10/29/14

Real(?) Tacos-

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DSC00890 1024x768 Real(?) Tacos

Tacos!

It’s no secret that we’ve spent the last couple of years in the Southwest. I may not have known much about authentic Mexican food before I lived there (upstate New York not exactly being what you’d call famous for the cuisine), but being immersed in the local culture was quite an experience. I learned a bit about real Mexican food there, including the interesting fact that it’s not really a homogeneous cuisine at all. Think about it- Mexico is pretty darn big, not to mention diverse. There’s desert, mountains and rainforest, many different indigenous ethnic groups, immigrants (particularly from South America) as well as the obvious Spanish influence. And I’m just getting started!

With that sort of introduction, you’d expect me to have a well-researched, authentic recipe, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be wrong. I was there long enough to realize that ‘Mexican’ food is way more complex than I thought and to have come across some relatively more common techniques and flavors, but I’m still nowhere near an expert on the subject. What I am, however, is a small-town Northeasterner who doesn’t mind inauthentic cuisines. Quite frankly I only care about how it tastes- and I am very, very fond of this recipe. The smoothest, thickest, most umami-laden liquid tenderly caresses tender, juicy strands of shredded meat. Gooey cheese melts over the still hot richly flavored filling. Gentle curls of steam rise into a halo of delightfully enticing aromas…

Gosh darn it. I was just trying to prove I still have the skill to sell my ideas but I made myself really hungry. Now I need a snack! Excuse me for a moment….

 

 

 

That’s better. So, without further ado, this is my made-up taco recipe that may be inspired by real Mexican cookery but in reality has no more authenticity than a Halloween pirate costume (for a seasonally appropriate reference):

Filling:
5 lbs. bone-in pork shoulder or chicken legs
water
1/4 C. cider vinegar and 3 Tbs. ground red chiles OR 1/3 C. Flavorful vinegar-based hot sauce (such as Frank’s; I’ve been using Louisiana Crystal because it tastes similar and costs half as much)
12-16 oz diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
1 large onion or 2 small ones
1 Tbl. granulated garlic or an entire bulb of fresh garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 lb. fresh green chiles (you can roast them for exceptional flavor)
2 green bell peppers
salt

Building supplies (try not to buy them from the hardware store):
green onions
tortillas; we like corn for flavor
cheese! I’m using an aged sharp cheddar, but Colby Jack works well and you could even use a proper Mexican cheese (gasp!)
lettuce (optional)

The filling will take a while. This is not the quickie throw-it-together-fast-dinner-has-to-be-on-the-table-in-half-an-hour sort of thing my Mom used to make with ground venison. You will have to carefully tend the pot for hours, shred meat (while trying not to scorch your fingers) and stir constantly towards the end of the cooking process. Consider yourself warned!

The most important detail is that it calls for bone-in meat. The rest of the ingredients are super simple- the slow cooked gelatin-rich meat flavor one gets with bone-in cuts is what makes this recipe special. I’ve made these tacos with both pork and chicken; I think they’re equally as good. If you do use chicken try to find the biggest, gnarliest chicken you can. I buy ten-pound sacks of very large, tough chicken legs for $0.68/ lb. They are ideal for this recipe. The older and tougher the meat the better, because don’t worry, you’ll be cooking this for plenty of time to ensure tenderness. You may be cooking this for long enough you start to feel yourself  becoming older and tougher, but I think it’s worth it.

Still interested? Does the lure of mouth-wateringly delicious flavorful, tender shredded meat in its own sauce overcome your time constraints? Are you sure? I can’t hear you, speak up! ARE YOU SURE? I still can’t hear you….because I’m writing this way before you’ll ever read it from many miles away. Gotcha, didn’t I?

I’m just going to go ahead and assume that you answered with a full, Caps Lock-strong resounding YES. If not, it doesn’t really matter what I say at this point anyway. So- back to a recipe! For food! Because it’s a food blog! (yes, I’ve had a lot of caffeine this morning)….

Take your meat- which should, of course, be bone in *sternly glances around, checking for some poor fool using boneless skinless chicken breast*, stick it in your biggest, heaviest pot (I used my trusty enameled dutch oven) and fill about a third full with water. Dump in your vinegar and chiles (or hot sauce) and tomatoes, set it on the stove and start it on medium-high heat. Between the water, meat and cast iron you have a LOT of mass, which on my wimpy electric stove takes forever to get to temperature using low heat. You’re aiming for a brisk simmer. Here You Must Choose (to make it far more epic than it needs to be): turn down the heat to low and continue to simmer covered on the stove top OR stick the whole heavy mess (yes, lid and all) in a preheated 325 degree oven. You will have to occasionally stir the pot if you decide to cook stovetop, but at least you won’t risk a back injury or an unfortunate geyser-like spillage of hot, acidic liquid while transferring your cooking vessel. You’re probably regretting using your heaviest pot right now, aren’t you?

