Monday, December 5, 2011

Falling for Falafel

I have had several failed attempts at making falafel - that delicious Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean treat. Great on its own or stuffed into a pita with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and whatever else you want to toss in there.

I say that I've had several failed attempts at this because I've had a lot of problems revolving around the chickpeas themselves. Perhaps I just have horrible luck when picking out dried beans, or it may have something to do with the water in Chicago. Really don't know. All I do know is that I cannot abide, at all, by the directions on the package in terms of rehydrating dried beans.

That being said, by a combination of techniques, I finally had success. Success! So, without further ado: falafel!

Recipe: Falafel

Ingredients:
1 lb. dried chickpeas, sorted, rinsed
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole coriander seeds
2 gloves garlic, chopped
4 scallions, chopped
2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1 tsp. baking soda (aluminum-free)
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 T. chopped parsley leaves
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. tumeric

2 quarts peanut oil

Directions
The first step is to sort and rinse the dried chickpeas. This basically means spreading them out in a sheet pan and sifting through them to see if there are any rocks or bad chickpeas - look for discoloration, small and disfigured chickpeas. Discard those and any non-chickpea material. Put all the rest into a colander and give them a good rinse to knock off any dust or clinging matter.



Move the chickpeas to a large bowl and cover with a couple of inches of cold water. Now, I'm going to suggest a few things here. First, cold water is important. Given the way that water re-enters the dried chickpeas, hot water may cause the small pores to swell and close, which will leave you with chickpeas which will never rehydrate. That's bad news. Second, use filtered water. For much the same reason as #1, mineral-heavy water may clog the pores which allow water to enter the dried beans. Finally, if you find that you're still having trouble, try adding a little baking soda, about a tablespoon. For whatever reason, dried beans tend to rehydrate better in alkaline conditions rather than acidic.

How long should you let them soak? Well, it will take at least overnight. After about 8-10 hours, I'd start checking them. Try mashing one between your fingers, or even taking a small bite of one. If it's still hard, let them soak longer. You're looking for a fairly easily mashed end result. You need them to be soft to grind and cook properly, so, err on the side of caution. For these, it actually took about 30 hours before they were soft enough. Again, I don't know if this is my terrible luck with picking dried beans, maybe it's the water here, or something else. I know a lot of people who don't have any kind of problem like that, so, find what works for you.

Once you've gotten your chickpeas soaked, give them another good rinse (especially if you've added baking soda), and return to a large bowl. Meanwhile, using a cast-iron skillet, lightly toast the cumin seeds and coriander seeds over medium-high heat, shaking the pan frequently until they just begin to brown (this will take only a few minutes, so be careful). Heating the spices will greatly increase the flavor the spices will give to the final mixture, so, this is a really beneficial step. I've also added fenugreek seeds to the mix before, just to see how it goes, and it's pretty good. When the spices are toasted, move them to a grinder and spin them to a fine powder.



Go ahead and chop up the garlic and scallions into fairly coarse chunks:



Then combine the chickpeas, garlic, scallions, spices, and baking powder.



Mix all of those together until everything is pretty evenly distributed. At this point, it's probably going to look like a chickpea salad, and that's about what you want.



Next, get out your trusty stand-mixer with food grinder attachment (and smallest die), or your food processor.



Now, let me take a moment and say that I really love my Kitchen-Aid stand-mixer. This isn't a paid endorsement (man, I really wish that were so), but this thing has saved me a ton of labor, and to me, was worth every penny. Especially the various attachments. I have pasta plates, pasta rollers, the food grinder, the sausage stuffer attachment, the juicer, and I think one more that I don't use as frequently. This thing is awesome. With Christmas coming up, if you have someone in your family that loves cooking and has been doing everything by hand, consider this an excellent gift idea. This comes from a guy who used to do everything manually - I used to make fresh pasta by hand and let it hang off the edge of the counter for hours to get it to stretch properly after rolling, and all matter of other things. With the stand-mixer, my labor investment is vastly cut, which gives me much more time to work on other aspects of a meal, or spend more time hanging out. These are positive changes, especially considering I can always go back to doing things myself when I need to or want to.

Want to see what I mean in action? Here's a shot of the food grinder doing its magic:



As I said, awesome. Grinds incredibly smoothly. You can do this in a food processor as well, doing about half the mixture at a time, pulsing 10-20 times each. Anyway, you'll end up, eventually, with a finely ground mixture. This is good.



Now, give it a test. Take a small amount (about 1 to 2 inches in diameter), and try to press it into a ball. If it sticks together and doesn't start crumbling, you're good to go! If it starts to crumble, then add a little liquid, either water or lemon juice, depending on taste, just until it starts to come together. I've never had a problem with it going the other way, that is, I've never had a problem where the mixture was too wet to start off with.

Anyway, once the mixture is the right consistency, form it into balls about 1 to inches in diameter:



At this point, they can be held on the counter for about 2 hours, or covered and refrigerated overnight. Pour the peanut oil into a 5-quart Dutch oven and bring to 350 degrees. A candy/fry thermometer is really best here, so, make that small investment if you don't have one.

Drop the falafel into the oil one at a time, doing about 4 total in each go, and let cook for until a deep golden brown, about 5 to seven minutes. Finally, remove them to a half sheet pan with a rack (and a paper towel lining the bottom if you want). It may be easier if you use a spider to lower the falafel into the oil one by one, and hold it suspended for just a bit before the outer crust forms.



