Saturday, November 17, 2007

A question for my reader(s?), and breadmaking

After making dinner tonight and chewing my way through it, I wondered whether or not I should post my failures as well as my successes. After all, not every experiment can come out well, and some come out very badly indeed. Let me just say this: when making a pasta bake that isn't lasagna, if you're using penne, cook it first. Lasagna noodles might cook to al dente in the sauce of the lasagna; penne, not so much.

But on to a success. Last weekend, the husband and I decided to attempt making bread, thanks to a great recipe we found: Homemade Bread. It worked like we'd been making bread for years, and we ate that loaf of deliciousness so fast we ended up making two more loaves the next day. Yes, it's that good. One of the loaves we experimented with was an "Italian" loaf, meaning we added some herbs to it. The alterations:

Replace 1 tsp salt with 1/2 tsp kosher salt and 1/2 tsp granulated garlic or garlic powder, or replace all the salt with garlic salt if you have such things.
Add 1 tsp dried Italian herb mix to liquids before adding the flour. My mix had basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and sage in it. I also added an extra 1/4 tsp of dried basil that I have hanging in the kitchen. I would have tried replacing some of the butter with olive oil, etc, but the bread that came from the recipe was so fantastic, I didn't want to change anything, just add a bit. Anyway. I recommend making your own bread. The kneading means you can really punch the hell out of the dough, and the more you beat it up the better the bread will be, so it's a great stress-reliever. The smell of baking bread is one of the most homey smells I can think of. And then you get to eat fresh-baked bread and think, "Wow, I made this."

That's all for now. We went shopping for the Thanksgiving repast today, so I'll be updating about that on Friday, or maybe Thursday night.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Hey, look, a blog!

Sorry it's been awhile. A lot has been happening, update-laziness included. But now we're back.

Tonight we're having a fantastic, fast, cheap, delicious recipe that I made up when I discovered I didn't have the ingredients I thought I did. It's called pizza couscous.

Couscous is a starch that people in a hurry must embrace as quickly as possible. It cooks in five minutes and you can use it for pretty much anything you'd use rice for. There are different kinds of couscous, but the kind used in this recipe is Moroccan couscous rather than Israeli couscous.

You will need:
1 package (or 2 cups) couscous
2 cups water or chicken broth or stock (I highly recommend this)
Pizza sauce OR spaghetti sauce (seriously, they are basically the same)
Mozzarella cheese
Pizza "toppings": We use diced pepperoni because we love it, but you could use precooked sausage, Canadian bacon, various vegetables, or whatever else you love on pizza

Bring the broth to a boil and dump in the couscous. TIP: Most couscous recipes tell you to take it off the heat, cover, and let sit for it to cook. This is fine, but it will be very clumpy. I just turn the heat down to low and stir with a wooden spoon until all the broth is absorbed, about 5 minutes.

Add sauce until the couscous is orange. More sauce or less for taste. Feel free to add some Italian herb blends to make the spaghetti or tomato sauce more pizza-like.

Add toppings.

Add shredded cheese and mix until it's all melty.

Yep, you're done. Less than 10 minutes, including the time it takes the broth to come to a boil.

You'll have to precook green peppers, onions, mushrooms, sausage, etc, if you want to use these, but if you use pepperoni or other precooked ingredients, this is a one-dish meal. Make sure the one-dish is either nonstick or rinse it right away, though, because couscous sticks like you wouldn't believe. Rinse off that wooden spoon too.

This is a fantastic meal for those nights when you say to yourself, "I don't really feel like making what I was planning. Maybe I'll order out." Now you don't have to, because you can make pizza-like dinner at home.

Coming up next: Thanksgiving menu planning! We are not having turkey.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chicken soup from scratch

Happy Halloween! Tonight is leftovers, so I'll give you the recipe from which the leftovers originated.

Chicken soup is a good way to get rid of some leftover stuff, be it vegetable odds and ends, or the tail-end of that package of brown rice. Or in my case, the rutabaga and the orzo.

Good chicken is pretty essential for this recipe. I get frozen local Amish-raised vegetarian-dieted chicken breasts from my butcher. A good way to see if you have good chicken is the smell. It should smell like chicken even when it's raw. If it smells sour or just kind of off, it's not bad, but it's not great either, and you'll probably end up needing some bouillon to ramp up the flavor, and then it's not "from scratch" anymore.

Put your chicken in a pot and cover it with water. Add half a chopped onion, a couple bay leaves, and some mustard seeds, or whatever you have around. Cover and boil for at least an hour and a half, and 2 is better.
Pull out the cooked chicken breasts, strip off the meat (this will be insanely easy if they've boiled for 2 hours) and shred or dice it up, however you like your chicken. I like it shredded, but I don't like big chunks in soup. Slice and dice whatever else you're putting in it: more onion, celery, potatoes, rutabaga, leeks, carrots, or whatever else you can find. (Remember to save the odds and ends and the peels in a container in the freezer, so you can make a vegetable stock when you filled the container.) Mine had onion and rutabaga (cooked with the chicken), some baby carrots cut in half, sliced fresh mushrooms, half a leek, some frozen peas we've had forever, and about a half-cup of orzo that wasn't enough to cook for a meal. Add all your various vegetables and bring back to a boil, then lower to a simmer on medium heat.

