago. There were three dishes that I think of as her specialties: "Spanish" meatballs, mustard/brown sugar pork chops, and pot roast. She made excellent corned beef and cabbage too, and her cole slaw (she always called it cabbage & carrot salad) couldn't be beat. She also made the best butter cookies. I've got the recipe somewhere. They were just light and crispy with a nice buttery flavor without being too rich. I can remember helping her mix up batches when I visited her.

       When my siblings and I were kids, we would each go spend a week with grandma individually during the summer. During that week, the kid who was visiting was "The Big Cheese." My grandma and I would bake cookies, go shopping, and play tourist in Sacramento. She taught me how to crochet (I made endless hats, scarves, and socks for all the stuffed animals), to play cribbage, and to swim. Her neighbor had Corgis that were so cute. It's funny how much you remember when you start thinking about your childhood.

       Well, this is supposed to be a food blog, so I'm writing today about the pot roast (pretty darn good) and the madeira cake (not quite a fail) I made yesterday. Once again, I didn't have a go-to recipe, so I cobbled together a recipe I found online with my mom's advice on how to proceed in the endeavor of pot roast making, and the result was quite yummy.

       First I patted the chuck roast dry with a paper towel then sprinkled it with a little flour, salt, and pepper before browning it on all sides in a skillet with a little oil. Once all the sides were nice and brown, I transferred the roast to my Crockpot. I love this Crockpot; it was a gift from my sister one year for Christmas or my birthday, and it is just perfect. It's a perfect size, not too small and not too big, and it's not all gadgety with digital readouts and programmable controls. It has 4 settings: high, low, warm, and off. That's the beauty of a Crockpot, you don't have to do much. Once you start it, it's good on its own for several hours (or more) before you have to do anything. When the dish is done, you really only have to turn it down to warm or off and serve dinner.

       The chuck roast went into the Crockpot along with a sliced yellow onion, a few potatoes, and some carrots. I threw in some garlic powder, parsley, and thyme for good measure. Then I poured in one 12 oz can of V-8 and about a cup and a half of water. My mom suggested the V-8 because that's how she used to make it. She said she used it because it added the flavor of the vegetables, but not chunks of veggies we kids didn't like when we were little. I turned the Crockpot to high and left it for about an hour. Then I turned it to low and left it for another 5 hours or so.

       When the roast was done, I turned the Crockpot to warm and then ladled out about 2 cups of the broth, straining it into a smaller bowl. I chilled this for a bit so I could skim as much fat off as I could before using it to make the gravy. When I made the gravy, I browned some flour in a dry pan. You don't really need to used oil or butter to brown the flour when making gravy (cream sauce is another story). Just keep the flour moving (I use a wire whisk) and the temperature of the burner at medium to medium-low, and it browns just fine. Once the flour is ready, pour in the hot liquid and stir like crazy. This works for me, minimizing the problem of lumps. I added a little salt and pepper and let it bubble for a bit before serving it up with the roast and vegetables. All-in-all a success, and and enough leftovers so I can take some for lunch at work tomorrow.

Madeira Cake
       While the roast was cooking, I was thumbing through my new baking book I got just after Christmas. It is full of interesting recipes I'm not very familiar with. One of these is madeira cake. The description goes like this, "This rich butter cake was popular in Victorian England. It was often served with a glass of Madeira, hence the name. It is a moist tender cake due to the high butter content." Sadly, the same could not have been said about my cake. The photo and description in the cookbook made it sound similar to pound cake only with some orange zest mixed in. Something didn't seem quite right when I mixed up the batter; it was more like soft cookie dough than cake batter. It seems to me now that the amount of flour called for might have been too much and/or the liquid ingredients should have been increased. Still, I persevered. I spooned the batter into the loaf pan and patted it smooth. I baked it exactly according to directions: 315 degrees (weird) for 50 minutes.

       The cake was not a success. It was dense and on the dry side. The crispy texture of the outer crust was good, as was the flavor of the cake (I mixed in about a teaspoon each of orange and lemon zest.) The texture really needed help. My mom sprinkled some Amaretto Di Saronno on her piece after the first bite, which helped with the dryness. The one thing that did go perfectly was turning the cake out of the pan. The recipe called for greasing the pan then lining it with parchment paper. Once the cake was baked and allowed to cool for about 10 minutes, it just slid right out of the pan, and the crust was smooth with no stuck spots.

