Monday, August 6, 2012

20 Tips for Eating on the Cheap

I'm in the last month of pre-paycheck poverty, and in looking back, there are a lot of things that I've learned since starting college in 1998 (luckily, I lived in what we called the 'Motel 6' - the Delta 6 dorm at the University of South Alabama). I've always had to figure out a way to make it on a budget - whether that means just knowing how much or little I would have for the month, or trying to figure out how to get by on $100 or less for a full month of groceries.

Apart from two and a half years off, I've basically been in school and living off of student loans and (for a short time) low-salary assistantships for half of my life. Below are twenty points of wisdom that I hope will help someone else out.

NOTE - I'm a single female, and have been for the majority of the last ten years. I know that a couple of these tips won't transfer to families. Also, I'm well aware that I've had the luxury of visiting my parents in the summer and canning vegetables from the garden (that I helped plant, weed, grow, pick, etc.), and that this is not always an available plan to everyone. Canned goods are cheapest at dollar stores, whether it be Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, etc. Also, my advice and what pricing I mention is based on life in Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas, where cost of living is low, but so are the salaries. I make no apologies for that.

Now, that being said, here's what I've learned over the years:

1. Learn to roast a chicken and make your own stock.

Whole chickens often go on sale around here for 88c/lb. I simply coat mine with salt and pepper, then roast it until it hits 165 internally (30-60 minutes at 350, depending on the size of the chicken and how accurate your oven is). Once that chicken is roasted, I'll eat each piece individually with a starch and/or vegetables for a meal, which gives me four full meals, plus the wing sections for snacks.

DO NOT THROW AWAY THAT CARCASS. Chicken stock purchased at the store is expensive, and there's no reason for you to have to buy it. Take the leftover chicken bones, fat, etc. and cover them with water and SIMMER it for a long time (you -can- boil it, but that'll make your stock cloudy). Add vegetables if you can afford some carrots, celery, onion and garlic, but really, you can make stock that's perfectly good with the bones alone. Add enough salt and pepper to make it taste good, but not too salty. This stock can be used as the base for soups, pot pies, and as a general flavorin agent.

I bought a 5 pound chicken at Kroger this week on sale, and after four meals (adding in a couple of dollars of veggies), I'll also have nearly a gallon of stock, which will serve as the base for some gumbo. Not bad for less than $5 as a base.

2. Frozen vegetables can be your friend.

Yes, yes, farmer's markets are fantastic, but far too many people either live prohibitively far from a good FM, or live near one that's a bit 'hipstery' and is full of organic, overpriced produce. You can easily supplement your diet with vegetables from your market's freezer section - at the local Kroger, store-brand bags of cut vegetables ranging from 8-16 ozs are $1 apiece. I consider each of those bags to be 3-4 servings per person, so that's a tremendous deal. Those bags include pre-cut mirepoix and mixed onions/peppers, and since I only need to use as much as I need, I'll be able to make things like fajitas and gumbo without feeling the need to make a HUGE batch and having a lot of leftovers.

3. Thou shalt not live on rice, beans, and ramen alone.

Sure, you could, if you absolutely HAD to, but please, try not to do so. Food is a significant part of western culture, and eating the same stuff over and over again is going to do some damage to your psyche. For your own mental well-being, it's best if you mix it up.

4. That said, go heavy on the starches if you're really hurting for cash.

Yes, protein and vegetables are better for you than simple and complex carbohydrates. But if you're trying to stretch your groceries, you'll get more stomach-fill for your buck by putting a bigger pile of rice or mashed potatoes on your plate than you would by adding more vegetables or even legumes.

5. Make your own salad dressings and eat a salad for lunch.

You can usually pick up a head of bibb lettuce ($1), a couple of plum tomatoes (.99/lb), and a red onion (.99/lb) for around $3-4 total. Then, mix some canola/olive oil with some red wine or balsamic vinegar (which I get for around $2.50 a bottle for balsamic, or even cheaper if I age super-discounted red wine from the liquor store), add in some salt, pepper, garlic, and spices, and voila! Homemade salad dressing for far less than it would cost to buy a bottle on clearance. This makes for a super-cheap and filling meal, and someone once told me that eating a salad once in a while was good for you, too.

6. If you can, grow your own herbs and vegetables.

I live in an apartment these days, and so I can't grow vegetables as much as I used to. I DO, however, have plenty of space on my balcony and windowsills to grow basil, oregano, and maybe even some tomatoes, if I had better sun. If you don't have a bunch of deer that are going to eat your crops, grow okra, because it freezes very well, plus fried okra is high in fiber and tastes awesome. Incidentally, if you're going to grow your own tomatoes, I suggest going with a plum variety like San Marzanos instead of beefsteak tomatoes - they can better. Which leads me to my next point...

7. Can or freeze your own vegetables in the summertime and make jellies when you can.

Anything that's got a relatively high acidity content doesn't even need a pressure cooker - you can can them in a hot water bath in a large pot. There's plenty of good advice on /r/canning, so I won't go into too much detail here, but I WILL take a moment to say that it is absolutely worth investing in new jars - Ball or Kerr. Wal-Mart now has its own Mainstays line of jars, but they're new enough that we just don't know how well they hold up. A dozen jars, no matter the size, should run between $7-10. If you're growing your own tomatoes, peel them and can them, and you'll have that all winter long. Green beans also can well, but they require a pressure cooker - or, you can freeze them. A great guide for food preservation can be found here:

8. Buy in bulk when it makes sense.

I'm sure you're thinking "well, duh!", but bear with me here. You can buy a full pork tenderloin at a membership club (borrow a friend's membership and bring cash or a debit card) for around $1.50-$1.70/lb. This tenderloin can be split into about 16 portions, as a rough estimate, possibly more. When I purchase one, I'll save some for pork roasts, and split the rest into boneless pork chops. Compare this to the $3-4/lb that you'll pay full retail on at the grocery store, and it's a great way to stretch your money.

Other things that I prefer to buy at membership clubs are butter (4 pounds at Costco is usually around what I'd pay for 3 pounds at the grocery store), heavy cream, certain cheeses, and frozen seafood. Also - quinoa. Quinoa is ONLY a good deal when you buy it in bulk. Don't ever buy it in a small box from the 'gluten-free' section of your local groccery, because the price is WAY too high. For what I paid for 12 ozs the first time I cooked it, I could've spent $2 more on a 5-lb bag at Costco.

9. When you buy in bulk, use a vacuum sealer to store it all.

Google Shopper can help you out on this one, as can Woot. I purchased a Rival sealer for $15, versus the $45 it's running on Amazon right now. Yes, the bags are expensive, but if you're buying a large quantity of meat at once, it's definitely worth it to prevent freezer burn. This is another one of those cases where you can share one with a friend - one person gets a pressure cooker for canning, one person gets a vacuum sealer, one person gets a Costco or Sam's membership. Nobody's out more than $60 and you can all share in the investments (and the next year, you can split that membership club fee). If you've ever eaten freezer burnt meat that's been in the freezer for a couple of years, including power outages, you know what I'm talking about.

10. Learn to break down beef roasts into smaller portions.

Before I moved, I picked up a top sirloin roast for $3/lb. That's not too bad for Sunday dinner for 8, but when it's just you, that's a lot of meat. I actually managed to cut STEAKS from my roast (just pay attention to the meat's grain and you'll be fine), plus chunks of beef for tacos, stew meat, and whatever else I want. I got all the servings I wanted from my roast, including a really awesome sirloin steak that I had for dinner - at half the price of what I would've paid for a proper sirloin steak cut at the butcher's case.