Relax, take a break! Nurse your scalded forearms (just kidding- I hope)! You’ll want to leave it to simmer for an hour and a half if you’re using chicken legs or at least two and a half hours for that pork shoulder. Read a book (I finished Crime and Punishment) or a blog (not that I’m suggesting any one in particular…hint…hint). All done? Are you sure? better check that meat. Stab it with a wooden spoon. Does it fall apart into meaty tendrils? You can move on to the next step. Remove your meat from the pot but continue letting the liquid simmer uncovered on the stovetop. Chop your onion(s) and add them to the cooking liquid. Is your meat cooled enough to hand shred? If so, you must be really slow at chopping onions. Wait a bit, do some chores, hum a tune. Come back, now that you have that song stuck firmly in your head and proceed to shred/ debone the meat. I like to hand shred because I can easily feel the little bone fragments/ cartilage lumps that might otherwise be passed over. You can use tools for the shredding in order to cheat on the cool-down time but your dentist may become significantly richer. Throw your now boneless meat back into the fluid from whence it came to cook uncovered while you dice your peppers. Add in the peppers, continuing to leave the lid off and keep an eye on the amount of liquid-  you will probably have to start stirring a lot now. Your goal is to reduce the amount of liquid to just enough to nicely moisten the filling. Remember, nobody likes taco juice running down their shirt (or maybe you do; this is the internet, after all). This will take probably another half hour or so.

Now for the easy part: put your filling on a tortilla, add some cheese or the toppings of your choice and eat it already! icon smile Real(?) Tacos

 

07/21/14

There’s no such thing as too many Blackberries (Blackberry Buckle)

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DSC00917 1024x768 Theres no such thing as too many Blackberries (Blackberry Buckle)

Some things are better in moderation. Locusts, for example. Nobody wants a plague of locusts, or fleas, or pointless reality TV shows. Other things are fine in quantity. I certainly wouldn’t mind a plague of puppies, free orchestra concerts or chocolate-covered cherries. Blackberries  fit rather nicely in the latter category as well. This is a very lucky thing, as there is a stall at our local farmer’s market selling fresh-picked wild blackberries for $5 per gallon. Yes, that’s per gallon. As a lover of blackberries, and a proud card-carrying cheapskate, I certainly cannot resist the siren call of all those wonderful, delightfully cheap berries.  The question then arises, as we come home heavily laden with bags of sweet and juicy loot, as to what on earth are we going to do with all of that fruit. To make it worse, there are good quality blueberries on sale at the market, and the peaches are truly divine and just as well-priced. Summer’s bounty is, well, bountiful, and I for one can’t resist. Let flow the cornucopia!

How do we cope with such plenty? I begin by eating myself into a happy fruity coma, then eventually start to ponder 1.) storage and 2.) utilization in other foods. Since I haven’t done any preserving yet this summer and I doubt you want to read an article in which I put berries in containers, then place said containers in the freezer (trust me, it’s a real cliff-hanger), we’ll be focusing on the second option in this post.

My Mom makes something really quite wonderful called blueberry buckle. It’s kind of like a cobbler made with blueberries. It’s delicious, and easy, and I wondered if it would be as awesome with blackberries. (Are blackberries ever not awesome?)

Spoiler alert: Yes, you guessed it, it really is just as wonderful. Mom, close your eyes for the next part. I think my version is even better than the original. Don’t tell her that. Okay Mom, you can open your eyes now.

A list of stuff you use to make this food and the steps to turn it into said food (there’s got to be a better way of saying that…) :

Shortcake base:
2 1/4 C. flour (preferably unbleached pastry flour)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1/3 C. butter
1/2 C white sugar
1 1/2  to 2 C. cultured buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 C. sugared berries (I added about 1/4 C. of sugar; this is dependent on the natural sugar content of your fruit)

Topping:
1/4 C. butter
1/4 C. flour
1/4 C. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients of the shortcake base together. I like to use an unbleached pastry flour (Bessie brand, from Birkett Mills in Penn Yan, NY if you really want to know); I find that the lower gluten content and finer milling creates a superior texture in the final product. I also tend to think that unbleached flours taste slightly better, so even if you use an All-Purpose flour, try an unbleached one and see if you prefer it as well. Here’s  a helpful image, since I’ve recently noticed that many blogs contain gratuitous photos of every step regardless of whether there’s a point to it:

DSC00910 1024x768 Theres no such thing as too many Blackberries (Blackberry Buckle)

A gratuitous photo of the dry ingredients in a bowl. Exciting, isn’t it?