       After about an hour's mild disappointment, I had a brilliant thought: Trifle! The cake would be perfect to use in a trifle. Slices of cake or ladyfingers are layered on the bottom and part way up the sides of a trifle dish (if you have one. otherwise, a glass bowl). The cake is then brushed with liqueur or sherry then layered with fruit, custard, sometimes jelly (either Jello or jam), and topped with whipped cream. There are any number of variations. I will be making the trifle tomorrow night or possibly Tuesday, and we'll see how the cake tastes in that. I think it will hold up well; the wet ingredients (liqueur, custard) will soften and moisten it without causing it to dissolve into a soggy mess. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Last Week's Recap

Chicken, Granola, Fish, and Dried Fruit

Last week (March 6-12) wasn't a super-exciting week food-wise. There were a couple of days my mom didn't feel too well, and then it was my turn to feel not-so-great. So, there's not a lot to report, and I'm putting it all in one post.

Fried Chicken
Early in the week I made pan-fried chicken with oven-baked sweet potato fries. I'd never made fried chicken before, but with advice from my mom and after reading several recipes, I felt up to the challenge. I put a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and paprika in a paper bag and then dropped the chicken pieces in one at a time, coating them well. I heated about 3/4 inch of oil on high heat in a flat-bottomed frying pan and then placed the chicken pieces in and cooked them, turning once, until both sides were nicely browned. Then I turned the heat down and covered the pan letting the chicken cook for about 25 minutes. After that I checked for done-ness and lifted the chicken out onto paper towels to drain.

I peeled and cut a large sweet potato into french fry sized sticks, tossed them in a little olive out and spread them out in one layer, trying not to overlap, on a 2 baking sheets. I cooked them at 400 degrees turning them as they browned. I can't really say how long they cooked, but I can tell you that one pan cooked too long and half the fries burned. We ate the non-burned ones and threw the rest away and finished cooking the others, which came out tasting good, but not really crispy except on the edges.

The chicken was tender and juicy and very flavorful though I think I missed a couple spots on the edges when flouring them. One piece had a couple of tough spots around the edges where the meat was frying without the benefit of a little flour to buffer it. Still, all-in-all, it tasted good.

Red Snapper with Baby Bok Choy & Crispy Ginger

Later in the week I made Snapper with baby bok choy and crispy ginger again. It turned out really delicious, even better than last time. I added both chopped garlic and a little chopped ginger to the olive oil before adding the fish. This gave the fish added flavor.

The bok choy is pretty tender because it's young, but the white parts of the ends can be a little tough, so after separating and washing the leaves, I cut the ends into thin strips, but I just split the green leafy parts lengthwise.

On Saturday I made granola (see the photo at the top of the post). I wrote about making granola on facebook a while ago, but I thought I'd write about it here as it's been a while, and I think I've perfected my recipe--to my taste at least. Again, it's still based partly on Alton Brown's granola recipe available on the Food Network Website.

Alex's Version of Alton Brown's Granola
4 cups rolled oats
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans
6 Tbsp brown sugar (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp)
6 Tbsp maple syrup (1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
a couple of dashes of cinnamon

Mix the first 4 ingredients in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl or measuring cup, I stir together 6 Tbsp maple syrup, 2 Tbsp canola oil, and 2 Tbsp water. I pour the mixture over the dry ingredients and mix well--using your hands really helps to get the liquid ingredients well-distributed throughout the dry ingredients.

Coat 2 baking sheets with a little cooking spray and spread the granola mixture onto the two trays. Bake these in a 250 oven for 1 hour 15 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. When it's done, remove the trays from the oven and let the granola cool completely before putting it in a plastic or glass container with a tight-fitting lid.