11. Quinoa is very filling and great for you, but rinse it like mad or you'll get heartburn.

I learned this one the hard way. Even McGhee's On Food and Cooking didn't have this tip, and I just learned it for myself last week. Wow.

Seriously though, if you can buy quinoa in bulk, give it a try. Yes, it looks funny, but you can simmer it in that awesome chicken stock I told you to make, and you won't go hungry. It also has virtually every amino acid you can.

12. If you can go somewhere that chanterelle mushrooms grow, go pick them in the summers on a day after a good rain.

This is the perfect time of year to head up to the Georgia mountains and pick chanterelles. I ONLY recommend picking these because they are very easy to distinguish from ANY other type of mushroom - they have a hollowed-out flute and are bright orange. They grow in forests that have little to no pine growth - if you're in GA, check out Unicoi State Park (sp?) and other areas. I've even seen them in the park near Athens. I know they grow elsewhere, but that's the only practical experience I have. Make sure you know how to tell the difference between those and Jack O' Lantern mushrooms, which look like they have a flute but don't have a hollow center. These mushrooms are impressive in that they have ALL of the amino acids you need, and can be sauteed in butter and then frozen to save for year-round use. If you're picking them fresh, you might even be able to sell them to a high-end restaurant for $25-30/lb. Just make sure you use woven baskets, because that lets the spores fall back to the ground so they can repopulate.

13. If you know how to bake, get at it (just don't skimp on the flour).

I picked up a full pound of yeast at the DeKalb Farmer's Market last time I was in Atlanta for something like $3. That's almost as much as I would pay for six packets of Fleishmann's yeast, and it's the SAME THING! A packet of yeast is just shy of a tablespoon, so buying in bulk makes a lot of sense if you can use it. Get started making your own bread - this is a good starter recipe: /r/breadit can give lots of advice and other recipes to help you along.

Also, yeast rolls and breakfast rolls aren't hard to make at all, just a little time consuming. You can make large batches and freeze them  before they're iced. My mother found this recipe in Southern Living over 20 years ago, and it's still the best recipe I've ever used: Also, don't forget to check out /r/baking. Those folks know their stuff.

Finally, when I say don't skimp on the flour, I mean it. If you're from the southern US, you're probably used to baking with White Lily - there's a reason for this. White Lily is a soft wheat flour, which cooks and bakes differently than hard wheat flours. No, you won't have to adjust your recipes from Southern Living too much if you get a hard wheat flour from a store brand, but why risk it? I'll spend an extra dollar on a 5lb bag of White Lily instead of trying to use a store brand flour that I haven't figured out the hardness or gluten content of. Granulated, powdered, and brown sugars should all be the same, btw - though if you buy that Domino 'brownulated' brown sugar, just stay aware that it needs some moisture to fall back to its original brown sugar state.

14. You don't need a ton of fancy kitchen gadgets. If you're just starting out, you CAN live with just a few things.

I laugh at people who swear by their garlic presses. Why? Because I can get equally good results by mincing the hell out of a clove of garlic with my Victorinox chef's knife, or if I'm doing a lot at once, by throwing it in the one-cup processor attachment of my immersion blender. Speaking of, here are the three things I think you really need, apart from utensils, a few spoons (you can get a pack of plastic cooking utensils at most big box stores for $1), some tongs, and a cutting board:

  • Victorinox chef's knife (8 or 10 inch) - This is highly rated by Cook's Illustrated, and retails on Amazon for $40. I bought mine at a restaurant supply for $25. If you have a honing steel, that's all you need to keep it going.
  • Cheap (under $40) immersion blender. This does triple duty as a one-cup food processor AND a motorized whisk. It also purees sauces, smoothies, and anything else you want to deal with. Want to make mashed potatoes? Cream them with a touch of milk and butter with the stick blender. Want to make homemade tomato soup? Use whole plum tomatoes, roast them at 350 for an hour, then cook them down with some broth, stock, or water, plus whatever seasonings you like, then blend it up.
  • A Tramontina double boiler/steamer ($36ish at Wal-Mart). This is my soup pot, stock pot, steamer pot, chocolatiering pot. I use this puppy for EVERYTHING, because it's so well made. Yes, there are some things I still use my commercial-grade cookware for, and there's still a few things that I use my grandmother's old Amway cookware for (it's lasted 40 years, why stop now?!). Still, 75% of the cooking that I do involves this small set of cookware, for good reason.

15. Can you find pork bellies for $6/lb or less? Got access to a smoker? Cure and smoke your own bacon instead of paying retail.

Refer to my previous blog posts for my own experiences, but I will NEVER pay $6 for a pack of 12 ozs of commercially processed bacon ever again. You get more out of the quantity, not to mention the quality. I would gladly eat a single slice of my homemade bacon over the crap that they spray liquid smoke and nitrates on any day of the week - and all it takes to make is salt, pepper, celery salt, and whatever other seasonings you like.

16. Get to know the patterns of your local grocery store's weekly circulars.

My dad was always a grocery store circular hound, and after a while, I realized why that was. Stores tend to have patterns - every few weeks, chicken would go on sale. The next week, it'd be pork, then beef, and so on. If you get to know the patterns, you can properly time your purchases.

17. Sometimes, it's worth splurging.

This goes back to the psychology of food. I'm not talking about letting yourself indulge in the McDonald's dollar menu, either - I mean, sometimes, you need to just buy yourself a ribeye or a pound of shrimp when it's on sale, cook it up beautifully, and remind yourself that you're a human being. I occasionally see ribeyes on sale for $6-7 a pound, and 30-40 ct shrimp for $5/lb - so go for it if you can! The pound of shrimp I recently bought will be used with the chicken stock I'm making this week, plus roux, some of that frozen mirepoix, cajun spices, tomatoes, and okra, to become a delicious shrimp gumbo. Yes, it will be more than my usual daily budget allows, but sometimes it's worth going a couple of dollars over budget to remember the things you love. My gumbo won't be packed full of oysters, alligator, or andouille, but it will still be delicious.

18. Learn to make pie crusts from scratch.

Pot pies, dessert pies, fried pies - the sky's the limit! Get yourself a rolling pin, an empty wine bottle, or just a heavy glass, and roll out a pie crust. You can make enough crust for a pot pie in a casserole with around half a stick to a full stick of butter, and with just some basic roux, stock, a little of that roasted chicken, and frozen or canned vegetables, you can make a wonderful dinner that freezes well.

My pie crusts usually involve whipping some cold butter with a bit of flour in a food processor (use that one-cup from the stick blender!), then adding a tiny bit of water until it comes together. It'll be warm by this point, so you can knead it well. Then, if I'm not using it immediately, I just put it in a plastic bag and freeze it until the time comes. Otherwise, roll it out (or roll out the thawed dough at room temp). Yes, there are better methods for making pie crusts using vodka, but this will get you more than satisfactory results and you'll likely still be very pleased with the outcome.

19. I don't care how cheap something is, don't buy it just because it's on sale.

I'm looking at you, brussels sprouts in my freezer. Actually, I'm sort of kidding - I LOVE brussels sprouts, and with a little salt and a tiny bit of my homemade bacon, they'll be fantastic, and I got this package with the $1 frozen veggies deal at Kroger. But let's be serious here, we don't all love them as much as I love those baby cabbages. so why on earth would you buy them? This reminds me of when I bought some yuca after a friend cooked some and I thought it was decent. I saw it on sale at Publix, so I said why not? Well, five years passed and I never used it. I didn't even bring it with me on this last move - I think it's still in my parents' freezer somewhere, waiting to be put out of its misery.