Finally, eat! Enjoy! Top with a little tzatziki, toss with some cucumbers and whatever else, really it all works out quite well. These are going to be a little bit crunchier than some falafel, but I find it rather satisfying.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Barbecue Cocktail Weenies

Continuing the theme of comfort food which may not necessarily be all that healthy, I thought I'd also post a recipe for slow-cooker barbecued cocktail weenies (smokies, whatever you want to call them).

Now, before anyone gets bent out of shape (I'm looking at you, South), no - these are not truly barbecued. That's fair. They are something sort-of-kind-of-maybe-just-close-enough-to-barbecue flavor, however. If you're not in the mood for just the flavor, go get (or make) a smoker. Otherwise, well, we have to get by. I should also note that I used plain ole' hot dogs for this one because, well, that's what I had. Could you use other stuff? Sausages? Maybe even not-too-dense dried meats? Of course. Heck, sometime I'll even post a recipe for homemade sausage (it does make a difference, but getting it just right can take some time).

So, with those caveats, let's continue after the jump.

Recipe: Slow-Cooker Barbecue Cocktail Weenies

Ingredients:
1 lb. meat (hot dogs, cocktail weenies, smoked sausages, whatever)
16 oz. ketchup or tomato sauce
2 T. apple cider vinegar
2 T. grape jelly
2 T. brown sugar
A few dashes of liquid smoke. No, really, just a few drops.
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground mustard
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. chipotle powder
1/4 tsp. ground mustard

Directions

The first step to all of this is to prepare your sauce. Get out your slow cooker (I used about a 3 quart one), and add everything the ketchup/tomato sauce, apple cider vinegar, jelly, liquid smoke, and brown sugar. Turn the slow cooker on low and stir occasionally until everything is combined.

A couple of things before I continue. First - what is liquid smoke? Well, it's actually just what it says it is. Smoke in a liquid form. Using a still, very much like the ones used to make alcohol, you can burn wood chips and vent the smoke through long pipes, which cools it, and collect it in a catch pan when it cools enough to turn from a vapor into a liquid. This stuff is incredibly, incredibly strong, and will smell basically exactly like a campfire. It's useful when you want to add that flavor and smell of something cooked over actual wood, but don't have a campfire handy.

Second, why do I say ketchup or tomato sauce? Well, one of the primary things that I've learned, having grown up in the South, is that barbeque sauce is an extremely subjective thing. I really should have put that up top, now that I think about it, but almost every bit of this recipe is something that works well for me, and I adjust it all the time. If you want to play around with it, or if you're screaming something at the screen because those ingredients look all so wrong, then feel free to adjust to your own preferences. It isn't going to bother me, and hey, maybe you'll hit upon your perfect barbeque sauce. That's pretty exciting!

I like to portion out the dry spices separately before hand, partially because I'm a little OCD and like having everything portioned out before hand, but it also gives me a good judge of how much I actually need to put into the sauce. Add to your taste, and if you have leftover, just store in an airtight container until you need it again. You can always increase the total size of the dry spices and use it for other things, or, again, play with the proportions and ingredients.



Now, as you can probably tell (and some of you may be yelling at the screen again), there are some herbs in there. That's oregano, and I figured I might as well just toss it in and see how it tastes. Not as much like barbeque, anymore, I can tell you that, but it wasn't terrible. Play around with it, as long as you don't do anything too drastic, you aren't going to ruin it.

Once all your wet ingredients are combined, you can add in the dry spices. Again, add slowly, let combine a bit, and then taste. Add more if you want, or save the rest. The flavors are always going to blend more the longer it cooks, so keep that in mind. Once you've got it about where you wanted, take stock of the overall flavor profile for a moment. Does it need anything else? Do you like more vinegar or more sugar? Would you prefer a little more garlic flavor to it? At this point, you can always make adjustments. That gets harder once the meat is in the pot, so try to do it now.

Next, you'll need to chop up whatever meat you're going to be using. In this case, on this night, it was hot dogs. I find that a regular hot dog makes about 5 cocktail weenies if you slice it evenly. Could you just get a pack of cocktail weenies, or sausage, or make your own? Sure! Sometimes that's half the fun.



Admittedly, not very impressive. Anyway, toss these into the slow cooker and toss with the sauce to evenly coat them. Then, you can either turn the slow cooker on high (if you need them soonish), or let it coast on low until the mixture begins to bubble.



On low, this may take a couple of hours. On high, it usually only takes about an hour to fully cook through. Either way, turn your slow cooker to warm while they're being served (if serving directly out of the slow cooker), or spoon them out and put the rest in the fridge. I don't make these very frequently, but as you can see:




Even starting with a lot of them, I usually don't have that many leftovers.

So, yes, this isn't really barbecue, just barbecue-flavored, and yes, in this particular case it is just hot dogs, but even though they don't look all that impressive, they do taste great, and it reminds me a lot of summer family get-togethers when I was a kid, which is very nice as it gets colder and colder here in Chicago.

So, any suggestions or feedbacks for what to cook or talk about next?

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spinach Stuffed Shells: Recipe

Alright, so it's been a long time. I know, I'm sorry. I hope none of you have gone hungry in the meantime, as I've been cooking but far too busy to actually post anything. Here's hoping that might change a bit, especially as we get into the late fall/winter season, my favorite time of year to cook!

