Making Bacon: Not Just Sexual Innuendo Anymore!

Hello readers. Only three more days until I go back to my regularly scheduled blogging.

In the meantime, enjoy this video from America’s Test Kitchen (probably the only cooking show out there that isn’t inane or considered “food porn”). I don’t know if this show comes on where I live, but, this is the 21st century, and there’s practically no TV show out there that isn’t available online in some capacity (except for maybe these late 1990s horror comedy cartoons I liked: one was called “Toonsylvania,” which Steven Spielberg made when he first started DreamWorks Studios and the other was called “Monster Farm” about a boy named Jack who inherits a farm filled with monster animals. The latter show came on ABC Family Channel back when it was called FOX Family. The former show aired on FOX back when that channel and other free-TV channels, except for NBC and PBS, aired Saturday morning cartoons).

Enjoy, have a happy and healthy new year, and I’ll see you with new material.

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Happy Holidays To All My Readers

I think the title says it all. The next blog post won’t come until next week, since it’s going to be New Years’ and what better way to start the new year than with a new blog post?

I also got an early Christmas present on Monday when I got an acceptance email to Philadelphia’s COOK Masters program for cooks (and now food writers) who have the drive and culinary skills, but need more experience and professional connections. Here’s a look at what the program is like: http://vimeo.com/61282616

I start the program on January 13th.

In the mean time, enjoy these photos of the food I made when I was at Job Corps:

Breast Cancer Remission Celebration Cake with Coffee Frosting Foreclosed Gingerbread House 1 Foreclosed Gingerbread House 2 Shrimp and Lime Pate en Croute Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter Stuffed Mussels and Polenta

Happy holidays and happy 2014!

A Very Foodie Christmas: Novelty Need Not Appli-ance

On this side of the world (Western hemisphere), there’s only two more shopping days until Christmas – unless you’re like my family and decide that the after-Christmas/year-end clearance sales (which last from December 26th to around New Years’ Eve, maybe New Years’ Day, if a store decides to stay open then. Some stores will even stop the day before New Years’ Eve so they can differentiate between the after-Christmas sale and the year-end clearance sale) are the best time to buy Christmas presents.

Shopping for a foodie or a home cook is a lot like shopping for a child: there are a lot of new, shiny toys out there that everyone wants, some of which are good to have, while others are just novelty that no self-respecting home cook/foodie would want or need. A quesadilla maker does seem like a good idea, but, as the “Thanksgiving Leftovers” post showed, you can get the same results with a good cast-iron pan and a canned good or the back of a spatula pressed firmly, but not too firm or the cheesy filling will spill out (unless you like it like that). I guess I should be one to talk, since my grandmother recently got our family a breakfast sandwich maker from Hamilton Beach and that’s about as novelty as you can get on a kitchen appliance without it being a knock-off of something you’d find at a county fair or circus (cotton candy maker, snow cone maker that’s not the classic Snoopy one, or hot dog roller). However, my family hasn’t had a bread toaster in years, our toaster oven broke, and there are days where we (myself included) either don’t feel like using the oven or stove or can’t, because we ran out of vegetable oil. In that regard, I say, “Don’t pick a novelty kitchen appliance unless you have a good reason to use it and you will use it more than once,” like a pasta maker:

I had to work with one of these monsters in my Bistro class and my Fine Dining class at Job Corps. It seems easy and you’d think I’d get the hang of it just because of my quarter-Italian heritage, but it just didn’t happen, especially since the hand crank kept falling off. The only successful time I had with this machine was when I made kreplach noodles for my Jewish chicken soup, but that was because I had a partner who helped me hold down the machine. If you want to make fresh pasta and you don’t have anyone to be your spotter when hand-cranking it, then invest in an electric pasta maker, get a pasta maker attachment for a Kitchenaid standing mixer, like this one…

…or learn how to cut pasta by hand. The last one isn’t recommended unless you have the time, patience, skill, and a good kitchen knife or pizza cutter and ruler to do it.

So, what constitutes a “kitchen need” vs. a “kitchen want”? It all depends on whether or not you can see yourself using the appliance frequently or if you answer “Yes” to the question, “Could I do the same thing without this appliance?”