20. Just because something has been historically cheap doesn't mean it's cheap now.

Seriously Spam, WTF? I know you're popular in Hawaii, but just because that's the case doesn't mean that you're worth $2.50 a can for potted meat products. As I mentioned earlier, I can get pork tenderloin for $1.50-1.70/lb, as opposed to the $2-2.50 for an 8-12oz can of prepackaged, over-salted meat. Yes, I know that my friend got you on discount for 50 cents at a scratch and dent sale, and yes, I know that you were the most fantastic thing I ever ate at her house the night after I defended my dissertation prospectus, but let's be clear here - you are no longer cheap meat product. The same thing goes for flank steak, hanger steak, and every single thing that Alton Brown ever mentioned on his show. This is why my steaks now are cut from top sirloin roasts, because the famous TV cooks haven't gotten to that yet.

Bonus tip #21: Pay attention to long-term weather patterns and news from the agriculture world, and know where your food comes from.

I am dead serious on this. A couple of years ago, there was a drought in Georgia and a bacterial outbreak at a peanut factory. The result? Peanut butter went through the roof. $8 for a large jar of JIF? That's why I stocked up early. This year, corn is really hurting - be prepared for it to be far more expensive in the coming times than it's ever been. In fact, anything that's growing in the midwest is being killed by one of the worst droughts we've seen since the dust bowl era... so if you can afford to, stock up now. Cornmeal, Karo syrup, flour, beef - all of it is going to be much more expensive in the months to come, and if the weather isn't any better next year, it's only going to get worse.

...I really hope that this has been helpful to you guys. If it saves even one person a few bucks in the long run, it'll be worth it, but my honest hope is that it will give the everyday budgeter something to think on.

Much love and hope for a better future!

It's been a while, but I'm back!

After defending my dissertation, graduating, and then waiting tables for a few months to get moving money together (which really takes the creative blogging energy out of you when it's mostly outdoors and it's 100+ degrees out), I'm finally settled into my new place in Little Rock, and ready to get at it again.

I'm entering my last month before getting a real paycheck, and I'm super-excited about what I might do when I can really buy groceries. In the meantime, I'm working up a post to share all of my lessons learned with the budgetfood crowd. Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm going to be eating foie gras every meal, but it does mean that I can afford some duck or a nice steak on occasion.

Anyway, it's nice to be back to posting!

Monday, April 16, 2012

OMG, Real Homemade Bacon!

Double posting tonight, because the bacon simply must be shared. It is that superbly glorious. You may recall from my post last week that I was curing some pork bellies for bacon, and let me tell you, that was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I fried some up for dinner tonight (yes, I ate a dinner of bacon and nothing else), and it was just SO good.

Fresh off the smoker on Saturday. 

Just sliced. If it weren't in beautiful, giant chunks, you'd think it were store-bought by the appearances.

Bobby, the maple cure, didn't get as much maple flavor as I'd hoped at first - it was subtle, but it built up with each bite. He tasted like candy, let me tell you. Petrino, with the garlic in the cure, was perfectly salty but not overly so. Considering that this was a short cure - just two and a half days, plus three hours soaking (Bobby was soaked in brown sugar and water, Petrino was repeatedly rinsed and soaked in clear water), plus drying in the fridge overnight - I'm blown away by how absolutely perfect it was.

A bit of each was for dinner tonight. I like mine slightly undercooked, and definitely not burnt.

I will never buy bacon at a store again if I can help it. I'll just make huge batches while I visit down here, then freeze them for use throughout the year.

BB's "Yum-ptious" Apple Pie

The theme for last week's baking challenge was 'Kids', so I asked BB what she would like to make with me. Of course, the girl who used to sing a song about pie wanted to make apple pie. So, we did!

I peeled and cut the apples. She pretty much did the rest.

We didn't get to make it until today, because of all the work finishing up the smoker last week, plus all the chaos of my birthday party on Saturday, plus other parties BB and KB went to this weekend, PLUS the fact that BB's playing softball. She called yesterday upset that we hadn't made the pie yet, so that's what we did right after school today.

She did TRY to peel the apples, but didn't like the peeler.

She added the sugar and flour...
Stirred it all together...

Filled and pinched the crust...

And mixed and brushed on the egg wash all by herself.

The filling itself was made of about 5 large granny smith apples (7 or 8 cups, peeled and chopped) tossed in lemon juice, about a cup of sugars (I used about 1/3 brown and 2/3 white), a small bit of flour, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger that I just eyeballed, but was a little heavy handed with.

I cut the smiley face vents, she made the nose.

I haven't had a full slice yet, just tasted a bit of the filling, but it is, indeed, yum-ptious. Even more importantly, she had a blast making it!

After cooking. So cute!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Precursor to Bacon

The fireplace/smoker is very, very close to complete. The handle is going on in a couple of days, and the metal cap to go over the top will be fabricated in the next week or so. Tomorrow will be a cleanup day, and preparing for my birthday/PhD shindig on Saturday.

I earned a trowel of my own for all my work in this. So... tired...

However, finishing up stone work was not the end of my evening. Yesterday, I acquired half a pork belly from a lovely butcher in Hoover, but I had a difficult time finding pink salt to cure it with. I ended up using celery salt instead, which has plenty of nitrates in it that convert to sodium nitrite - which was exactly what I needed to keep the pork belly nice and pink, not to mention botulism-free.


It took a while to break down, because this is the first time I've had to skin a pork belly. I consulted my friend George, whose PhD is in Food Science, for advice on a rapid cure, since it's already Wednesday evening and the bacon's going on to smoke on Saturday.

Vegetarians, I don't know how you do it.

After a bit of chat, I decided to do skin-off and smaller chunks for maximum absorption. A 6.8 pound pork belly yielded a bunch of skin, plus two separate portions. Having my own silly sense of humor, the 2.2 pound batch that I added maple syrup and brown sugar to was named "Bobby", while the 2.3 pound batch has salt, garlic powder, and black pepper, and is named "Petrino".

I also bagged up the skin, which I'm going to use to make cracklins. After a little research, I've decided to use the oven-and-fry technique posted here. Whether or not they'll be snacks for the party or if they'll be our Friday night noms has yet to be seen.

Bobby, Petrino, and Wilbur's Skin. A pork belly destined for MY belly.

For the record, Bobby got 1c maple syrup, about 1c brown sugar (1.5c loose pack), 3/4 c kosher salt, and 1 oz celery salt for about 2.2 pounds of belly meat. Petrino got 1 oz celery salt, 3/4c kosher salt, 1/4c garlic powder, and 1/4c black pepper for around 2.3 pounds. I'm really interested to see how it turns out. I've never made my own bacon before, and I don't know anyone else who has, either.

More updates to come on Saturday!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Turkey and Quinoa Pitas

Wow, it's been a while, eh? Well, that's because March has been quite the crazy month for me. Not only is this the time of year when tons of conference and research award proposals are due, but we also visited Arkansas over Spring Break to visit the university I'll be heading to for my new position in the fall (and for some vacationing). As soon as that was all wrapped up, I was home for a whole two days before I headed back to Georgia to defend my dissertation!

That's right, I'm -Doctor- Domesticated Professor now. Oh yeah.

Two tasty pitas, about to meet their fate as lunch for my mother and I.