You can add lots of different starches to a soup: wild rice, brown rice, white rice, sticky rice (thickens the soup a LOT), pasta shapes, any kind of potato including frozen or dehydrated, and some others that I'm sure I'm missing and will remember later. Different starches cook at different rates, so whatever kind you've chosen, put it into the soup for the length of time it would take to cook on its own, plus 5 to 10 minutes.

Add salt. Add more salt than you think needs to go in. I like kosher salt because it makes me feel all gourmet and cheffy. You will need salt because you are not using chicken bouillon and stock made from boiled chicken, onions, herbs, and mustard seeds is not salty. Pour it in there.

Add whatever herbs you want. I have dried basil hanging up that I add to just about everything these days because it is so tasty. (I will do a post about herbs later.)

I had about half a cup of cream left from not using it before, so I added this. I recently learned an awesome tip from Alton Brown on how to properly add dairy to hot things: ladle a small amount of soup, maybe a cup, into another bowl and stir. Pour the cream into this slowly, stirring to make sure it gets mixed evenly. The cream is now warm enough to not curdle when you add it, so pour the cream/soup mix back into the main pot and mix it up. Let the soup sit for about 10 minutes on low, just to let the cream soak into a few of the vegetables and lose its dairy flavor.

Now you have creamy chicken and vegetable soup with orzo! Serve with crusty bread, just like basically everything else. I love me some crusty bread.

Next up will be beef stew from scratch, using homemade vegetable stock and local round steak from the butcher.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lasagna For Reals

Nate's mom came to visit us on Saturday, driving about 4 hours to do so. She arrived around lunchtime and since we rarely have anything in the house for lunch more substantial than canned pasta and macaroni and cheese, we went out for lunch. I had already decided I was going to make dinner but it wasn't until Friday night that I actually decided what to make. But lasagna is pretty easy, the way I do it, and everyone I serve it to seems to enjoy it quite a bit, so lasagna it was.

In my lasagna I use ground beef, diced pepperoni (So quick and convenient!), ricotta, tomato sauce, herbs, and mozzarella on top. I don't usually put veggies in lasagna, but of course you are invited to if you so desire.

You will need:
1 lb 85% lean ground beef
1/2-1 cup diced pepperoni
1 16oz container low-fat ricotta cheese (don't use fat-free or the texture gets weird)
About 1 cup milk or 1/2 cup cream
1 16oz jar tomato sauce, whatever flavor you like (I usually use either mushroom or meat flavored)
Lasagna noodles
Mozzarella for the top

9x13 baking dish
2 medium mixing bowls
1 pan to brown the ground beef

Put the ground beef on the stove to brown. While it's cooking, mix the milk with the ricotta in one of the mixing bowls until it's a creamy consistency, easy to spread. Coat the bottom of the baking dish with tomato sauce, about 1/4 cup. Layer about 4 uncooked lasagna noodles on the bottom. Yes, raw. Dribble more sauce on top of them. This is important. Each layer of noodles should have sauce on top and underneath.
Drain the fat from the ground beef and mix in the pepperoni. Let the mixture heat up for a few minutes, then empty into the other mixing bowl and add some tomato sauce. You can do either 3 thin layers or 2 thick layers. I like my pasta, so I usually go for 3. The layering is as follows:

Sauce (lots, enough to cover the surface)

Put the lasagna in the oven at 350F for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the cheese on top is browning.
The sauce above and below the noodles will cook them al dente. In this case, they were a little too al dente, and you run that risk doing it this way, but I like the firmness of the noodles myself. It's an interesting texture.

This will serve 4 generously, and 2 for at least 2 dinners and possibly 1 lunch.

I don't feel like cooking tonight. Probably will throw something together though. Ordering out is expensive and unhealthy, even if it is a Monday.

Edited 5:54: Okay, we caved. Pizza for dinner. But tomorrow is made-from-scratch chicken soup and no one knows what will go into that until it's in the pot.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sausage and Pepperoni Not-Lasagna!

We do our shopping at a local foods store that has a bakery attached to it. Across the parking lot is a butcher's with really fantastic pork sausages. We bought some last week and had half of them sauteed in olive oil with red peppers and red onion over pasta. That was quite tasty. But what to do with the other half?

I had some diced pepperoni left, some mozzarella cheese, and mushroom tomato sauce. I was going to slice the sausages, mix them with the sauce and pepperoni, heat them through in a saucepan, pour them into a baking pan, cover them with cheese, and bake them. Didn't actually do that, although that would also be good.

I sliced the sausages open and put them sliced-side down in a baking dish and sprinkled the pepperoni on top. I covered this with a layer of uncooked shell pasta and poured the sauce over the top. The sauce cooked the pasta no problem. I dumped the mozzarella on top and baked it in a 350 F oven for about 45 minutes, just to make sure the sausage and pasta were cooked all the way through. It was solid enough to serve in pieces instead of being scooped out.