I love this granola. A little bit of it sprinkled over bran flakes or wheat square (some cereal high in fiber but not necessarily big on taste) really perks up the cereal.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

BBQ on a Rainy Day

Earlier this week I made BBQ Ribs for dinner. It was pouring down rain so I couldn't exactly use the grill. Instead, I made oven baked BBQ ribs. I got the recipe idea from one on It's super easy and requires very little effort. I used a package of boneless country-style pork ribs (I've made it with bone-in ones too). You want the ones that are very meaty--not baby back or spare ribs.

     First, I mixed together equal parts sugar and salt and coated the ribs in the mixture. Then I put the ribs in a foil-lined 9 x 13 pan and poured enough water in around them to come about halfway up the sides of the ribs. Then I baked them in a 250 degree oven for 1 hour. After an hour, I removed the pan and turned the ribs over then baked them for another hour. Next, I removed the pan and turned up the oven temperature to 400 degrees. I poured the water out of the pan and poured some bbq sauce over the ribs. I then returned the ribs to the oven for another 1/2 hour.

     The ribs turn out tender, juicy, and very flavorful. I served them with Brussel Sprouts sauteed with pancetta and toasted pecans. This dish was inspired by my sister's way of cooking Brussel sprouts with bacon--so delicious--I never thought I'd love Brussel sprouts. I don't usually have bacon in the house, but I do occasionally have pancetta. I cut the pancetta into small pieces and cooked them in a large non-stick skillet draining off most of the fat. I trimmed and cleaned the Brussel sprouts, sliced them in half, and steamed them in the microwave until they were cooked but still firm. I drained off any liquid in the bowl, and then added the sprouts to the skillet with the pancetta, sauteing them on medium high heat until the outer leaves of the sprouts browned slightly. Then I tossed in some toasted pecans and served them up.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Raw Eggs For Dinner

Last night's dinner was Linguine Carbonara. Carbonara is made with raw eggs, which makes some people nervous--I get that. Technically, the eggs do cook, they just don't cook like you normally think of preparing eggs. But it's also not like cracking an egg open and drinking it down. It's like when you order eggs over easy in a restaurant, and the menu has that safety warning to cover its butt liability-wise, but hundreds of people eat them that way every day and never have a problem.

I originally made this dish using a recipe from the cookbook Trattoria Cooking by Biba Caggiano. I'm sure how I make it has changed somewhat since I first made it from the recipe, but it's essentially the same. You need eggs, garlic, red pepper flakes, pancetta, and Parmesan. For 2 people, I cook 2 ounces of pancetta with 2 or more minced garlic cloves. Once the pancetta is cooked, you set it aside until the rest of the dish is finished. While the pasta is cooking, (about 2 ounces, dry, per person) I beat two eggs (medium or 1 x-large) with some red pepper flakes and a little salt & pepper. You don't need too much salt because the Parmesan and pancetta add some saltiness to the dish.

When the pasta is cooked, I drain it then put it back in the pot. I take some of the hot noodles and put them in the dish with the eggs, stirring to warm the eggs up a bit. If you don't warm up the eggs before adding them to the hot noodles, you end up with noodles with scrambled eggs in them--not good. After warming the eggs with some of the noodles, quickly stir the egg/noodle mixture into the rest of the hot noodles, stirring vigorously, so the hot noodles heat up the eggs. Next stir in the pancetta and garlic then some Parmesan. Serve topped with a little more Parmesan. This dish is delicious and really easy to make.

Now for the safety warning: You do need to be careful though, because the eggs are not fully cooked. If you are pregnant, have a compromised immune system, or aren't confident in the safety and freshness of your eggs, you probably shouldn't make this.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Week in Review--Nothing Too Exciting Happened

I haven't posted in about a week, so I thought I'd better write something so people don't think I've fallen off the map. Not much new in the dinner department. I pretty much stuck to the old reliables of roasted chicken, crispy ginger bok choy, roasted veggies, meatloaf, and pasta.

I did the chicken a little differently this time (I seem to always say that). I had chicken drumsticks that I sprinkled with salt & pepper, oregano, and garlic powder. I then sliced up a lemon and laid the slices on top of the chicken pieces before roasting them. The mixture of lemon and oregano was a suggestion from a very nice woman with the Greek Society when we were talking to her about party and food themes last year. I did this once with a whole chicken--sprinkled it with s & p, oregano, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice and put more oregano and 2 cut up lemons in the cavity. So yummy! And a little out of the ordinary for me as that wasn't previously in my repertoire.