I’m not really a fan of pointless images. I have a high opinion of my reader’s ability to figure out how to perform basic tasks without resorting to photographic crutches. The comments are always open if there are any questions regarding the recipe. Aside from photos with noticeable artistic merit, I’m not going to add unnecessary images.

At any rate, you should have enough assorted white powders to send any dozen TSA agents into apoplectic fits.

Now cut in the butter. I use slightly warmed butter and a pastry blender. The below picture actually adds to the discussion, as it illustrates a less common kitchen tool.

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Using a pastry blender to cut in butter

Using a pastry blender (or a fork), cut the butter into pea-sized nodules. I always use unsalted butter. However, if your spouse did the last grocery run and came back with salted butter (not to name any names), you can cut the amount of salt called for in the recipe in half. Now you can add the buttermilk; the measurement of flour is so variable (unless you use a scale which most people, including me, don’t want to bother with) that I don’t think it makes sense to always use the same exact amount of liquid. Add the buttermilk and the vanilla until it looks right: in this case, a moist, homogeneous batter. It should be soft and slightly oozy but still clump together. Stir only to just barely bring it together; avoid over mixing. It won’t help. Really. Just step away from the spoon. Glop the batter into a greased 9″x 13″ (or equivalent) pan, spread it evenly, and let’s move on to the berries.

Good ripe berries don’t need much sweetening. If your berries are under ripe or  your tastes run to the extremely sweet, add sugar until you decide it’s adequate. I used a quarter cup of white sugar with my two cups of blackberries. I should note that the traditional blueberries are of course excellent in this recipe, as are peaches, cherries, raspberries and most other fruits. Evenly distribute the fruit over your shortcake base, and we’ll move onto the topping.

This one’s easy. Put all the ingredients in a bowl (butter that is warmer than refrigerator temperature will make this easier) and mash it up with a fork, pastry blender, or your fingers. The idea is to create little bits of extra crunchy deliciousness to add over the top. Sprinkle on top of the berries; you should now have something that looks a little like this:

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Soon…

Bake for 25 minutes; let cool for as long as you can keep from digging in. Ice cream, whipped cream, vanilla Greek yogurt, etc. are all excellent pairings but my personal favorite is just a piece of buckle on a plate with nothing else to distract me. That’s all, folks! I need to end the distraction this post is causing me, as there’s still some buckle in the kitchen. I can hear it calling to me.  :)

 

07/19/14

Sort of vaguely Greek-inspired-ish salad

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DSC00880 1024x768 Sort of vaguely Greek inspired ish salad

Doesn’t that title make your mouth water, your tastebuds tingle and your stomach rumble? Okay, me neither. Maybe I don’t have this whole blog thing down as well as I thought I did… At least I can take comfort in the fact that it really is a great salad.

Part of my view on healthy eating is to eat a wide variety of mostly whole foods, including plenty of vegetables. Since I don’t always want to go through the fuss and bother of cooking vegetables separately (and cleaning yet another pan afterwards) I like a salad I can prepare with little effort while the rest of the meal is cooking. The summertime heat here in the Ozarks is starting to rear its ugly head as well; the less I have to actually cook, the better. This is my go-to vegetable solution, made with probably  inauthentic Greek flavors that I happen to really enjoy. If you’re Greek, or a Greek food purist, you should probably look away right now. Honestly, if you’re any sort of food purist, this might not be the best choice of reading material.

Receipt (I’m old-school now):
6-8 oz. fresh spinach if it’s still young & tender, or you can spring for the baby spinach. I buy mine in bundles with the stems for cheap.
1 medium cucumber
1 large tomato or 2 smaller (Roma- sized) tomatoes, as ripe as you can get
2 oz. crumbled feta

Dressing:
2 Tbl. balsamic vinegar
1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed or mashed into garlic-scented paste
1 Tbl. olive oil
salt & pepper to taste

Serves: 2 salad lovers, or 4 reluctant veggie-haters

This would be a great time to get that garlic press out of the drawer you stowed it after receiving it as a wedding gift from dear old Great Aunt Martha. If you don’t have a Great Aunt Martha, or a garlic press for that matter, mince it as finely as you can, then smash it with the flat of a chef’s knife for good measure. You could also use dry garlic; the idea is to avoid big, super intense chunks of raw garlic (unless you like that sort of thing- I don’t judge).  Mix up the vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while stirring constantly. Toss the vegetables and feta in the dressing, and you have a salad.