This was a good way to use up the sauce, the pepperoni, the mozzarella, and the sausage, and it tasted good too. The pepperoni oil (which is so awesome, I wish someone would bottle it) soaked into the sausage and the shells were nice and tomatoey from being cooked in the sauce. I highly recommend this if you have vaguely Italian leftover. Bonus: one-dish meal. No need to precook the sausage or anything.

Also, we just finished watching MST3K: Red Zone Cuba. Good lord, that was really not good at all. Don't...don't watch that one.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pumpkin woes

Okay, not really "woes" so much as "I has a pumpkin. What I do wif it?"

My good friend Amanda (food blog at Amanda's Recipe Box) led me to The University of Illinois Extension's Pumpkins and More, a site devoted to pumpkins. The pumpkin cheese risotto looks the most promising at this point, since it calls for diced pumpkin and I don't want to try and make pumpkin puree when you can so easily buy it canned. So many recipes call for X-size canned pumpkin anyway. I may try this, but in any case, there are a lot of tasty-sounding autumn recipes on there. Thanks buddy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Autumn Flavors

It's fall in Minnesota and it's been a fairly weak fall so far: cold, rainy, and no flaming-red trees, just browns and mustardy-yellows. So we may as well start cooking like winter's already here, yes?

So, root vegetable soup. I made this up pretty much on the fly one day and decided to make it for my parents when they came over. Since it's made up, I don't have exact measurements, but: it's soup. What I liked probably won't be exactly what you like anyway. This recipe sounds complicated, but it's pretty easy. The longest part is roasting the vegetables, so you may want to do that the day before and store them in the fridge overnight.

You will need:
1 HUGE butternut squash (seriously, the one I found was 4 pounds)(you probably don't really need one this big, 1-2 pounds will do)
2 medium yams or sweet potatoes
4 medium parsnips
1 leek, white part only (save the green bits though)
2 apples (not strictly root vegetables, but still tasty for soups)
Cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper, sage, anything else you want to use for flavor

1 9x13 roasting pan or casserole dish
1 stock pot or other large pot
1 large bowl or other pot, for stock-draining purposes
Sharp knives
Cleaver (optional but fun)
Oven preheated to 350 F

First off, get the pot ready for all the peelings, guts, and leftovers from preparing the vegetables. You'll be using these to make the stock for the soup. (This is so satisfying.)

Hack apart the butternut squash, slice off the rind (put it in the pot), scoop out the guts and set them aside. Dice the squash into dice-sized pieces, about 1/2 inch, and add them to the roasting pan.

Peel the parsnips and slice off the ends. Into the stock pot they go. Dice the parsnips and add them to the roasting pan. Do the same with the yams.
Mix up the diced squash, parsnips, and yams. Drizzle with oil or butter and roast in the oven at 350 F for about 1 hour. I sprinkled them with cinnamon and nutmeg as well.

Peel and core the apples and dice them. Add the peelings and core to the pot.
Peel and slice thin the leeks. Add the green part of the leek to the pot. Set aside the apples and leeks. You'll roast them later.

Now you have to decide if you want to make delicious toasted squash seeds. If yes, put the squash guts into one bowl, grab an empty bowl, go sit in front of the TV, and separate the seeds. I'll give you the roasting recipe later. If not, chuck the squash guts into the stock pot.

All of your scraps should be in the stock pot. Fill the pot with water to cover the scraps and bring to a boil, then simmer at least 1 hour up to as long as you want. Put a colander over a large bowl or another pot and drain the stock. Wipe out the stock pot and pour the stock back into it.

Are your veggies done? Pull out the roasting pan, add the apples and leeks, sprinkle some more herbs and spices on if you want, and cover with tinfoil, leaving some space for air to circulate, and stick them back in the oven at 350 for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Once the veggies are done again, add them 1 cup at a time to the stock. Now, I used an immersion blender for this, because I got one for my birthday and they are so happy, but this could be done in a regular blender or food processor. Just don't overfill them. Blend the veggies until the stock pot is full of delicious pureed vegetables. Strain if you want (I didn't, but I think I will next time). Add salt, pepper, spices, and herbs to taste. Serve with crusty whole-grain bread.

BONUS: Awesome Toasted Squash Seeds
So you have these squash seeds. Wash them off and try to remove all the squash guts. Then place them in a pot of salted water (about 2 cups water and 2 T. salt per 1/2 cup seeds) and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 10 minutes, then drain into a colander and let cool. Spread out onto a baking sheet to dry. Add some oil (I sprayed mine with cooking spray) and toast in a 400 F oven for 10-20 minutes or until toasty. Squash seeds are smaller than pumpkin seeds and will toast faster. Remove from oven and let cool. These are really good sprinkled into the soup.

Welcome to my kitchen

I am a cook who likes taking recipes and changing them. This describes many of us cooks, of course, but I might actually post the original recipe AND the changes I made! I'm not going to make any promises though. I'm a terrible blogger.

Right now I'm making up a roasted winter vegetable cream soup. If it turns out well, I'll put up the recipe.