Anyway, I'm finally back in the kitchen, and it feels good to be back! I've made a few things in the past week - a killer turtle cheesecake, for starters - but nothing that I really wanted to post about, until today. The budgetfood challenge for this week was for quinoa, something that I'd only had once in the past but liked. I was't even certain that I could find it in Alabama, but I did luck out at Publix last night and found some in its overpriced gluten-free, health-food section. After some thinking, I came up with what my mother and I agree was a very good lunch, and a nice grain that we'll be using from time to time. I will definitely be buying more of this at the Farmer's Market next time I'm Atlanta!

The sandwiches came to a total of only $2.15 apiece to make if you purchase the stock, which isn't bad at all considering how filling they are. Vegetarians can replace the turkey with some roasted butternut squash for an equally tasty and less expensive meal - something I meant to do as well, but I spaced, stared directly at the butternut squash at Publix, but didn't get one to take home. Ah, well.

Turkey and Quinoa Pitas
For the quinoa:
2/3 cup uncooked quinoa
1-1/3 cup vegetable or chicken stock
1 oz dried cranberries
salt and pepper to taste
For the sandwiches:
Oat bran pita bread, cut into half pockets
Sliced muenster cheese (about .65 ozs per half-pita)
Sliced deli turkey breast (3 slices, or about 1.85 ozs)
Sliced avocado (1/4 per half-pita)
Diced red onion (about 1/3 oz per half-pita)
Romaine lettuce (about 1/4 oz per half-pita)

Add quinoa and stock to a pot and bring to a boil, then stir in cranberries. Reduce heat to low and cook 15-20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, then let cool. Stuff a pita pocket with cheese, lettuce, and turkey. Scoop in quinoa, then sprinkle on chopped red onion and top with avocado slices.

Total prep/cook time: 30 minutes
Happiness Rating: 8/10

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Mega-Pastrami Sandwich of DOOM!

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. But it would just be a LITTLE bit, because dinner tonight was a whole new level of awesomeness. A ton of meat went onto the smoker at around 8AM, and we fed ourselves, the kids, and the neighbors, and still had plenty left. There was a plain brisket, some italian sausages, chicken leg quarters, but the crowning achievement was some amazing pastrami. The entire purpose of firing up the smoker was, in fact, to make pastrami. More specifically, to make my own twist on a pastrami reuben.

So, it isn't -technically- a reuben, but it's close enough.

This beauty was made with sourdough bread instead of rye because I simply adore sourdough. It's got a spread of deli mustard on either piece of bread and bunch of pastrami, which smoked for a full nine hours. Then a little sauerkraut, and some gouda cheese on one side and bread and butter pickles (homemade, of course) on the other. Slip it under a broiler and you will have amazingness.

Pastrami is a fancy way of saying 'smoked pepper-covered corned beef brisket', if you weren't in the know.

Sure, you can do it on rye bread. Sure, you can just use corned beef and not go to the trouble of coating it in black pepper and smoking it for nine hours. But if you have the access to do it, why wouldn't you? Even without access to a smoker, you could slow-cook a corned beef brisket in its juices, some water, and some liquid smoke for a while, then pat dry, roll it in pepper, and put it in the oven to finish off.

This is Alabama. The only way I was going to get a sammich this awesome was to smoke the pastrami myself.

Sometimes, you just can't help but dream of something awesome, and when you finally make it, it exceeds all expectations. This was one of those days.

A sampler of all the stuff we smoked today. The un-corned brisket has a serious smoke ring, and it got a foil wrap about two hours before the pastrami came off.

Pastrami Not-Quite-A-Reuben Sandwich
  • 1 4-lb corned beef brisket
  • 1/4 cup ground mustard
  • 1 cup black pepper
  • 1/2 oz liquid smoke (if you must cook it indoors)
  • Sourdough bread
  • Sauerkraut
  • Deli-style mustard
  • Sliced gouda cheese
  • Bread and butter pickles

To smoke:
Coat uncooked corned beef brisket with mustard and pepper, cover and allow to rest at least two hours for a crust to form. Smoke for about nine hours with hickory wood, or until probe thermometer reads 165 degrees. Rest at least 15 minutes before slicing thinly.
To cook indoors:
Place brisket in a crock pot, add liquid smoke and a small amount of water. Cover and cook on low for two hours, then remove from liquid and pat dry. Coat with mustard and pepper, then finish in a 250-300 degree oven (as low as it will go) until an internal probe thermometer reads 165 degrees. Rest at least 15 minutes before slicing thinly.
For the sandwiches:
Spread deli mustard across two slices of sourdough. Add about 1/8 lb of pastrami to either piece of bread, and top each with a thin layer of sauerkraut. Place a slice of cheese over one side of the sandwich, and bread and butter pickles on the other. Slip under a broiler for 3-4 minutes or until cheese melts, then fold into sandwich.
Makes about 16 huge, food-coma-inducing sandwiches.

Total cook/prep time: 9 hours (plus overnight rest with pepper coat)
Happiness rating: 9/10

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Paging Garfield: Sausage and Mushroom Lasagna

Mmmm, lasagna. The only thing I knew about lasagna growing up is that my favorite Saturday morning cartoon character, Garfield, could toss back entire pans of it. Strangely enough, I don't think I ever actually ate lasagna until I was a teenager. It's really, really good though, as I'm sure you know.

It also doesn't photograph well. Oh wait, that's -me- who doesn't photograph well.

It doesn't take all day to make, either. I was able to start the sauce from scratch at 4:00 and was eating by around 6. No, I didn't roll my own pasta or anything, but I made sauce from scratch like I always do, so don't you judge me.

The recipe below is for a more saucy lasagna - I didn't end up making enough sauce, thinking that some tomato sauce I'd made recently was still in the fridge and I would integrate it all. Oh no, that was all gone. Ah, well.

Oh, and since I'm on a budgeting kick, I tallied up exactly how much this meal cost - $20.18 total, or $1.68 a serving - and that's assuming that you buy canned tomatoes and use italian sausage. You could easily add spinach to the ricotta and double the mushrooms in the sauce and still come out with a killer vegetarian lasagna, and it'd be even cheaper.

Sausage and Mushroom Lasagna

  • 2 quarts canned tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp oregano
  • 2 tbsp basil
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 6 ounces mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 package italian sausage
  • 2 lbs lasagna noodles (avoid the no-boil kind)
  • 1 32 oz package ricotta cheese
  • 8 ozs mozzarella cheese
  • 2 oz parmesan cheese

Simmer tomatoes and spices over medium heat until spices are well integrated, then puree with an immersion blender. Add mushrooms and onions and continue to simmer. In a separate skillet, cook italian sausage thoroughly, then add to the sauce.
Boil noodles for about 10 minutes, or until softened; drain and rinse. Put a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a 13x9" pan, then add a layer of noodles. Spread ricotta cheese over the noodles and sprinkle parmesan over the top, then add another layer of noodles. Add the majority of the sauce, especially the meat and mushrooms. Add another layer of noodles and spread remaining sauce over the top, then top with mozzarella cheese.
Cover with foil and bake at 400 for 30-40 minutes, then remove foil and cook another 10-15 minutes. If using fresh mozzarella, you might need to dab away excess moisture with a paper towel after removing the foil. Serves 12.