I figured I'd share my stuffed shells recipe (totally ripped off of/modified/more or less completely changed version of a recipe on the back of an old pasta box. If you can figure out the brand and the timing of it, you deserve a cookie). I really love this recipe, as does the rest of the household. I like it because it's a little complicated with several moving parts, each of which is very easy in and of itself. What I mean by that is that it basically all comes down to timing, which also pretty much means that you'll need to figure out the exact timing on your own (more on that later).

Recipe: Spinach Stuffed Shells

Ingredients:
1 large box pasta shells
1 portion homemade tomato sauce (hey hey, can finally start referencing my own stuff!)
1-2 large bags spinach, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
10 oz Ricotta cheese
1 large egg
3 oz grated/shredded Parmesan cheese + 1-2 oz extra for topping
1-2 oz other shredded/grated cheese of your preference
1 T. Worchestershire sauce
2 T. Red Wine Vinegar or Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. basil
1/2 tsp. parsley
salt, pepper

Take your largest pot. I mean it, your largest. At least a 1 gallon pot. If you don't have a pot of that size...go get one, they're insanely useful. You can check out my recommendations for stock pots, they apply here too. Anyway, put at least one gallon of water in for every 8 oz. of pasta, and add a tablespoon or two of kosher salt for each gallon and bring it to a boil. This will take a while, so, you may want to start this pretty early (Ever notice how in professional cooking shows, they always have a pot of water boiling on the stove if they're going to boil anything? Yeah, same principle. Heating up water will take the longest of just about anything you're ever going to do in the kitchen, so, if you need to bring a lot of water to a boil, start it first and let it simmer). You'll also want to set your oven to 350 degrees.

In the meantime, prepare your homemade tomato sauce.



If you've already made some, just heat it up, otherwise, follow the directions in that link. Trust me, it's good, it works, and it's very highly modifiable, which I really love. Play around with it until you find something you like. If you're making it yourself, make sure you blend it to a smooth consistency. I also like to add just a little bit of cream to lighten the color and give it a bit smoother of a mouth-feel. Don't go crazy with it, but a little does help.



Finally, we can get started on our actual shells. Awesome!

The first thing you're going to want to do is get a large skillet, but a tablespoon of olive oil into it, and bring it up to medium heat. You want just a bare sizzle if you flick a few drops of water into the oil - we're looking to sweat, not to saute, so play around with the temperature until you get a hot, but not frying or sauteing hot, oil. While that's heating, you can chop up your aromatics (onion and garlic in this case).



Toss the onions into the oil. Here's where you'll get the best testing of your temperature. You want to hear a low, steady hiss. You don't want the furious crackling of high heat, and you don't want to hear nothing, but just a low, constant hiss. That's sweating, and that's all we want to do to these guys. After you've given the onions about 5 minutes, or until they're just starting to turn translucent, toss in the garlic as well and give it a good stir. While that's cooking up take your spinach (as much as you want, really, you may just have to work in batches later on), and give it all a rough chop. By that time, the garlic should be giving off a good aroma, and nothing should be really browning. If you see any browning, reduce the heat.

Once you've got your spinach chopped, add it to the skillet. You may need to add a bit more oil as well. Go ahead and add some seasonings, namely a good pinch of salt, a couple grinds of fresh black pepper, the paprika, Worchestershire sauce, and vinegar.



You're going to want to cover this, turn the heat down to low, and let it wilt. That will probably take about 10 minutes or so. Could you have added some mushrooms to all of that? Of course! What about meats, like ground sausage? Sure! Make the stuffing that you want, I just so happen to prefer the spinach and cheese version.

Once your spinach has wilted, you're going to need to mix in the Ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, as well as the egg.



Give that a good mixing, and then add your herbs and any other seasons you want. Turn the heat up to medium and cover, and let cook for about another ten minutes or until everything is well blended, melted, and incorporated. At about this time, you can add your pasta to the water (assuming that it's come to a good boil).

Now, a quick note on this. Pasta is an agricultural product, and as a result of that, each batch, even each box, is going to behave just a little bit differently. Cooking time can be affected by ambient humidity, temperature, and a host of other factors from the field to your kitchen. This is why I don't necessarily like telling people to cook the pasta according to the box's directions. That's usually a good starting point, but it may be a bit too long, or too short. So, starting about two minutes before the "official" cook time, you may want to start testing. The best way to do that is a taste test, so, carefully pull out a little bit and give it a bite. If it's crunchy, definitely needs to cook longer, if it's completely soft and rubbery...well, that's cooked too long. You want a soft outer part, with just a bit of a bite in the middle.

When you're adding the pasta, separate it before you add it to the pot. Often times, shells will get locked together, and it usually works out better if you can get those separated before you start cooking them (trust me). They may still wrap around each other in the pot, but the end result is typically a lot better.

Anyway, about the time the pasta is done, your stuffing probably looks something like this:



Now, I'll admit, that might not look too appetizing right now, but trust me, it's delicious. Or don't trust me. Try it yourself.