Like the panini maker/George Foreman grill. While you may jump down my throat and say that a panini maker is essential in the kitchen, it’s actually not (and this is coming from experience, as I have two broken ones). You get the same results with a cast iron skillet with a ridged bottom, whether you’re making a turkey and brie panini or a pan-grilled steak. On top of that, you can easily soak a ridged cast iron skillet in the sink and not have to worry about emptying the fat/oil reservoir every time you use it.

Then there are the specialized cutters (the ones used for one kind of food, like watermelons, corn, bananas and butter). The only kind of cutters you need in a kitchen are for cookie dough (though you can easily make stencils out of sturdy paper and not bother with those metal ones) and an apple corer. The knife kits they have in stores from Williams-Sonoma to Wal-Mart look almost like the ones that professional chefs use, and work just as well.

Coffeemakers: I’m not much of a coffee drinker, and, if I am, then it’s always cold and always sold at Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or Cosi’s. I did have one in college, but that was because my sister and I also bought a blender so we can make cold coffee drinks and it ended up getting thrown out when we moved out. If you just have to have coffee, then don’t go for the needlessly complicated ones, like this one (yes, I know it’s a parody commercial from Saturday Night Live, but the Verismo is real. They’re just making fun of the crummy service of real Starbucks cafes): http://vimeo.com/62425881. Go for the ones that look like this:

So, what have we learned in this blog post? We learned that a foodie Christmas shouldn’t have to break the bank like a regular Christmas. It should be about what you need in the kitchen, not what you want (though if it’s not considered redundant and you plan on using it more than once, you can splurge on a “kitchen want”).

Thanks, and have a very foodie Christmas.

 

 

Avenue BBQ, part two: Crock(Pot) and Roll

Last time on Take Back the Kitchen, we looked at the history of barbecue and some regional differences. Today, we’re going to look at how you can have a barbecue in your own house if you don’t have a barbecue grill, if the weather is too damp or cold to cook outdoors, or if you’d rather not like your meat burnt from charcoal or gas flames.

The best crockpots are the ones for today’s busy idiot (no disrespect to anyone who’s busy or an idiot. It’s just that, in this quick-fix world we live in now, that’s the only way I can describe people who are slaves to wanting things done easy rather than putting a little effort behind a task, and that kind of mentality knows no skin color, ethnic group, religious preference, sexual orientation, body size, gender, or physical/mental disability) — the kind where you can set your ingredients in there and let it cook low and slow until tender (usually anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, depending on how tough your cut of meat is and what you’re cooking). Crockpots are what pressure cookers were back when they were first in vogue (I’m going to assume the 1950s. While pressure cookers are still around, they’re not as popular as they used to be…unless you’re a terrorist or have an old pressure cooker your grandmother or mom used to use and you want to keep up tradition): a big pot people can use to make thick,stews (especially beef stews), boiled dinners, and pot roasts and not have to worry about getting actively involved with what’s being cooked. Basically, it has the same emotional arc as a drama about a parent who abandoned his or her kid(s) in the past and is trying to get back in the child(ren’s)’s life (lives): starts out cold, but warms up very slowly, and you can expect a lot of boiling and steam.

Much like Kleenex, Chapstick, and Kool-Aid, “Crockpot” (actually spelled “Crock-Pot”) is actually a brand name that has come to generically describe the product. Crock-Pot’s claim is that it’s the original and everything else is a pale imitation, and I applaud them for taking pride in their work, but for those who don’t have the money for an authentic crockpot go for brands like Hamilton Beach (which is said to have a lot of good products that won’t put a hole in your wallet).

But let’s save the kitchen appliance chatter for a later day. We’re here to talk about crockpot barbecueing.

Crockpot-barbecuing meat is no different than braising (in fact, it’s a close relative of it). Both cooking techniques involve tough or large cuts of meat being cooked in a liquid (in this case, a thin, Carolina-style barbecue sauce, but you can use a less thick, Kansas City-style barbecue sauce if you’re making pulled pork for a pulled pork sandwich) after being browned for color and flavor, either in a brazier (a specialty pot used specifically for braising), a saucepot, a Dutch oven pot (if you’re not serving large groups of people), or a crockpot. The main difference between crockpot barbecueing and grilling is that there’s no fear of your meat coming out dry and burnt, since you’re utilizing a moist-cooking technique.