It’s kind of embarrassing to come to the logical conclusion of this post so quickly. I usually try to write something longer and more in depth, but I’m just not sure how to extend this post. I mean, it’s a salad. There really isn’t much else to write about. I can always continue to ramble on about how it’s unusually short, and in doing so, repeat myself, rehash the same tired idea, saying the same thing over and over, and generally reiterate myself. Then again, it might be pointless. Feel free to reread the article (or just the last few sentences) if that’s your thing. As for myself, I’m going to go munch on some salad. icon smile Sort of vaguely Greek inspired ish salad

06/17/14

An Ode to Tea

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cropped DSC00713 1024x524 An Ode to Tea

Think of this as a love letter to that most delightful of beverages, tea.

I don’t drink beer. I know nothing about wine; cocktails are a mare ignotum to me. I rarely imbibe juice or soft drinks. What does that leave? Water and tea. I have mentioned my great love of tea in previous posts; let me rhapsodize further on that subject…

Tea greets me when I rise, fuels my morning, brings delight to my afternoon and finally lulls me to sleep. The whistle of the kettle and the ringing of the timer are recurring phrases of a familiar conversation, companions in an otherwise dull world. When I drink tea, for just a moment, I’m outside the world- in a meditative bubble, happy to simply feel, sense and be. I feel completely peaceful yet energized.

I think of tea; thought becomes action as I gently swirl the kettle to check the water level before setting it on the burner. I turn the dial just slightly to the right and the heat rises. The water becomes more active; my anticipation grows. Small bubbles rise, sounding like a gravelly brook. Louder it becomes, building in crescendo until just before it boils. The unearthly hush heralds the whistle, just a low whisper itself, growing louder and higher until its insistent voice calls me to take heed.  I add the leaves; a teaspoon of tea per teacup, a perfect formula, hallowed by centuries of custom. I pour the water over the leaves, watching them dance and swell, gracefully unfurling. I tap the timer to start it; it is always set to five minutes, perfect for black tea. I wait. The aroma fills the kitchen. The timer finally rings as I hasten to tap it once more into silence.  I strain out the leaves, sad remains that they are and retire to a comfortable seat.  My hands cradle the cup, absorbing the warmth and pleasure that radiates from it. I contemplate my first sip. Ah, delight! The fragrant steam gently wafting from the amber liquid gives the first allusion to the taste to come; the brew itself is rich and complex on my tongue.  There can be no substitute for the joy, vibrancy, and contentment a cup of tea produces. I look down at my empty cup and think of tea. The cycle is complete.

The steps to make tea have become ritualized motions, a well-learned dance I’ve repeated thousands, if not millions of times. Every day I come slightly closer to the perfect attainment of a zen-like introspective preparation. Every movement must be practiced until an effortless perfection  is achieved.

Tea is perfect in its simplicity- hot water, fragrant leaves, steam rising in graceful curling plumes carrying the aroma heavenward. I feel no need to adulterate perfection with sweeteners or dairy. I love the slightly astringent, gloriously rich brown liquor for it’s depth and complexity. A good tea, as in any good comestible, is a symphony of balance. A delightful natural sweetness counters the bitterness; herbal or grassy notes add body and floral or spicy essences provide a memorable finish. A good tea has many layers that create counterpoint and balance to form a complexly harmonious whole.

Tea has been ritualized in many cultures across the globe. It takes a sacred place in Japan; the British have given it solemn status. The careful ceremonious preparation of tea is an integral part of many Asian marriage rites. Even in America, the last bastion of uncultured barbarism (referring to tea), the tea party has been a girlhood custom for centuries. A cup of tea can symbolize the respect and esteem one holds for a relative, an affectionate gesture from a spouse, a self-indulgence, a kindly meant comfort, etc. A simple cup of hot water and dried leaves has so much meaning. A culture’s treatment of tea can be a microcosm of that culture.

Let’s have a cup of tea, but before we take the first sip, look down with respect for such a remarkable beverage. I hope you will excuse me now, as I think I will put the kettle on. icon smile An Ode to Tea

06/13/14

A Fresh Farmer Sausage Recipe, In Which I Get Slightly Distracted

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DSC00881 1024x768 A Fresh Farmer Sausage Recipe, In Which I Get Slightly Distracted

Looks good, doesn’t it? I put it down to the wonders of natural lighting and my awesome cooking skills.

I am of partially German heritage. I like sausage. The two may or may not be related (correlation not necessarily implying causation and all that jazz).

I like making homemade sausage. I like to eat healthy. These are (surprisingly) related.