Once your pasta and stuffing is done, you'll want to take a ladle and spoon out some of your tomato sauce into the bottom of a large pan, just enough to cover the bottom:



Now comes the fun part (also messy!). Take each shell in hand and using a spoon (or, if you're really fancy [I'm not], a piping bag), and stuff each shell. They shouldn't be overflowing, but, fairly full. Place each shell, open side up, in the pan on top of the sauce.



Once all your shells are stuffed and in the pan, you'll want to ladle some additional tomato sauce over all of them. Don't drown them, certainly, but get some fairly good coverage. If you like really soft noodles, then add more sauce until the noodles are more fully covered. If you like a bit of a bite to your pasta, don't add much to the base of the pan or on top, the pasta will dry out a little in the oven and develop a bit of a satisfying crunch.



Finally, you'll want to top your shells with the remaining Parmesan and whatever-other-cheese-you-prefer. I usually go with mozzarella or Romano, but take your pick.



Cover your shells with aluminum foil and slide it into the oven on the middle rack. Take a break! Relax! Have a drink! You're almost there. Let them back in your 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, and then remove the aluminum foil. You should have some good melting cheese going on:



Let it cook for another 15-25 minutes, or until the cheese just starts to brown. Take it out of the oven, and let it cool for about 10 minutes. Then, if your house is anything like mine, you won't be able to admire your stuffed shells for very long before they're half gone:




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Okay, so that recipe isn't necessarily the healthiest on the planet (I'm also not aware that I have a reputation for extremely healthy food posts on this blog. Sorry guys, I tend to post stuff I really like making, not so much stuff I regularly make). I also have a post about ready on cocktail weenies because, well, this week I was in a mood for comfort food. It's starting to get chilly here in Chicago, and baked pasta and crock-pot cocktail weenies are pretty easy, extremely satisfying, and really great tasting.

That being said, I'd love some feedback and/or suggestions for things to post on or try cooking. In the past few weeks, I've made eggplant chips, vegetarian moussaka (surprisingly, tastes almost exactly like regular moussaka!), wild mushroom risotto, vegetable lo mein, general tso's chicken, kale, potato salad, a massive amount of broccoli, fried chicken (almost perfected a Chick-Fil-A sandwich...I think next time I'll basically have it, just need to modify my pickle recipe a bit), and a bunch of other stuff. If any of that sounds interesting, or if you want to know more, or just suggest something else entirely, please let me know!



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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Buttermilk Biscuits and Sawmill Gravy

So...first post in a long time.

I know, it's been crazy. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I thought the best thing to jump into here and now would be buttermilk biscuits and sawmill gravy. Why? Well, it's a kind of staple of the Southern household, and, well, I love it.

Without further ado, therefore: Biscuits and Gravy!

So it's early Saturday morning. You're hungry. You're wondering what to make for breakfast. Well, actually you're not wondering, because you've been planning this for a while. You have host of buttermilk biscuits, and now all you need is to cook up some sausage and make a delicious white gravy for those soft, flaky biscuits.

I mean...you do have biscuits just sitting around, right? And some sausage in the fridge, for gravy? Right?

No?

Well, never fear. For the secrets for this delicious meal are all contained within.

Recipe: Biscuits and Gravy

Ingredients for Biscuits:
1 lb, 10-12 oz all-purpose flour (depends on humidity)
2-3 oz. sugar
1 1/2 oz. baking powder
3/8 oz. salt
1/2 lb butter
12 fl oz. buttermilk
4 eggs
Egg wash

Ingredients for Gravy:
1 lb. sausage (breakfast sausages are best)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
salt, pepper, (and paprika?)

Go ahead and measure out all your ingredients. A kitchen scale is best for this (seriously...behind the stand mixer, immersion blender, and dishwasher, it is my most often-used tool and, for me at least, really essential in the kitchen. Go get one. They're not expensive, and they're so, so useful). Once you have everything measured out, combine your flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder and whisk together (or toss to combine, whatever your preference). Then you can add the butter, cut up into small chunks (and cold...don't use room-temperature butter!)

At this point, you're going to want to use either a pastry cutter or your hands to crumble and mix the butter together with the flower. Break up the butter just enough to get it into pea-sized chunks distributed throughout the flour. Why? Well...just trust me, it's going to vastly improve the texture of the biscuits and really helps contribute to that flaky texture.

Once you've got that done, you can take your wet team (of buttermilk and eggs):

And pour that all at once into the dry mixture. Toss or fold the mixture to combine it all (you really don't want to knead that much, so be gentle). Just get everything good and combined. If all the flour doesn't work into the dough, don't force it, but almost all of it should with just a little work. Once you've got everything combined, roll it out on a lightly-floured surface to about an inch of thickness. Here, I've split the dough into two batches (as this makes about two dozen biscuits):

Once you've got them all rolled out, take a 2-inch biscuit cutter...

You don't have a two-inch biscuit cutter, do you? No? Well, it's the most recent addition to our kitchen. Why? Well, it's pretty useful for cookies, rolls, and lots of other pastry-type things. Is it necessary? ....Nope. Trust me, I used to use cleaned soup cans, the lids to various other products, and all sorts of things to cut biscuits, doughnuts, all the other pastries I've made. What can I say? We don't have many simple circular cutting-type things in here. So, the 2-inch biscuit cutter was a real improvement.