I did a little baking this past week or so. I experimented with jam thumbprint cookies. I used a recipe from The Joy of Cooking which starts with a butter cookie recipe. You roll the dough into balls, roll them in chopped nuts, and make a little divot in the top for the jam. I didn't read carefully enough because I apparently was supposed to bake them for a few minutes, then make the divot and add the jam before finishing the baking. I just did it all at the beginning and then popped them in the oven. They really spread out, and I was afraid the jam would end up everywhere. It wasn't too bad, and luckily, I had the foresight to use parchment paper so any jam that did ooze out onto the baking sheet stuck to the paper and not the sheet itself, turning hard as a rock. They tasted quite good but didn't look very pretty.

One other day I made butterscotch brownies also from The Joy of Cooking. This is one of my "go-to" recipes. Super easy, quick to make, and with only a few ingredients. They are basically brown sugar mixed into melted butter to which is added flour, baking soda, salt, and vanilla. They are thin, but have a wonderfully chewy texture and a rich caramel/butterscotch flavor. Both of these cookie recipes are from a 1960s edition of The Joy of Cooking, but they might still be in the newer versions.

This week also saw some (very early) spring cleaning, much knitting, and dealing with kittens. Eddie decided it would be a good idea to jump into my plate of grilled cheese sandwich and then jump down tracking dirty pawprints across my jeans and the rug. Zeke was shocked.

But Eddie just gave me a dirty look and sauntered off. The kittens did manage to endear themselves though by curling up cutely and taking a nap with the stuffed hippo I got for Christmas (hippopotamus for Christmas).

We also went from chilly, foggy weather to balmy almost spring-like weather.

I experimented today with placing photos within the blog. I'm still not loving the placement exactly, but I didn't feel like putting in a lot of tables so everything lined up all nice and neat. Maybe next time.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quinoa, Squash, and Scones

Dinner tonight was quinoa cooked with Lipton Onion Soup Mix and a butternut squash casserole. The idea for the quinoa came from my friend James who mentioned that he cooked quinoa this way. I boiled the water and then added the quinoa and soup mix. It took longer to cook than I remembered from the first time I made quinoa. I realized after I measured the water into the pan that I didn't have quite a whole cup of quinoa, so I had to scoop out some of the water. I estimated how much based on how much I was short of quinoa, but I think I didn't scoop out quite enough. It took about 30 minutes to cook instead of about 15. I also made a butternut squash casserole from a recipe I found cut out of a magazine in the recipe binder both my mom and I have added to. It was basically caramelized onions and roasted squash with cumin and thyme. Very tasty. The quinoa was good, but I think I needn't have used the entire packet of soup mix as it was pretty intense. I think I'd use a bit less next time.

Yesterday, I suddenly had a yen for baking. I decided to make orange-cranberry scones. As I mentioned in my previous post, I like the ones at Starbucks, but it gets expensive, and lately I've been concerned about what ingredients are going into the things I eat. It's pretty scary reading the ingredients lists on some food packages. Not that there aren't those certain items I purposely turn a blind eye to, but I've been trying to eat those sparingly.

Anyway, I thought I'd try making my own orange-cranberry scones. That way I'll save money, I'll know what's going into them, and I won't have to waste time stopping by Starbucks. I looked up several recipes and ended up using one from the Land-O-Lakes website, but I added a citrus glaze I found in a recipe on another website. Orange zest and dried cranberries went into the dough, and the glaze consisted of a mixture of lemon and orange juice and powdered sugar, which was added after they came out of the oven. They turned out well, I think. The texture was very similar to the Starbucks ones, soft on the inside and a bit crispy on the outside, and there was plenty of orange and cranberry flavor. The recipe didn't call for any salt, and I noticed its absence in the way that salt adds something to the flavor (even though it's not salty). The scones weren't bad by any means, I just think that the addition of a little salt would have punched up the flavor a bit. I think I'll try making some with lemon and currants next time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Risotto and Fish (again, not together)

Here's the dinner report for the last few days. I cooked Friday and tonight, and we had take-out pizza Saturday.