Slow cooking — be it with crockpot, brazier, or Dutch oven — touches on that want for warm, filling meals, especially in the winter months when no onereally cares about their waistline expanding. While others will tell you you can use a crockpot any time of the year (say, if you want to make chili for a summer barbecue), it’s the winter months in which slow cooking shines. Does beef stew appeal to you more when its ten below or 75 degrees and balmy?

With that, I’d like to introduce you to my family’s beef stew recipe:

Young Family Beef Stew

Ingredients

2 pounds beef stew meat (cut into bite-sized pieces)
½ cup stewed tomatoes or 1 cup tomato sauce
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, sliced
2 cups baby carrots
4-5 small potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces (about 3 cups)
1 cup frozen corn
1/4 cup water
Whisper of cayenne
Pinch of garlic powder (or ¼ minced garlic)

Optional ingedients for this include peas, beans, bacon, mushrooms (white button), and frozen mixed vegetables (my mom uses canned and frozen vegetables because they cook faster and she doesn’t like to futz around with fresh vegetables, e. For a barbecued beef stew, we use either a bottled barbecue sauce or make a quick version using ½ cup tomato paste (or ketchup), ¼ cup brown sugar, few squirts of Louisiana hot sauce, some cayenne, and molasses to taste.

Always remember that the times listed are just suggestions, depending on what you use for slow-cooking. You may need more time; you may need less. I’m going by how my family makes this.

Instructions

  1. Combine beef, celery, carrots, onion, potatoes, salt,  pepper, and stewed tomatoes in a crock pot (my family uses a six quart, since that’s enough to feed the four of us and have leftovers for the next few days).
  2. Cook on low for  6-7 hours, eight at the most.
  3. About 30 minutes before serving, add water and seasonings. For a thicker stew, add ¼ cup of flour and enough vegetable oil to make a roux out of it. The roux is ready if it tastes more oily than floury.
  4. Mix until well-combined and let simmer for another 30 minutes.
  5. Serve immediately.

I also find that this tastes great when put in a hoagie roll and eaten as a bastardized version of a roast beef au jus sandwich. You really should try it this way.

Happy holidays and happy eating.

Operation Thanksgiving: The Leftover(s) Post

With Thanksgiving three weeks behind and Christmas almost a week away, you may be wondering why a Thanksgiving leftover blog post should be published this soon?

Well, to get a head start on post-Thanksgiving leftovers for 2014, and because I only have two recipes that individually takes three Thanksgiving dishes (namely the turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes) and recreates them into something you can make any time of the year.

Turkey/Homemade Cranberry Sauce: Turkey and cranberry sauce quesadilla

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Quesadillas are not a new thing for me. I’ve had them since college, both made by me and bought from Qdoba and several San Francisco food trucks (Food trucks are a bigger deal in the West Coast than the East, though Philly is starting to get into it). I’ve had both meat and vegetarian takes on it, and I like them both.

For those who don’t know, a quesadilla is a corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese and some kind of savory mixture (meat, vegetables, refried beans, mostly) either folded in half to form a half-moon shape when cut or sandwiched between two tortillas and cut into wedges after it’s been pan-cooked, griddled, or panini-pressed. The latter way of preparing it (sandwiched between two tortillas) is actually referred to as a sincronizada outside of Mexico, so if you’re an American tourist in Mexico, don’t get mad or confused if you see them prepare a quesadilla this way (as seen in this video): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5a/Quesadilla.webm/Quesadilla.webm.480p.webm.

Another difference between a Mexican quesadilla and an American one is in the ingredients, especially the type of cheese used. In Mexico (particularly the central and southern areas; northern Mexico tends to use queso fresco and wheat flour tortillas for their quesadillas), queso Oaxaca (a stringy, mozzarella-esque cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca) is the cheese of choice in this dish (in America, it’s usually Colby Jack, that shredded “Mexican cheese blend” you see in stores [which is really just Monterey Jack and cheddar mixed], or mozzarella).