I’m not going to bore you with a rather tedious rant expounding upon the simple fact that you can choose the amount of fat you use when you make your own foods. I’m sure you are able to figure it out for yourself to substitute ground turkey, or use lean ground pork, or use half lard if you’re in the mood. I’d personally choose a nice lean ground pork, preferably from the farmer’s market (Cheap! Tasty! Ethical! Good for the community!), which happens to be precisely what I did use for this recipe.  Luckily, I’m not in the mood to yammer on about such things any further. Let’s get right to the recipe this time.

Presenting, for the first time, my farmer sausage recipe:

 

 

Ahem. Presenting, my farmer sausage recipe:

 

 

(It’s a little shy; these things happen sometimes. Everyone gets stage fright, even inanimate figments of my possibly deranged imagination. Give it some encouragement!) Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time ever, my fresh farmer sausage recipe!
2 lbs. ground pork
1 Tbl. garlic powder
2 tsp. rubbed sage
1 tsp. paprika
salt
lots of ground black pepper

Mix up the sausage ingredients; your hands are the best tool for this. Don’t be afraid to get dirty; you should have a sink right there in the kitchen with you. Isn’t it convenient? It’s like someone designed a sink just for the kitchen and *gasp* called it a kitchen sink! It’s like they knew you’d be getting your hands dirty. A word to the wise (and/or the married)- cleaning little bits of meat out of a ring is pretty annoying, so you might want to remove any rings you may be wearing. Right. And, now to the fun part.

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Ready for some fun?

Form the sausage mix into patties! It’s like meat play-dough, and you’re back in kindergarten. Except that it’s raw pork so you can’t try to eat it (yet), you’re limited in the shapes most people find acceptable for their sausage (links or patties- but you’ll want casings and a sausage stuffer for links, and that just gets complicated) and you probably shouldn’t play with it too much lest the fat melt and damage the structural integrity of the patty. Bummer. It doesn’t sound as fun now. I usually form six to eight patties from 2 lbs. of meat.

Now you need some FIRE.

That deserves some exclamation points, don’t you think? We’ll try again.

FIRE!!!!!

Hmm… that sounds like I’m either crazy or my house is burning down. I’ll get back to you later with this extremely important punctuation verdict.

The cooking method is extremely important to the end result. Charcoal grills make everything taste better. Sure, you can fry those patties, or broil them, but it’s June. This is grilling season at its best. This month may well have been created purely as a venue for awesome grilling. Trust me, grilled sausage is delicious and gives you a great excuse to hang out in the beautiful June air. Now stop listening to me blather on about June and do something useful, such as building a fire in your grill. You don’t need a blazing inferno fit for an illustrated copy of Dante, just some nice, even, moderately hot coals. Looking good? Put those sausages on and-

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this brief message on flare-ups. Flare-ups are annoying. They interrupt the cooking process much like this tangent does to the main subject of this post. Hot fat from the meat melts  and drips down the grate (yay! Less fat in the food!), then falls onto the hot coals and promptly flames up into a sausage-ruining blaze of doom (not so nice). You can minimize this irritation by a.) using a leaner cut of meat, thereby limiting the amount of fat that could cause a flare-up, b.) cooking the sausage over indirect heat, wherein the fat doesn’t fall onto hot coals which cause it to instantly combust,  or c.) all of the above.

-cook for about 5-6 minutes per side, maybe more, depending how hot the fire is and how thick the patties are. Gosh darn it. I keep getting interrupted. I wonder how the editors get away with this. You’d think the readers would get just as frustrated as this humble author is right now. Anyhow, they’re done when the middle is no longer pink and the juices run fairly clear (the paprika can give a slightly  ruddy tinge to the juices), or you can make use of one of those newfangled temperature measuring device-thingies.

There are plenty of serving options; this sausage works well for breakfast (pan fry or broil  it if tending a grill first thing in the morning isn’t for you), top it with an over-easy egg and serve with pancake. For a more savory meal, toast some bread (I used sunflower seed bread) on the grill and top with fried peppers and onions. My husband would like to add that you can melt cheese over the patties as well, but he puts cheese on anything that stands still long enough. I’m sure my parents would like to add that I’m also guilty of that particular sin,  I can hear you Mom.  I admit my cheese habits. I also defend it by asking you, dear reader, how I could possibly make so many cheesy puns in this blog without dietary support? icon smile A Fresh Farmer Sausage Recipe, In Which I Get Slightly Distracted

*As for the punctuation, I’m going to have to agree with Terry Pratchett and say that five exclamation points are the sign of an unhinged mind. One would be far more appropriate and less likely to result in the type of laughter spelled with more letters than normal and require me to buy an organ to put in my damp, stalactite-ridden cave. I wouldn’t mind a dramatic opera cloak, though.