Friday, 1/21/11
Risotto with vegetables and smoked Gruyere

1 small onion, chopped
1 stalk of celery, chopped finely
1 small to medium leek, split length-wise and cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1 large carrot, chopped finely
a bay leaf
1 tsp dried thyme
3.5 ounces smoked Gruyere
1 cup arborio rice
.5 cup white wine
3.5 cups chicken broth

I made this like a basic risotto; I sauteed the vegetables, added the rice and herbs and then started stirring in the wine and chicken broth about 3/4 cup at a time allowing the broth to be fully absorbed before adding more. Once the rice is cooked, I added the Gruyere and some black pepper.

I think this risotto needed something to offset the smokiness of the Gruyere. It was creamy and rich with a distinct, but not overwhelming, smokiness; it's really good to add some along with the cheddar to the sauce when making macaroni & cheese. It might have been good to add a little Parmesan, which has a sharpness to it or even a little lemon juice or chopped fresh parsley. Perhaps a gremolata would have been good--a little lemon zest, minced fresh garlic, and chopped fresh parsley tossed together--sprinkled over the bowls of risotto right before serving. I definitely should have added some garlic, maybe just one clove, while sauteing the vegetables.

Sunday, 1/23/11
Red Snapper with Crispy Ginger and Baby Bok Choy

Snapper fillets pan-fried in oil and minced garlic, ginger matchsticks frizzled in oil then coated in low-sodium soy. Finally minced ginger, garlic, cabbage, and baby bok choy stir-fried in a non-stick pan tossed with a little soy. Served with brown rice.

This was very good, but the next time I make it, I think I'll reduce the temperature of the stove when cooking the fish and the ginger matchsticks. The fish was slightly dry, and the ginger matchsticks were on the verge of being burned (I managed to rescue them) with the stove on medium-high heat.

Tomorrow night will be leftovers, so I have the time to plan the rest of the meals for the week. I'm thinking chili at least one day. I'm thinking of making my chili with ground turkey instead of ground beef and seeing how it tastes. I'm also thinking of doing some baking this week. I want to try making scones again. I want to try making some with some lemon zest and currants. Either that, or I want to try to make some orange-cranberry scones. I love the ones at Starbucks, but I'd like to try making them myself; that way I know exactly what's going into them and they'll cost me much less.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not So Good The Second Time Around

I decided to make some Thai food Tuesday night because I was alone for dinner and had leftover rice. Also, the last time I had leftover rice I made fried rice with soy and ginger, so I wanted something different. This time, I used some red curry paste and fish sauce, coconut milk powder, low-fat milk and water. I let it simmer for a few minutes then added 1 1/2 cups frozen veggies and cooked until they were warmed through. I then mixed about a teaspoon of corn starch in a little water and stirred it into the sauce to thicken it a little. I then added 1 1/2 leftover rice and let it all simmer for another 7 or so minutes. I crushed up a tablespoon of roasted peanuts and sprinkled it over the top. I ate half and saved the other half for lunch the next day. It was great when I ate it for dinner, but it didn't keep as well as some foods do. When I reheated it the next day for lunch, it didn't taste as good as the first day. I'm sure you've noticed that many foods taste even better the second day than they do the first...chili, spaghetti, etc. This is not one of them. It was, however, very yummy freshly made.

Tonight I made pizza. It did not turn out well this time. The crust was good (about the only thing that did turn out well). I used some leftover red sauce, mozzarella, cheddar, and Parmesan along with prosciutto. I have to say, I think the prosciutto was not good. I've used it before for pizza, and it is very good. This time, I think the prosciutto was off. I can't remember the actual day I bought it, but it was this month. It's a cured meat; a type of Italian ham, so I thought it would still be good, but that did not turn out to be the case. So, a disappointment. I ended up cutting off several hunks of the crust and eating them with a little butter along with the veggies I nuked to go along with the pizza.

I'd planned to use some of the prosciutto when I make risotto this weekend, but that's not going to happen. I think I'll make a veggie one instead. Maybe add in a little smoked Gruyere. We'll see. I'll post after I make it.