Total prep/cook time: 2 hours
Happiness rating: 8.5/10

Friday, March 9, 2012

Tonight's Noms: Sweet Soy Pork and Risotto-Stuffed Tomatoes

Wow, this was a really good dinner. I had initially planned to try and make this earlier in the week, but life intervened, as it always does. The budget challenge this week a vegetarian theme with tomatoes as the main ingredient, and I'd calculated everything out perfectly such that the tomato would be a good, filling meal on its own. Sadly, it's winter, and tomatoes aren't in season, so the fruit I ended up with was both overpriced and small - still well within the allocated budget at just $1.75 apiece, but even with the risotto piled up high, the tomatoes didn't seem big enough to suit my fattie appetite. So, I entered my vegetarian roasted tomato soup recipe instead, and ate this as a side dish.

I found my cool plates! Also, an in-focus picture!

I even started out the day making some chicken stock from the salvaged carcass of the other night's chicken and dumplings (yes, you can still make stock from the remains of a boiled chicken). This stock went into the risotto, but it could just as easily be made with vegetable broth or diluted bullion. The pork chops were marinated with a mixture of sweet soy, worchestershire, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and the handy-dandy steakhouse seasoning grinder, which is a mixture of peppercorns, garlic, and a couple of other spices.

The recipe for the tomatoes is below, and the risotto mixture is written up for the amount I made - which would have been perfectly fine for a large, ripe summer beefsteak tomato, but these winter vine-ripened globes were smaller and more dense than I'd really hoped for. I'll definitely be making this again once our tomatoes start to come in this summer.

Ready to be topped with parmesan cheese and popped in the oven.

Risotto-Stuffed Tomatoes
  • 1 cup short grain rice (valencia is cheaper than arborio and works well)
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1-2 tbsp garlic powder, or 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 large mushrooms, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 cups heated vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 tbsp basil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 large beefsteak tomatoes
  • about 1 ounce grated parmesan cheese
Heat oil in a small pot over medium heat, and add rice, mushrooms, and garlic, stirring to coat the rice. Continue to heat and stir the mixture until the rice becomes clear. Ladle in about a cup of broth, stir, and bring to a boil for 2-3 minutes, then reduce heat to low. Once all the liquid has been absorbed into the rice, add basil and stir in additional broth one ladle-full at a time. Continue to cook and stir broth until the rice is cooked through, stirring occasionally to break up the starches on the rice. Add salt and pepper conservatively throughout the cooking process; if desired, additional parmesan can be added to the rice to add salt and additional flavor. The risotto should have a creamy texture when finished. Allow to cool for at least 20 minutes before filling tomatoes.

Slice the tops off of the tomatoes and hollow them out, stirring the inner bits of the tomato into the risotto. Spoon risotto into the tomatoes and top with parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes, or until the skin of the tomatoes has split and the rice throughout the tomato is warm.

Total prep/cook time: 75 minutes
Happiness rating: 8/10 - this needs to be done again during tomato season

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

True Comfort: Chicken and Dumplings

My dad had his gall bladder out this morning, but before he even went to bed last night he announced his desire to have chicken and dumplings for dinner tonight. Seeing as how he doesn't often make special requests, and he did just undergo major surgery and all, I felt the need to oblige him.

Forget gnocchi, these are the true heavenly pillows

Chicken and dumplings is a very special meal to me, and has a lot of great memories associated with it. My grandfather would keep us over the summers, and he would make the most awesome chicken and dumplings and add a little cayenne pepper to it, which I fell in love with. I also can't help but recall my first real failure in the kitchen, when a batch of dumplings dissolved into the broth instead of floating up like happy little clouds.

I'm happy to say that I've got the recipe down pat now, and I feel the need to post it, if only for posterity. It's excellent comfort food, extremely inexpensive to make (under $5), and really, who doesn't love chicken and dumplings?

KB learned how to use a peeler today, plus some basic knife skills.

The amounts needed for dumplings are a rough estimate. Sometimes you want a lot of dumplings, sometimes just a few. This kind of dough is difficult to quantify, because every batch is different. As long as you get it to the point where it won't accept any more flour without falling apart, you're golden. Also, using minimal water means that you'll get a lovely, rich broth. If you want to stretch it a bit, you can add more water and use a taller stockpot. I made this batch in a 3-qt pot, but it's pretty common to see it made in larger stock pots.

Chicken and Dumplings

Meat and broth:
  • 1 whole chicken (about 3 lbs)
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1/2 onion, diced 
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder 
  • salt
  • black pepper
For the dumplings:
  • 5-6 cups self-rising flour
  • 1-1.5 cups lard
  • 3-4 tablespoons buttermilk (plain milk or chicken broth will do)
Place chicken and vegetables in a pot just large enough to fit it all, and cover with water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer until the chicken is cooked (flip it if necessary), then remove the chicken from the broth and let cool. Pick the meat from the bone and add back to the broth. Add additional salt if necessary. The broth should be flavorful but not heavily salty, as the dumplings will also be slightly salty.

To make dumplings, cut the lard into about 2/3 of the flour until it is well integrated and crumbly. Work the milk into the mixture until the dough reaches a tacky consistency, then add more flour and mix in. Continue working in additional flour until the dough can't accept any more without becoming a crumbly mess - it should still be pliable enough to press into a ball.

Bring the broth up to a rolling boil, and drop dumplings in one at a time. The dumplings will float to the top when they're cooked. Remove from heat (or turn heat to low) and serve.

Total cook/prep time: 1 hour
Happiness rating: 10/10

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Strawberry-Banana Oatmeal Cookies

I had initially planned to make some oatmeal-cherry-chocolate chip cookies using a variation of a recipe given to me by a friend at Phinished, but as I was getting my mise together, I realized that I didn't have enough oats to make a full batch of cookies, or even a half batch. So I added in a couple packs of instant strawberries-and-cream oatmeal and some freeze-dried strawberries and bananas. KB decided to pulverize the bags instead of giving them a quick smash, so the strawberries were dust instead of chunks, and completely permeated the cookie dough.

I want to eat ALL the cookies.

The strawberry flavor is subtle, and gives the cookie a sweet and creamy flavor that you might expect from a shortbread rather than an oatmeal cookie. I absolutely love it, and so do the girls.

Strawberry-Banana Oatmeal Cookies (half-batch)

  • 1/2 c butter
  • 1/2 c brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/2 c AP flour
  • 1/2 large beaten egg
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 2 packages instant strawberry oatmeal
  • 2 packs freeze dried strawberry/banana, crushed
Cream butter and sugar, then add vanilla and egg and stir until smooth. Add flour, salt, and baking soda and stir until integrated, then add oats and fruit. Bake 12-15 minutes at 350 on a silpat mat or greased cookie sheet. Makes 10-12 cookies.

Total prep/cook time: 25 minutes
Happiness rating: 8/10

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Coffee-Glazed Turkey Burgers with Apple Slaw and Baked Sweet Potato Fries

I've never really done any savory cooking with coffee. I've never made my own buns, either. I'd never even had a turkey burger before tonight. But there's a first time for everything, and today was one of those days. This afternoon I did a lot of new things, with a lot of success. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the coffee-glazed turkey burger on a homemade brioche bun, with gorgonzola cheese, apple slaw, and a side of baked sweet potato fries.

This would've been a much prettier photo if I'd had a red onion handy. Or a good camera and photography skills.

There was a reason for the madness. First, this week's 52 weeks of cooking theme was coffee, and I didn't want to make tiramisu, mocha cookies, or a coffee-flavored barbecue sauce. I'd heard something about a coffee-glazed burger, so I decided to go that route. Then I noticed that this week's budget food challenge was for ground turkey, and I decided to consult my copy of the Flavor Bible and see what I could do to integrate both the coffee and the turkey. Coffee wasn't listed as a flavor affinity to the turkey, but after doing some more research I decided that it would be a nice complement.

