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