After I posted the not-so-appetizing picture of the roasted vegetable and chicken bake, I looked up some information on photographing food. I found a couple of good blog articles from people who blog about food and take picture for their blogs. One of the main suggestions was to use natural light to take the photos. That's a great idea, except for the fact that it's winter and it's dark by the time I even start making dinner. I guess I'll have to experiment during the day shooting leftovers or maybe my lunches. I think my mom has one of those natural light lamps tucked away somewhere. Maybe I can try using that to take some photos. I might also use my film camera as well as my digital camera to see if that makes any difference. I know a lot more about my film camera than my digital camera. I'll experiment and post some of the results.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Cookbook

I got a Borders gift card from my wonderful brother and sister-in-law (among other fabulous presents), so I went down to Borders for their big after Christmas sale, and found some great bargains. One of those is The Essential Baking Cookbook (ISBN 978-0681025936) published by Bay Books.

This book has everything from bread to cakes and pies to cookies and muffins. I didn't realize at first, but it's an Australian publication which means it has lots of cool things you don't normally find in U.S. cookbooks (though it also lacks some things you'd expect to find in a U.S. cookbook). Ingredient measurements are offered in cups, grams, and ounces unless they are smaller than a 1/4 cup--then they are in teaspoons and tablespoons.

I made rolls from the bread section on Sunday, and they turned out well. I don't have a lot of experience making yeast bread, so I was a little nervous. I made sure I set the timer so I'd knead the dough for long enough, and I bugged my mom with lots of questions about whether it seemed to be rising properly. The rolls turned out tasty and the texture was right. They tasted good, but there seemed to be something lacking, but I had a hard time putting my finger on it. My mom and I finally decided it might be that a little more salt or sugar was needed. The recipe called for 1 tsp. of salt and 4 tsp. of sugar (divided) for 4 cups of flour. I'll probably up the salt by 1/2 tsp. and the sugar by 1 tsp. next time and see if that makes a difference.

I had a problem with how the rolls browned. The book gave examples of different glazes to use either before or after baking. I did an egg wash that was supposed to give the rolls a "deep colour in the crust." I didn't find it to work well. The bottoms browned faster than the tops, and the tops stayed kind of pale. I will consult the "What Went Wrong" section of the cookbook to see what I can do next time to get they outcome I want.

I have lots of great recipes to experiment with in the coming year. I also will be attempting to plan ahead meals more. It's much easier to get dinner going when you know you have the ingredients on hand to make one of a selection of recipes. What I've done occasionally in the past is to pick out 5 meals to make for dinners for a week (the other 2 days are for leftovers), and then shop for those meals specifically. Then I leave the list of meals on the fridge and when I ask myself "What am I making for dinner tonight?" I can go consult the list and pick out what looks good (or is easiest to make, depending on how I'm feeling about cooking that day). This is probably not revolutionary meal planning to anyone except me, but I like how well it works, especially in avoiding the curse of indecision which leads to ordering pizza or going out to eat.

I've been doing pretty well incorporating more vegetables into my meal plans, listing not just the main dish but also possible veggies to serve as well. Having those veggies listed right on my weekly meal list is a good reminder so I don't end up finishing the main dish without having made any vegetable accompaniment. That's not really a problem if the meal already incorporates veggies in the recipe--like the roasted vegetable and chicken bake, but when I'm making something like oven baked bbq ribs, I hate finding myself with a ready-to-serve main dish but nothing to serve with it.

I'm going to continue to plan meals with plenty of vegetables; I always feel particularly virtuous after eating a dinner with lots of veggies. The baked chicken with roasted vegetables is now on the regular dinner rotation. There's a lot of prep, but it's not hard to make. And really, if I chose just 2 or 3 types of veggies instead of 5 or 6, it would probably take less time to prep.

What I really want to do is improve at making stir fry. Mine seems to always turn out with either overdone or underdone veggies. Perhaps I need a wok instead of using the large skillet. Hmm, maybe I can convince my mom she needs a wok. I will be researching stir fry techniques, but if anyone has a good method they use, please post a comment. Thanks.