For the buns, I used this recipe from Smitten Kitchen - this was also BB's afternoon project, since she loves to help me bake. Fun fact: 5 year olds don't seem to like the smell of yeast. The glaze was simple - I just added enough water to some decaf instant coffee and brown sugar to get a thin syrupy consistency, and I brushed it on some 1/4 lb turkey patties. The apple slaw was similarly simple: grate up some apples, chop up some dried cherries and a slice of onion, and stir it together with a few tablespoons of yogurt.

The meal was awesome. I was really surprised at how well everything went together, and how the strong flavor of the coffee made the turkey more flavorful. I even heard my parents talking about how good it was from the other room while I was attempting (and of course failing) to take a good picture, and we all wished I'd made bigger burgers and more sweet potatoes. Incidentally, it's also cheap - by my calculations based off of the amount of ingredients I used (yes, I measured) and the current price of everything at the grocery store, this meal cost $2.60 per person before tax, including the cost of the homemade buns (the price works out to be the same as a purchased bun). In a restaurant, this would have easily been a $10-12 plate with the portions I've listed below. You can't beat that with a stick.

Coffee-Glazed Turkey Burgers:

  • 1/4 oz instant coffee
  • 2 ozs brown sugar
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 hamburger buns
  • 2 tbsp butter, softened
  • 2 cups apple slaw (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 cup gorgonzola cheese

Add just enough water to the sugar and coffee to create a thin syrup. Season ground turkey with salt and pepper, then form into four patties and brush with coffee glaze. Spread butter on each side of the buns, and toast on a griddle at medium heat. Cook burgers on medium to medium-high heat for about 4 minutes per side, brushing on additional glaze after flipping. Put gorgonzola cheese on the bottom bun, then add meat and top with apple slaw.

Apple Slaw

  • 1 large apple (about 1/2 pound)
  • 3/4 ozs dried montmorency cherries, chopped
  • 1 slice onion (about 1 oz), chopped fine
  • 3 ozs (around 3 tbsp) plain yogurt
  • 3-4 drops lemon juice or 1/2 tsp Fruit Fresh (to prevent browning if making ahead of time)

Grate apple with a box grater. If making ahead, place in a bowl of water with lemon juice or fruit fresh to prevent browning until ready to use. Drain off any excess liquid from the apples, then stir together cherries, onion, and yogurt. Makes 2-3 cups

Baked Sweet Potato Fries

  • 3 lbs sweet potatoes
  • 4.5 ozs oil
  • 3 ozs brown sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • salt and pepper to taste

Peel sweet potatoes and slice into thin medallions. Add oil, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and pepper, and toss to coat. Spread over a baking sheet and cook at 450 degrees for 20-25 minutes, turning every 8-10 minutes. Makes 4 large servings.

Total prep/cook time: 1 hour active cooking, 4 hours total (45 minutes total cook/prep if you remove the bread from the picture)
Happiness rating: 9/10

A Revelation - Banana Rum Cake

Over the weekend, I had so much free time and space in the kitchen that I went on an absolute cooking binge. A while back, I had made some white chocolate banana ganache with the intent of using it for truffles, but I made it a bit too thin. So, I set it aside to use for a cake glaze.

So, so very good.

A couple of years ago the entire family went to the Cayman Islands on a cruise, and of course we brought back a number of rum cakes and many different flavors of Tortugas rum. Banana isn't a flavor of rum that we drink very often unless we're making a couple of particular drinks, so there was plenty of it. So, late on a Friday evening, in the midst of my cooking spree, I went to town on making a rum-laden bundt cake.

Just after turning out and splashing a little rum on the top.

After I baked the cake, which used some banana pudding mix, a cake mix, and some pecans, I splashed it with a bit of rum and left a cup of rum in the middle, then covered the cake overnight. The next day, I made a glaze with sugar, rum, and butter and doused the entire thing with that. After letting that glaze soak in for a day, I topped it off with the white chocolate banana ganache.

Since we really do try not to keep a ridiculous amount of sweets at the house (though we usually fail), I sent the cake to the lodge with my dad last night, since they eat potluck-style. There were only ten men and a couple other desserts, but only three slices of this stuff made it back. I finally got to have a piece before bed, and WOW.... just wow. It's got just enough rum in it for you to feel the warmth in the back of your mouth when you swallow, but not enough to really taste the rum. You definitely taste the banana flavor, and the chopped pecans add a really nice crunch. There's obviously alcohol still in there (and you can smell it), so you might not want to offer it to a teetotaler. That's okay, though - more for us!

BB was my photography assistant today, and she frequently threatened to devour what little cake was left.

Banana Rum Cake
For the cake:

  • 1 package butter recipe cake mix
  • 1 package banana cream pudding mix
  • 3 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks
  • 1/2 c milk
  • 1/2 c oil
  • 1/2 c + 1 shot banana rum 
  • 1 c chopped pecans

Mix together all ingredients except pecans until the batter is well-integrated. Stir in pecans and pour into greased bundt cake pan. Bake at 325 for one hour, or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then flip out onto rack to complete cooling for another hour. Splash shot of rum on the cake, especially around the interior ring. Cover and allow to set overnight before glazing.
For the glaze:
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1/2 c banana rum
  • 1/2 c water
Melt butter in saucepan over low heat, then stir in sugar and rum. Once well-integrated, increase heat slightly and add just enough water for sugar to dissolve into syrup. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly, then spoon and brush over cake while still warm, taking care to cover the entire exterior of the cake. Allow glaze to soak in overnight for best results. Top with white chocolate banana ganache if desired.

White Chocolate Banana Ganache
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half
  • 12 oz bag white chocolate morsels
  • 2 tbsp banana extract
  • 1/4 tsp coconut extract
Heat cream and extracts in a double boiler until hot. Gradually add white chocolate, stirring until chocolate is completely melted and integrated. For thicker ganache suitable for truffles, decrease cream or increase chocolate until it reaches the desired consistency.  Allow to cool to room temperature, then use immediately or cover and store in refrigerator.

Total prep/cook time: 3 days, but only about 90 minutes of work.
Happiness rating: 10/10 - this thing disappeared fast!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mexican Red Sauce and Chicken Arepas

First, the non-food related stuff. I have come to the realization that my camera isn't going to be any easier to deal with anytime soon, and that the lighting at the house during the hours when I usually cook is nothing remotely near ideal for taking pictures. So I started thinking of buying a new camera that would allow me to do some manual focusing type stuff, and around that time my dad noticed that my car had gotten a flat tire over the weekend. Sometime in the past few days, something managed to slit a hole in my sidewall, and now I'm going to have to replace that. Since I'm still grad-student-poor, that means no new camera for me. Sigh.

While the pictures are going to remain in the crappy-to-mediocre territory, the food's still tasty. These arepas rocked my world.

And now, for the food! Since my TFoodie friends had asked me to write up the recipe for enchilada sauce that I'd finally gotten right, I made another batch today,  but kept it to a more saucy consistency. The great thing about the red sauce is that it can be used for so many different things - I use it along with chicken broth instead of water when cooking rice to make a very tasty spanish rice, pour it over hamburger meat to make tacos, thicken it up for enchilada sauce. I can even make it with hotter peppers and add some cayenne to make a spicy finishing sauce.

This recipe makes just under a quart. If I ever get around to it, I'll make bigger batches and pressure seal them.

Since we'd just had enchiladas the other night and I didn't feel like going through the trouble of tamales. Tamales and arepas are very similar, actually - both are filled masa dough, but arepas are fried while the tamales are wrapped and steamed. The red sauce went into both the filling and the masa - plus a little more on top. With a little sour cream and salsa verde, it made for a killer meal that we really loved.

Mexican Red Sauce

  • 1.5 ozs (about half a bag) dried guajillo peppers, seeded and cut into pieces
  • 3 c water
  • 1 c chicken broth (or stock for a thicker finished product)
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp annatto
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp oregano
  • 5-6 drops lemon juice
  • fine ground masa harina or cornstarch (if thickening for enchilada sauce)

Place the peppers in a pot and cover with water, cooking over low heat for 30-45 minutes. Puree peppers with an immersion blender and allow to steep for another 5-10 minutes, then push liquid through a strainer and discard remaining solids. Return the liquid to a pot, and add chicken broth, salt, garlic powder, annatto, cumin, and oregano. Cook over medium low heat for another 10 minutes to allow spices to intermingle.

If thickening for enchilada sauce or other uses, continue to cook uncovered until reduced, or reduce the amount of water used. Replacing some or all water with stock will also promote thickening. Stir in masa harina or cornstarch and remove from heat.

Stir in lemon juice to finish.

Chicken Arepas

  • 1/3 cup lard
  • 3 cups all purpose or coarse masa harina
  • 1 c chicken broth
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 c mexican red sauce
  • 12 ozs canned chicken breast, drained and shredded

Pour half the mexican red sauce over the chicken and stir together. In a separate bowl, cut the lard into the masa with a fork or pastry cutter. Add salt, broth, and remaining red sauce to masa and work into a dough with the fork or by hand. Form the masa into patties and fill with the shredded chicken, making sure to seal off the ends. Fry in about 1/4" oil over medium-high heat until golden brown and cooked through. If not serving immediately, transfer to a foil-covered cookie sheet and keep warm in a 300 degree oven.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream and salsa verde. Makes 12 arepas.

Total prep/cook time: 1 hour for the sauce, 1 hour for the arepas
Happiness rating: 9/10

52 weeks of cooking, Week 8: Chunky Slow Cooker Applesauce

Again with the 'I'm on my own this weekend' thing, as well as the 'all my good kitchen equipment is in storage' thing, I didn't want to do some big meal in a crock-pot, as I didn't want to load the fridge down with a bunch of leftovers. Thankfully, my mom has a tiny crock pot that's meant for dips and such, but it also worked perfectly for a small batch of applesauce. I went for the chunky skin-on kind, which I'll either use in the big chunks or milled down to make some apple muffins later in the week.

Ugly picture, but tasty applesauce. It might even get turned into apple butter.

I personally didn't add any spices, since I plan to use this for another recipe. If I mill it into a jar of apple butter, I'll simmer it for a while longer with some allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. If I decide to make it into a filling, I'd just stir in a little cornstarch and cook it until the liquid thickens a touch more. It's really versatile stuff.

Small Batch Slow Cooker Applesauce:

  • 2 gala apples, chopped
  • 1.5 cups apple cider
  • Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves and ginger to taste
Put apples in a small slow cooker and add just enough cider to cover. Add spices if desired. Cook for 4-6 hours or until apples are soft and tender.

Friday, February 24, 2012

52 weeks of baking, Week 8: The Easter Basket Cupcake

As usual with decorating challenges, this was really a challenge. That said, after seeing the kit-kat basket cake posted, I decided that I needed to make an easter basket cake. We already had jellybeans on hand, and I thought I'd grab something to use as basket weave. Twizzlers taste nasty in my opinion, but when I found the filled twizzlers at the store the other day, I decided to give them a shot. In the end, it turned out very cute, but when you consider the fact that I spent 45 minutes on icing, decorating, etc., that's a lot of time for a single cupcake. I likely won't do it again.

As much LOTR as I've been watching lately, this really is 'one cupcake to rule them all'.

Since it's just me for the weekend and I had no desire to decorate an insane number of cupcakes right now, I ended up using this recipe - which made seven small cupcakes, of which I crumb coated three (after peeling off the paper) and used just one. Incidentally, I haven't tasted the cupcakes yet, but they seemed a little dense to be white cupcakes, and I probably won't use that recipe again. I'd pulled out my copy of Ratio earlier before googling, and I'll likely just make a white sponge in the future if I need a small batch.

Cupcakes and supplies. It really was a quick and dirty job, despite the time involved.

To decorate, I made a half batch of the icing I used in this post and crumb coated, with a generous amount on top. I split the filled Twizzlers down the middle, and let the filling aid in gluing the basket weave portion onto the cupcake. I carved out a little hole on either side of the cupcake and filled it with icing, and used that to glue in the red Twizzler handle. Jelly Belly jellybeans topped the whole thing off.

Mid-decoration. Bifurcating filled Twizzlers isn't as simple as it sounds. Those things are gummy.

Total prep/cook time: 2 hours
Happiness rating: Meh. Too pretty to eat.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The date is set.

Yep, I finally got confirmation this afternoon that my dissertation defense will be on Wednesday, March 28, at 1:30 in the afternoon. In just over a month, I'll finally be done with grad school. Of course, I'll still be biding my time and anxiously awaiting my move to start the new job, but that's something completely different.

Anyway, woohoo!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Paradise by the Oven Lights (aka Meatloaf)

When asked what we should have for dinner tonight, I did a quick mental inventory of what proteins we had in the freezer and what we'd been eating lately. I came to the realization that we had quite a bit of ground beef, but that we hadn't actually used ground beef in a few weeks. Since I really didn't want to eat any more chicken, I gave the family the option of hamburgers, hamburger steaks, or meatloaf. Meatloaf was the consensus, and I'm really glad that it was.

It was half gone before I could even take a picture.

When discussing how much to make, my mother mentioned that she didn't like leftover meatloaf. Of course, that meant that my brain clicked, and I recalled just how much my dad and I do like leftover meatloaf - the flavors meld together even better after a day or so, and a slice of meatloaf makes for a great sandwich filling. So, I decided to use two pounds of meat instead of the one. And for the first time, I finally documented how much I used of what when I made it, so I finally have a recipe.

The real secret is the use of oats, which is much more nutritious than solely using breadcrumbs. It also absorbs more moisture, so you don't need as much filler, and you don't end up with a large pool of grease in the bottom of your pan. Also, the sauce is ketchup-based, but it isn't just ketchup - there's mustard, brown sugar, and worchestershire in there, and that makes all the difference.

Beef and Oat Meatloaf

For the meatloaf:

  • 2 lbs ground beef (around 85% fat - filler may need to be adjusted according to fat content)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced (about 1/4 ounce)
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped (about 3 ounces)
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped (about 4 ounces)
  • 5 ounces dry oats (about 2/3 cup)
  • 4 ounces breadcrumbs (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 tsp fine ground sea salt
  • 2 tsp black pepper (less if freshly ground)
  • 1 large egg
  • 4 shakes worchestershire sauce (around 1 tbsp)

For the sauce:

  • 4.5 ounces ketchup
  • 1.5 ounces brown sugar
  • 6 shakes worchestershire (about 1.5 tbsp)
  • 3/4 ounce spicy brown mustard

In a large bowl, mix together vegetables and dry ingredients. Add beef and egg, and mix together with clean hands until the mixture comes together and is slightly tacky. If mixture is too dry, a small amount of water or vegetable juice can be added. In a separate bowl, stir together sauce ingredients. Coat an 11x7" casserole dish with vegetable oil. Form the meat mixture into a long loaf and place in casserole dish. Bake in a 350 degree oven until a probe thermometer positioned in the center of the loaf reads 155 degrees, adding sauce to the top of the loaf after about 30 minutes, or when thermometer reads around 125 degrees. Serves 5-6.