As for savory fillings, you get beef, chicken, and pork, same as in the States, but real Mexican quesadillas use such ingredients as chorizo (a type of spicy pork sausage; I made this in garde manger class during the week when I worked on forcemeats, pâtés, terrines in aspic — you know, the kind of disgusting foods that a lot of 1950s to 1970s home cookbooks have. It’s very weird that I actually know what they are and how to prepare them in a day and age when only children of 1970s parents and people who read James Lileks’ website and books would know what a savory gelatin dish is), huitlacoche (corn smut. Yes, it sounds like pornography that would exclusively be made in Nebraska, but corn smut is a type of pathogenic fungus that’s considered a delicacy in Mexico), and chicharrón (a meat dish that can best be described as “pork rinds made from scratch,” though some Central American places and places like The Philippines [which was under Spanish rule], beef and chicken is substituted).

This recipe I have for a turkey quesadilla uses ground turkey that you can cook like ground beef, but if you have leftover turkey from any occasion, you can just rip up the meat and sauté that in with the other ingredients.

All credit goes to Closet Cooking

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 (8 inch) flour tortillas
  • ½ cup shredded cheese (a Monterey Jack/Colby blend is preferred, but you can substitute with whatever semi-soft or hard cheese you like)
  • ¼ pound turkey, cooked, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce (I prefer the homemade cranberry relish I discussed in the previous “Operation: Thanksgiving” entry)
  • ½ jalapeno, finely diced (optional: I’m not a fan of jalapenos, but you might be)
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 1 handful cilantro, chopped (also optional, as not everyone likes cilantro)

Directions

  1. Heat a pan over medium heat, place one tortilla in and top with the half of the cheese followed by the turkey, cranberry sauce, jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and the remaining cheese and tortilla (if you’re doing the folded quesadilla with just one tortilla, then you need to place the filling on one side of the tortilla, then fold the bare side over the filled side).
  2. Cook the quesadilla until golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 2-4 minutes.

Mashed Potatoes: Gnocchi

I made gnocchi (pronounced nyo-KEY) once in my life, and that was in Chef Will’s International Cuisine/Bistro class when I was in California. It was during the two weeks we learned true Italian cooking. You’d think I’d learn at least something from that, since I have a great-grandmother who was one-quarter Italian and the Italian cooking bug lives on in my mother. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Making pasta like a true Italian grandmother (despite that I’m in my late-20s as of this writing. Hey, you’re never too young to cook like an Italian, Jewish, Greek, or Eastern European mother or grandmother, even if those ethnicities aren’t in your family tree) is something on which I still need to work — and that’s with and without the pasta maker. I’m not saying I stink, but there is room for improvement, as far as making pasta dough is concerned (though I do pride myself in making noodles out of kreplach dough to add in Jewish chicken soup. I did it because I felt like having chicken soup with noodles in it and the cafeteria wasn’t serving it).

Gnocchi is no exception. Gnocchi is a lot like any recipe, but especially like soufflé, in that just about anything can go wrong. They can fall apart like cheap jeans in a washing machine. They can taste doughy and soggy. They can have a heavy mouthfeel. That’s a lot to run through your mind while preparing this, but let me put you at ease at what you can do to avoid crummy gnocchi:

1)      Use starchy potatoes. Russets (the Idaho potatoes) are ideal. If your mashed potatoes were made with Russets, then you’re good to go.

2)      Try not to use too much or too little flour. Too much makes the gnocchi heavy and too little doesn’t make a strong enough dough.

3)      Use enough beaten egg to act as a binder (a quarter cup and nothing more)

4)      Ideally, egg isn’t needed in a true gnocchi recipe, but an eggless gnocchi recipe is very tricky to handle. Unless you’re experienced at making eggless gnocchi or you’re serving someone who doesn’t like or is allergic to eggs (eggs are considered one of the most common foods people are allergic to, next to peanuts, milk, any tree nut [walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc], soy, wheat/gluten products, and edible crustaceans), then stick with step three.