Anyway, remember to push straight down when you use whatever it is that you're using. Straight down! Only twist the cutter (and only once, gently) when you've hit the board or counter, or whatever you've rolled the biscuits out on. Why? Well, if you twist as you go down, you're really going to ruin the final texture of the biscuits. Try it sometime. They're not as good or flaky. It's similar to not using salt in the recipe...breads without salt just taste wrong. On that note, a quick tangent:

I like to make my buttermilk biscuits slightly sweet. Thus, I leave the variation of two or three ounces of sugar. Two ounces makes a pretty standard buttermilk biscuit - it's good, and quite serviceable for something like, say, country ham. But, I tend to prefer them a little bit sweeter, so I add in another ounce of sugar. It makes a huge difference.

Anyway, once you've cut out all the biscuits from your first rolling, you can roll up the remnants and roll them out again. But, keep in mind, the first batch of cutting is going to be the best in terms of texture. With ever re-rolling, you lose a little bit of that, so try to be very careful with your cutting and make each biscuit count.

Once you've got everything cut out, you'll want to put them on parchment paper-lined sheet pans, thusly (I have 1 dozen per pan):


Crank your oven up to 425 degrees (you probably should have done this earlier...I'm going to hope that you've read this all the way through before trying it...but, either way, it won't particularly matter). At this point, you should prepare an egg wash. What is an egg wash exactly?

Well, an egg wash is a liquid mixture that's made primarily to affect the browning and final flavor of a product. It can be made with eggs and water, eggs and milk, and a lot of other variations. For these biscuits, I use one egg, a pinch of salt, and about 1/4 cup of milk per two dozen biscuits. You'll probably have some left over. Maybe you should make four dozen biscuits, you know, to keep around (like you should...I mean, not for more than a few days at a time, but...c'mon, everyone loves biscuits). Brush this egg wash on the top of the biscuits before you put them into the oven. You'll notice a significant difference in browning behavior and a subtle change in flavor in the finished product.

Anyway, put the biscuits in the oven for about 15-25 minutes. Why the variation? Well, it depends on the exact size of the biscuits, the sheet pans you're using, and the oven's ability to keep a steady temperature. Basically, keep them in there until they're a golden brown. Try to rotate the pans about half-way through cooking, to ensure even doneness. Finally, you should have something about like this:

Now, in the meantime, while your biscuits are cooking, you may want to think about that gravy. Let's say you have about a pound of sausage. Doesn't really matter what kind, just not too dense (don't use pepperoni or anything like that). Cut up your sausage into little bits, and toss them in your favorite cast-iron pan, pre-heated, of course.

Two notes on this:

1) Can you use something other than sausage? Yes, of course. It's not a true sawmill gravy any more, but, hey, feel free to experiment. Bacon or ham would probably be equally as great (just keep the overall weight of everything to about a pound). In fact, the way that some sausages render fat these days (as in, hardly any at all), bacon would be a great choice (i.e., cook up your bacon to render the fat out, and then chop up a few pieces to add back into the gravy once it's done...then you have bacon left over, and everyone wins when there's bacon left over).
2) Why cast-iron? Heat control, my friend. Nice, even, steady heat. It makes this dish much easier later on....just, just go with it. If you don't have a cast-iron pan, go buy one right now. They're cheap, and its usefulness cannot be overstated. Or ask your grandparents for one. Someone in your family has a cast iron pan, and it's probably older than dirt (which is usually a really good thing for cast iron).
3) A BONUS NOTE!: If you're vegan or vegetarian, I can't really help you with the milk-in-gravy thing...I haven't found a milk alternative that works as well in this application and won't curdle when cooking. Granted, I haven't tried everything, but white gravy is one thing that is likely not very easily replicable in non-dairy cooking unless you go for some powders and such. If you're not concerned about that part though...could tofu or seitan work? Well, yes! Just cook it carefully (don't burn it or over cook it), and be really careful with the temperature later on. Strictly speaking, a vegetable broth could work for this, but taste is going to be hard to replicate. Work with it, and you may find something that works really well with this, though!

Once your sausages (or whatever else meat you're using) are cooked through, set them aside:

Drain off whatever fat is in the pan, but reserve 2 tablespoons of it. If you don't have enough to equal two tablespoons, make up the difference with some other fat of your choice: oil, butter, lard, whatever suits your fancy, but be wary of odd tastes coming into this. Experiment a bit to see what you like (I find butter works the best, but that's just me).

Either way, get your fat content in the pan up to two tablespoons, and then whisk in the flour over low heat. It's going to clump up:

But don't worry about that, it will all work out later. Cook that over low heat for about five minutes, just until it gets a hint of a darker color (also, congratulations, you just made a roux!)

Once your five minutes are up, remove the pan from the heat and slowly whisk in the milk. By the end, you should have dissolved all the clumps and be left with a very thin mixture of flour, fat, and milk. Sound delicious? Maybe not, but just wait:

Once all the milk is added, put the pan back over medium or medium-low heat and bring up to a simmer. The gravy will slowly thicken as the temperature rises, and it will be at its thickest by the time it begins to bubble (that's just the way flour works as a thickening agent). Once you've hit a good simmer, you can back the heat off to low and season with your favorite additions. For me, that's a pinch of salt, pepper, and paprika (I love the subtle influence paprika has in gravies). Whisk together to combine, and add your sausage (or whatever else) back into the pan and let warm through over 5-10 minutes:

When the gravy is cooked through, you can take one of your homemade biscuits, cut it in half, and pour as much gravy as your heart desires over said biscuit. It's very good, and I would highly recommend the above recipes.

So, where's the finished dish? The dish assembled on a plate and photographed? Ummm....about that...sorry, I got a little too interested in actually eating the final product that filming it totally slipped my mind.

I hope you enjoy. As always any responses or comments are highly welcomed!

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Doughnuts!

As you all probably know by now, we both love Alton Brown. He's one of the few sources that I go to first when I'm trying to get a handle on a new recipe. Do I always follow his recipes or advice strictly? Not necessarily, but it's definitely a good launching-off point. One of the things that we'd been considering doing for a while was doughnuts. They can't be that complicated, right? (They're not) And they'd probably taste pretty good, being fresh and all...(They do). And...well, doughnuts...who doesn't love doughnuts? (Or Donuts, depending...)

So, a few nights ago, I finally rolled up my sleeves and gave it a try. The result:



Recipe: Yeast Doughtnuts

Ingredients for Doughnuts
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 3 Tablespoons shortening
- 2 packs dry active yeast
- 1/3 cup warm water
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 23 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 2 to 4 quarts peanut or vegetable oil, for frying

Ingredients for Glaze
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 cups confectioner's sugar

The first thing you'll want to do is add the milk and shortening to a small saucepan over low heat just until the shortening melts completely. Meanwhile, combine the warm water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let it dissolve for about 5 minutes. You can also beat the eggs, sugar, salt and nutmeg together during this time. Once the 5 minutes are up and the shortening has melted, add the milk and shortening to the yeast and stir together. Then you can add the egg mixture and stir well.

Next, actually put the bowl on the stand mixer and attach the paddle attachment. Add half of the flour and start the mixer on slow speed, until well combined. You can add the rest of the flour at this point and mix slowly until everything is combined. Then, move to the dough hook attachment and mix on medium for another 3-5 minutes, or until the dough pulls away from the bowl in a ball.

Take a large, lightly oiled bowl, and place your dough inside. Roll it around a bit to coat it, and cover it with a tea towel. Let the dough rise for 1 hour, or until it has doubled in size. During this time, you'll want to get out a few half sheet pans, your rolling pin, and either a deep fryer or a large cast iron pot and a fry thermometer. You'll want to add the oil to your fryer or pot and heat it up to 365-370 degrees. Keep an eye on that temperature, as you'll want to keep it right in that range the whole time.

Once the dough has risen, roll it out to about 3/8 inch thickness on a well-floured surface. And yes, you'll want it to be well-floured. These things can get pretty sticky. Use a 2 1/2 inch doughnut cutter with a 7/8 inch center cutter, or...if you don't have a doughnut cutter...improvise. I used the lid of a Country Time Lemonade mix bottle and the measuring portion of plunger-measurer for the center whole. If you have leftover dough, you can re-roll it to cut more out, or just keep the doughnut holes to fry on their own. Everybody loves doughnut holes, right?

Once you punch out all the doughnuts (push straight down, don't twist), lay them out on the sheet pans and cover them, letting them rise for another 15 minutes. Finally, you're ready to fry!

Once your oil reaches 365-370 degrees, begin adding the doughnuts, 3 or 4 at a time, and cook them for one minute on each side before evacuating them to a cooling rack. If the doughnuts immediately float to the top and start browning a bit, you're good! If they immediately start blackening, the oil is too hot. If they rise to the top slowly, the oil is too cold. So...keep an eye on your temperatures! What do I use for moving them around? Chopsticks, actually...thank you, Alton Brown.

Once all the doughnuts (and potentially doughnut holes) are done, you have a bunch of choices. First, you could put some powdered sugar in a bag with some doughnuts and just shake them around. You could glaze them with whatever and then toss them with some nuts. You could eat them plain. You could put sprinkles on them...so many delicious options. Here I've got a recipe for a simple vanilla glaze. Just heat up the milk and extract in a small mixing bowl or sauce pan, add the sugar, and mix until combined. Keep it warm over a bowl of hot water, and dip the doughnuts inside and return to a cooling rack for 5 minutes. Then...enjoy!

My experience with these were that they're incredibly easy to make. If you don't have a stand mixer, you could do most of this with a hand mixer and then mix in the final flour with your hands. The stand mixer makes it much easier, but you can do it by hand if need be.

They also taste delicious. Though, like all doughnuts, they're best the first day. The longer they go, the worse it's going to get. That isn't to say that they're not still good, they're just not as great. So, keep in mind, this recipe makes a lot of doughnuts. Anywhere from 30-50, depending on the exact size of your cutter and if you re-roll the leftover dough.

So, some possible things I'm going to try in the future to tweak with the recipe:

1) Do a long refrigerator rise. See if that affects the texture or flavor. I do tend to prefer fridge-risen bread doughs...
2) Try some mix of cake flour, see how it affects the lightness and texture of the final product.
3) Use butter instead of shortening. See if that affects the flavor.
4) Perhaps add some additional spices to the dough mix itself. The nutmeg really sets it off, but what about cinnamon? What about a spicy doughnut? Now, that would be a cruel (but funny) trick.
5) See how much different oils affect the flavor.

Those are my ideas, though it's not a complete list.

Also, just in case any one of you happen to work for Krispy Kreme...I'm not saying anything...I'm just saying...hints?

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Review: Resi's Bierstube

On Tuesday we went out with a couple of friends to Resi's Bierstube, a German tavern. Now, from the outside, this place seems really unassuming. Actually, from the inside it seems pretty unassuming as well...but this place is high excellence.

Resi's has been owned and run by Herbert and Ingeborg Stober, originally from Karlsruhe, Germany, since 1973. And there's a lot of that that shows through in this place. There are maybe five or six tables inside, a long bar, and a huge kitchen. The staff seems to be rather small, but it's incredibly cozy and comforting inside. Their beer list is extensive and mostly imported, and they have liter mugs...which, all joking aside from just how huge they look, are incredibly awesome.

But then there's the food...and how delightful it is. We ordered an appetizer of their potato pancakes, which came with applesauce and sour cream. They were amazing. Just the right texture and taste, and the condiments set them off in two completely different ways. For dinner, Steph and I ordered different schnitzels, I had pork and she had chicken. For sides, I got the German potato salad, and she got spaetzle. Everything was incredible, and in rather large portions. Our friends mostly got sausage meals (they have a lot of varieties and combinations), and everything looked, smelled, and tasted amazing.

On a cold winter's night, there is hardly anything more comforting than a large plate of German food and a large mug of dark beer by your plate, with the company of good people. We'll definitely be going back again, and I honestly wish that we lived closer (or even next door) to this place, although I'm sure they'd have to roll me out the door eventually.

Resi's Bierstube is located on 2034 W. Irving Park, Chicago, IL. During the summer it has a beer garden around back, and otherwise has a full bar and kitchen inside.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pork Chops

I have very fond memories of my grandmother's pork chops. Sure, they were just dredged in flour and pan fried, but they were tender and tasty, and always made with love. And in a lot of ways, that's what counts.

Plus, you really can't beat her mashed potatoes, cream corn, or green beans. I'm sorry, but it's true. It's a lot of good, down-south cooking, and that's something that's hard to replicate.

So, of course, when I move out and start cooking for myself...indeed I do make pork chops. Have I changed how I make them over the years? Yes. I've added some stuff, maybe gussied it up a bit, but it comes down to the same sort of idea as my grandmother's pork chops, so, I hope you'll enjoy.

Recipe: Pork Chops

Ingredients:
1 center cut pork loin
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. paprika
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tablespoon hot sauce (optional)
1 cup breadcrumbs
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. parsley
1/8 tsp. garlic powder

Now, I know. That looks like a lot of stuff, but most of it is the breading ingredients. So, let's take is slow and everything will be just fine.

The first thing you'll want to do is take your hunk of beast and lay it out for a little prep work. I usually buy center cut pork loins (which actually have a few more muscles attached). These are pretty big cuts of meat, a couple feet long, usually a good four to six inches wide. In short, it usually comes home looking like this:



Now, I know...that looks a little intimidating, but don't worry, we're going to get through this. The first thing you may notice is that big layer of fat on top. The underside of that is something called silverskin, which is a pretty nasty substance. It has no culinary value whatsoever, and will completely deform your meat if you leave it on (especially when you're cooking a big roast...because it cooks and contracts at a different rate than the meat itself...plus it's all just gristle). So how are you going to get rid of it? Well, there's a handy trick to this, because once you start cutting it off, it actually pulls off pretty easily.

Take a sharp knife in hand. I wouldn't recommend a chef's knife or santoku for this, but a long bladed utility knife or a longish paring knife works pretty well. Slide your knife parallel to the cutting board under the layer of fat and wiggle it around a bit, until you can fit your finger under it and pull it up slightly:



Now, pull upward and back slightly with your finger, and just sort of wiggle your knife a bit forward. It should slide easily through and separate the silverskin from the meat itself. You'll be left with a strip that's clear of fat and gristle:



You'll want to repeat that procedure across the entire surface of the loin. You may notice that around the other muscles (around the end where the primary muscle gets skinnier), it's a bit harder because some of the fat runs between the muscles. That's just fine, we'll get to that later. So, by the end of it, you should have something roughly like this:



Now that you've got a cleaned surface, you can start contemplating what you want to do. Some of those other muscles are really tender, and will almost fall apart if you start squeezing them too hard. They cook a bit differently too, so I don't particularly like trying to cut pork chops from that end and include all those muscles in one chop. Instead, I typically remove those muscles (just use your paring knife and gravity and work along the lines of fat. Let gravity do most of the work for you, and you'll be able to separate the muscles in no time) and then cut the loin into two pieces, once which I make the chops from, and the other that I typically reserve for other purposes (a roast, more pork chops, stir fry, whatever). Once you've separated the other muscle groups and cut the main loin up, you'll have these kind of leftover bits:



And two hunks of meat that look like this:



Finish cleaning any remaining gristle off, and then start slicing chops off the thicker end of the loin. I usually go about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch thick, but do so according to your own preferences and adjust cooking time later. To slice, take a long bladed knife (a chef's knife is good for this too) and make as few cuts as possible. You're not really going to need to press down, but keep an even pressure as you draw back on the blade. The meat should separate easily, and you can return and make a second cut if you have to:



Now you'll need to prepare your breading mixture. I, for one, chose the dry-wet-dry standard procedure for this, but feel free to modify to suit your own tastes. You'll need three bowls, cake pans, or deep plates, whatever your preference is. In one, you'll place the flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika. In the second, you will place the eggs, buttermilk, and hot sauce if you so choose. Finally, in the last bowl place the bread crumbs, the rest of the cornmeal, salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and add any herbal additions to your tastes. For me, that's usually oregano and parsley. Mix up the ingredients in each of these bowls very well, and then you can proceed to breading.

You'll want to choose one hand to be your "dry" hand, and the other to be the "wet" hand. The "wet" hand should only come into contact with the food once it has been placed in the second (egg/buttermilk) bowl, and should leave contact with the food once it has been placed in the third (breadcrumbs) bowl. The dry hand should cover everything else. This minimizes mess and cleanup afterward.

So, take each chop and dredge it in the flour mixture, move it to the eggwash/buttermilk, and then finally dredge it in the breadcrumbs. You may have to add a bit more of the flour, eggs and buttermilk, or breadcrumbs depending on how many chops you're breading, so keep in mind that you can scale it up or two, depending on your own needs. You'll finish up with a bunch of pork chops looking something like this:



Now, take your favorite big skillet (I typically use cast iron), and put about 1/8-1/4 inch of oil in the pan over medium high heat. Let it heat up for a few minutes, or until you get a good sizzle if you flick a bit of water into it. Then, using tongs, you can add your pork chops to the pan, but be sure you don't overcrowd it! It usually takes me about 5 minutes on one side and 3 minutes on the other for everything to be cooked through, but your time may vary. Watch it closely, and if you try to flip the pork chop and it won't budge, give it another little it and see if it frees itself up. Most of the time it will.

Anyway, as they finish cooking, remove them to a cooling rack placed over a half sheet pan and place them in a warm oven to stay warm while you finish the rest. Eventually, you will be rewarded with golden brown and delicious pork goodness:



Perfect as a main course served with some potato salad or mashed potatoes, broccoli and green beans.

Are they good? Yes. Are they as good as my grandmother's? Well...that's a fight I'd rather avoid. I will say that they are made with love though (and technique), and they always come out quite deliciously.

The only problem with these is that they don't heat up well, so, you may want to save this dish for when you're going to have a large number of people, or only make a very little of the breading mixes and cook only a few. When heated up in the microwave, because of steam escaping, the breading doesn't adhere very well afterward. Likewise, gas ovens put out enough water vapor to make them lose a bit of their crispy crunch, so, if you have a dry heat method to heat them up again, that's the way to go. Just make sure they're on an elevated rack or something, or it will trap steam around the bottom, leading to more breading loss.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Bartending: The Quest for the Perfect Long Island Iced Tea Part III

This is the final post in a three part series. You can read the other parts here:

Part I
Part II

We've discussed a bit of the history of the Long Island Iced Tea, as well as some important factors to consider when preparing such a drink. Here, I will discuss my recipe for the drink, as well as the specifics for what I use when making it. Finally, we'll wrap up what we have (hopefully) learned, and how this applies to other drinks.

Recipe: Long Island Iced Tea

Ingredients:
1 part vodka
1 part white rum
1 part gin
1 shy part white tequila
1 shy part triple sec
4 parts Sweet and Sour mix
dash of Coke

First, I'll let you know what stuff I actually use. For me, I'm currently using Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi white rum, New Amsterdam gin, Jose Cuervo white tequila, Dekuyper Triple Sec, Mr. and Mrs. T sweet and sour mix, and Coke Zero.

There are two ways to go about mixing this: stirring and shaking. If you want a well mixed drink, shaking is the way to go...but you're still going to have to stir in the Coke (otherwise the shaker will pop from the carbonation). I typically go for just straight stirring unless I'm making a lot of other shaken drinks, in which case I'll go ahead and load up the shaker. So, the first thing you'll want to do is add your bases and Triple Sec:



Now, that's a lot of alcohol, obviously. And that's always important to keep in mind. This is a heady drink, and more than one of these will often be more than enough for any night. Anyway, next you'll want to add your sweet and sour mix (or roughly equal parts lemon juice and simple syrup):



You're going to want to add a roughly equal amount of the sweet and sour mix as you have alcohol already in the drink. This is an important matter, one that we'll discuss more in a bit.

Finally, top off the drink with a dash or two of Coke, and stir to combine ingredients:



So, there you have it. The process of creating a perfect Long Island Iced Tea in a tall glass. And what have we learned from this?

Well, for all its bloated nature, the LIT still actually conforms rather closely the rule of thirds. The drink is, roughly, one third alcohol, one third mixers, and an additional of some other garnish. Useful, no? We've also learned that brand differences are sometimes, but not always, important, but that it is always important to test things and try out different combinations for yourself, to see what you prefer. This mix works for me, and it works for everyone I've made it for. Would it work for you? Probably, but you should feel free to play around with it a bit and get it exactly right for your taste. I prefer to shy a bit on the tequila and triple sec, but some people like the bite the tequila can give to the drink. It's all about personal tastes, and that's the most important lesson in all of bartending: you have to constantly work on your skills and your tastes to get very far. When you've perfected something for yourself, try it out on others, and see if they can offer any feedback. You may be impressed with the way that a simple suggestion can take a really good treat into a truly superior realm.

So, good luck, and happy bartending!

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