Total cook/prep time: 1.5 hours
Happiness rating: 8

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bacon Roses!


KB's wanted to make bacon roses with me ever since I came across the instructable last year. For Valentine's day, I decided to oblige her, and to complete the Valentine's day themed cooking and bacon challenges. There really isn't much need for a long and detailed explanation of what was done, since there's already an excellent guide out there, so I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Who needs a drill and real pans? Disposable works well. So does a phillips-head screwdriver.

13 strips of bacon to a pack... 12 cups. Challenge accepted.

Baking complete. A little cooling, and then they're ready to stem.

KB is in her tweenie years, which means she is physically incapable of expressing excitement. Ah well.

Overall, a fun project, and one I'll likely do again. I mean, it's BACON, and it isn't overcooked and crunchy and gross. Soft, perfect, pretty bacon is the way to go.

Total prep/cook time: 1 hour, including all the time it took to prep the silk flower stems.
Happiness rating: 12/10. Om nom nom.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

52 weeks of baking, Week 6: Strawberries, Chocolate Mousse, and Nutella-filled Tuiles

So this week's theme for the baking challenge was 'elegant', and I had to think long and hard for something that might qualify. I'm not a great decorator by any stretch of the idea, I have little artsy talent and NO photography skills, so it took me the full four weeks of advance notice to come up with an idea for this week. BB's been asking for chocolate whipped cream, and KB loves pirouline cookies with hazelnut filling as well as strawberries, so I decided to go for a combination of it all. The results were nowhere near as elegant as I would've liked, but still kinda pretty, and very tasty.

You can't see it, but that tuile is filled with hazlenutty goodness.

Last night, I cut up strawberries and gave them a good coat in sugar, and made some very thin ganache with milk chocolate and a small bit of dark chocolate. This afternoon, BB and I whipped in a little more cream, added some gelatin (though not enough, but she dumped the packet instead of sprinkled, so there were complications), and put the mousse in the fridge until they and my mom could get through the rest of their bake sale cooking. When I finally got a chance, I made up my batter - two batches, actually. The first stick of butter I grabbed from the basement fridge was from my old house and had acquired a bit of fridge funk. It was my first Betty Botter moment, and it made me feel kinda stupid, considering that I'd had that rhyme stuck in my head for a few weeks now.

I used egg molds instead of flatter forms, but wish I had used a plate or cardboard, as these turned out a bit thick.

Once they came out of the oven, I used the handles of wooden spoons to roll them up, and of course burned my fingertips a little. It was a real pain to try and get them to hold a round shape - partially because they were too thick, and partially because they're just a pain to work with. Nonetheless, I did achieve some semi-roundness, and some burnt fingertips.

The picture doesn't really show the heat well. Owie.

Once they'd cooled, I thought I'd fill them with nutella using my berliner tip, normally reserved for doughnuts. Protip: nutella is too thick to use with a berliner tip. I ended up switching to a 230 tip, which is for filling cupcakes and such and which worked much, much better. Still, nutella and piping don't get along well.

The cute jar mocks my attempts to tame it with a berliner tip.

So, all worked out well in the end. I was able to get the nutella in the tuiles, and put it all into the dish with nice layering, etc etc. When you dipped your spoon all the way down to the bottom and got some strawberry with the chocolate, or a bite of strawberry with the nutella tuile, it was awesome. So, even if it wasn't too elegant in its presentation, at least it was elegant in its flavors.

Vanilla Tuile Cookies

  • 1/2 stick softened butter
  • 1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup soft wheat all-purpose flour or cake flour

Cream butter until smooth, add sugar, eggs, and vanilla and mix until well integrated. Add flour and mix until incorporated, then transfer batter into the refrigerator for 30-45 minutes. Spread over a thin form onto a silpat mat, and bake at 325 for about 10 minutes, or until the edges of cookies are slightly brown. Quickly roll up or press onto forms and allow to cool. Makes 8 cookies.

Total prep/cook time: 90 minutes, including all the time put into the strawberries, ganache, and tuiles.
Family happiness rating: 8/10

Friday, February 10, 2012

52 weeks of cooking, Week 6: Arroz Carreteiro, Cowboy Style


I don't know whether I've mentioned it on the blog before, but folks who know me also know that my dad's been building a huge outdoor fireplace/smoker. It's really coming along nicely, as you can see.

That big recess above the fireplace? That's where the TV will go. It's a shame I'll be moving away in August!

Earlier today there was a bit of back and forth over whether to cook a stew on the fire out there (dad's idea) or to cook my Brazilian-themed dish for this week's challenge (which is why I thought they'd been thoughtful enough to thaw out the beef in the first place). So, we compromised and did both! The bigass cast iron pot needed some seasoning after having been repeatedly cooked and cleaned on the fire, anyway. I saw no reason that a cowboy's dish that translates to 'waggoner's rice' wouldn't be better cooked in such a manner, so two birds, one stone, right? I started off with some very simple ingredients - beef, onion, bell pepper, garlic, salt, pepper, tomatoes, corn, and rice.

10 minutes of prep indoors, and everything from there on was done outside.

With some oil heated in the pot, I added in the garlic, onion, and pepper. It sizzled enough right away that I just gave it a little stir before adding the meat.

Veggies. And MEAT!

The lid went on, and that would be the last time I touched that pot without some welder's gloves. After a few minutes, I gave the meat a stir, then let it cook a little longer. I probably stirred it 2 or 3 times before the tomatoes and corn were added in.

I had to post a picture of these, because I think it's awesome that the gloves are called 'Blue Beast'. Also, kevlar? Badassery.

Anyway, in went the tomatoes and corn, and I let everything cook over the fire for a bit before adding some additional water and stirring in the rice.

It was also a bit cold today, so the heat from the fire was nice.

We ended up keeping it on the fire for about two hours total, although it really could've come out after an hour. When we decided that it cooked long enough, we took it off the hook and set it in the fireplace near the coals to keep warm. Two hours later it's sitting on silicone trivets in the kitchen, and there's still a bit of steam coming up when the lid is opened.

Just after being taken off of the flame. We let it sit near the fire for another 45 minutes or so.

All in all, it was good stuff! I didn't add much salt and pepper at the beginning, so that was added at the individual level. I always like to be cautious with salt since you can't take it away once you've added it, so there's that. I also wish I'd added some latin american peppers into the mix, but we each added our own favorite blends of hot sauce to taste.

Okay, so it wasn't really roughing it, but the 'cowboy style' meal was a nice way to fake it. Not too bad for a February afternoon outdoors.

Arroz Carreteiro (Waggoner's Rice)

  • 3 green onions
  • 1/2 yellow onion
  • 1 large green bell pepper
  • 5 small cloves garlic
  • 2 lbs beef shoulder, cut into cubes
  • 1 quart jar tomatoes
  • 1 can 'mexicorn' or whole kernel corn
  • 3 cups long grain white rice

Chop onions and pepper into small pieces, mince garlic, and add salt and pepper to taste. In a large pot, heat cooking oil over a fire and add vegetables. When vegetables become fragrant, add beef and allow to brown, stirring as necessary. Add tomatoes and corn, and 2-3 cups of water as needed. Cover and bring to a boil. Add rice and replace cover, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching on the bottom of the pot. Serves 6-8.

Total prep/cook time: 2 hours
Family happiness rating: 7/10