5)      Gnocchi is supposed to have a delicate, light mouthfeel to it – and that includes when you fry it. Yes, you can fry gnocchi. My International Cuisine teacher was disappointed in me when I decided to cook it up traditionally (boiled and cooked in tomato sauce) rather than fry it – not because he’s into fried food, but because he personally feels gnocchi is enjoyed better fried. And, after tasting a fried piece from a girl in my class (I think her name was Dahlia), I agree. Fried gnocchi tastes like tater tots, only less greasy. And that is a compliment. I know pairing something refined like gnocchi to something blue-collar like tater tots is a foodie taboo of some kind, but that’s the hazard that comes with opening your mouth to everything from pre-made to homemade.

Here’s the full recipe for your reference (this is from my “Italian Week” International Cuisine class packet):

Gnocchi From Mashed Potatoes

1½ cup prepared mashed potatoes (or 2 large Russett/Idaho/baking potatoes, scrubbed)

¼ cup egg, lightly beaten
1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
salt and pepper to taste

For those making a fresh batch of mashed potatoes (if using leftover mashed potatoes, skip steps 1 to 5):

1)   Fill a large pot with cold water. Salt the water, then cut potatoes in half and place them in the pot. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender throughout (anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes, depending on how fast your stove range heats up.

2)   Remove the potatoes from the water one at a time with a slotted spoon. Save the potato water.

3)   Place each potato piece on a large cutting board and peel it before moving on to the next potato. Peel each potato as soon as possible after removing from the water (without burning yourself).

4)   Keep in mind that you want to work relatively quickly so you can mash the potatoes when they are hot. To do this you can either push the potatoes through a ricer, or, failing that (not everyone has a potato ricer or knows one with such a thing), run a fork down the sides of the peeled potatoes, creating a nice, fluffy potato base.

5)   Mash the potatoes until you get a consistent base with little to no obvious lumps. Do not over-mash.

6)   Let the potatoes cool spread out across a cutting board (or other flat, protective surface) long enough that the egg won’t cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes.

7)   Pull the potatoes into a soft mound. Drizzle the beaten egg and sprinkle ¾ cup of the flour across the top. With a metal spatula, a pastry scraper, or your own washed and dried hands, incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes by repeatedly scraping and folding the mixture until the mixture is a light crumble.

8)   As gently as humanly possible, knead the dough, adding the flour a sprinkle at a time if the dough becomes tacky (“sticky” tacky, not “showing up at church with cheap jewelry, blown-out ‘80s hair, an obvious, second-rate boob/nose job, and Day-Glo spandex” tacky).

9)   When the dough is moist but not sticky, cut the dough into 8 pieces and  gently roll each 1/8th section of dough into a snake-shaped log, roughly the thickness of your thumb. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4-inch.

10)   To shape the gnocchi, hold a fork in one hand and place a gnocchi pillow against the tines. Use your thumb and press in and down the length of the fork. The gnocchi should curl into a slight “C” shape and the backs will capture the impression of the tines as tiny ridges.

11)   Set each gnocchi aside and dust with a bit more flour if needed, until you are ready to boil or fry them.

12)   If you want your gnocchi boiled: either reheat your potato water or start with a fresh pot (salted), and bring to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in batches by dropping them into the boiling water roughly twenty at a time. The gnocchi are done when they float back to the top. Fish them out of the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon ten seconds or so after they’ve surfaced. Have a large platter or shallow bowl ready with a generous swirl of whatever sauce or pesto you like with them. Continue cooking in batches until all the gnocchi are done and serve.

13)   If you want your gnocchi fried: As mentioned before, fried gnocchi has a taste akin to that of tater tots. Though you will have experts and websites stating that deep-frying gnocchi will result in turning your kitchen into a fireworks show of hot grease and potato chunks, there is a way you can nip this problem in the bud: stick them in the microwave submerged in water for two minutes to soften them up, then drop them in a frying pan of oil. If the prospect of deep-frying gnocchi still scares you, then pan-frying/shallow-frying is your best bet.

Thanks, and happy eating!

I’d like to close out with the YouTube video that shows just how dangerous gnocchi frying can be: