Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Christmas

Running out of garlic makes me a little panicky. Not having a pen on me has the same effect. So, when I'm leaving the house, I tend to grab a pen on my way out the door, and I do the same thing with garlic and other staples at the grocery store. Just in case. The more scattered I feel, the more I tend to do this, so I can use the number of pens that end up in the bottom of my bag as a kind of index. I believe my record is in the low twenties.

And now, a quick inventory of the kitchen:
three pounds of butter
four cartons of eggs
six different packages of cheese
seven heads of garlic

Time to do a little deep breathing, apparently. I'm not even going to check how many pens I have in my bag.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Homemade Cream of Tomato Soup

Luckily, I went grocery shopping before all the snow and sleet and rain and sleet and snow and wind, so I could stay inside and only care about the precipitation when it started coming through a chink in the badly-named storm window. The Chief of Physically Difficult Maintenance took care of that after he took care of the snow and ice on the sidewalk, the driveway, and the neighbors' sidewalk, so I felt that an extra nice lunch was called for. One of us really deserved a nice treat, and both of us would enjoy it.

It seemed like a good day for grilled cheese sandwiches, but they always seem kind of lacking if there's no tomato soup. And even though we were rich in groceries, we did not have one of those red and white cans. So, after a brief consultation with the internet about curdling (the answer is baking soda), I made my first batch of:

Homemade Cream of Tomato Soup
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
half a cup of cream or milk
1 cup chicken broth
1/8 tsp baking soda
1 can diced tomatoes (14 oz)
salt, pepper, and sugar to taste

Melt butter in a saucepan. Cook the onions in the butter gently until they are softened and translucent (maybe 15 minutes). Stir in the flour until it's completely combined with the butter. Gradually stir in the cream or milk and the broth. Mix in the baking soda and heat through. Add the tomatoes with their juice and puree with a stick blender. Heat through and add salt, sugar, and pepper to taste.

This isn't exactly how I made it, but with all my adding a bit more here and a bit more there, trying to get it creamy enough and tomatoey enough and just the right thickness, I ended up with twice as much soup as I was trying to make. So I'm fairly sure this recipe gives good proportions and amounts to make a nice soup for two, but I can't give an ironclad guarantee. I can only say that this is the way I'll make it next time. And I see no need to ever buy a red and white can again. This is tasty.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Chicken Fat Biscuits

For once, I had prepared my work area ahead of time. I dusted a clean board with flour, set out my ingredients, assembled all my measuring spoons, and only then embarked on a new recipe. I had a bunch of chicken fat to use up, so I was trying a new way of making biscuits: a recipe that calls for liquid fat. I usually just abuse my regular recipe for cold-butter-biscuits, but I figured I should try something new, and maybe I'd learn something. So I measured, mixed, and only made one change: I substituted whole wheat flour for half the white flour. Well, two changes: I also doubled the recipe in my head as I went. Never a good idea.

And once I added the liquid and fat, the mix resembled no biscuits I'd ever seen. The only way that nicely floured board would come in handy would be for making the real biscuits I'd hanker for after these strange objects were done. The dough looked like greasy oatmeal: not an attractive look. But I persevered, dropping the dough by big spoonsful onto the baking sheet, and banishing the whole catastrophe into the oven. We'll see what it looks like in ten minutes...

Hmm. Looks: not good. Taste: not bad. They didn't brown on top, so now they just look like flat, slightly swollen, dried out lumps of oatmeal. They taste good, though, and they don't seem wrong enough for me to blame their looks on my inability to do math in my head. The outside is crisp, insides are tender and steamy, and they have a nice flavor from the whole wheat and chicken fat. Maybe they're so flat and the dough was so wet because whole wheat flour absorbs less liquid than white. Sounds plausible, right? So next time, less liquid and maybe a little sugar or molasses for browning. Actually, with molasses and fennel seeds and orange juice (instead of some of the milk), these would be very nice tea biscuits. And I can call them Chicken Fat Tea Cakes. Not appetizing? Heh. More for me.

Next Morning Update: Apparently they were not only Not Bad, they were quite good. Between the two of us, we ate seven of them with dinner. I won't disclose which of us ate a sensible, restrained two and which of us had five (hey, they're half whole wheat, so they must be healthy, right?).

Next Week Update: They freeze well, and they turned out to be just flat enough that they can be thawed and warmed in the toaster. So a big batch can get you weeks of last-minute, no-fuss, fresh hot biscuits. That's worth a little flatness and ugliness in a biscuit.

Ugly Chicken Fat Biscuits

1.5 cups whole wheat flour
1.5 cups white flour
3 tsp baking powder
1.5 cups milk
2/3 cup chicken fat, melted

Mix dry ingredients, add milk, mix briefly. Add fat, mix until dough just holds together in a horrible glob, about 20 seconds. Drop onto a cookie sheet and bake at 400 for ten to fifteen minutes.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Meaty Red Sauce

This sauce is one of the key elements in my four part winter survival plan. The other parts, you ask? Shoe spikes, homemade chicken broth, and microwavable heating pads filled with feed corn. With this sauce, you can have a pasta dinner that feels warming, satisfying, hearty and thoroughly homemade in the amount of time it takes to cook the noodles. Or, in slightly more time, you can make a pizza that gives you the same wonderful feeling and makes the house warm and fragrant to boot. I make a big batch and freeze it in one-pint containers, which is about the right amount for one pizza, or for pasta for two or three people.

This recipe does take two days to make, but I bet there's less than 20 minutes' actual work involved, and it gets you a head start on about twenty servings of dinner. One minute per serving? Not bad at all.

3 beef short ribs (about a pound each)
4 28-oz cans ground tomatoes
1-2 cups red wine
1 tsp dried garlic (fresh is fine too of course, but dried is easier and tastes just fine)
2 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp red pepper flakes
salt and sugar to taste

Brown the short ribs well on all sides. As they brown, add the tomatoes and spices to the crockpot and set it to cook on high for 8 hours. When the ribs are browned, add them to the crockpot too. Deglaze the browning pan with the red wine. Use the deglazing liquid to rinse out the tomato cans, and pour the wine and last bits of tomatoes into the crock. Now cover it up and go away to do something else all day.

After 8 hours or so, lift out the short ribs and shake off any sauce that clings to them. Refrigerate the meat and sauce separately, and have something else for dinner. The next evening before dinner, de-bone and chop the meat. Pick most of the solid orange fat off the cold sauce and discard it (leave a few bits—they make the sauce better). Combine the chopped meat and sauce in a large pot. Heat thoroughly, mix well, and add sugar and salt to taste.* Have some for dinner and freeze the rest in pint sized containers. This recipe will fill seven containers if you don't have any for dinner.

*Tomatoes vary widely in how acidic they are. Sometimes I don't need to add any sugar, and sometimes the sauce has such a harsh bite I add a whole tablespoon. I have used pureed cooked carrots instead of sugar, which works very well, adds a nutritional boost, and is undetectable in the finished product, but I'm usually too lazy. As for salt, if you used canned tomatoes that contain salt already, you might not need to add any. If you used salt-free tomatoes, you'll probably want some.

Now, to define "some." I've always wondered, as I stood over my huge pot of sauce, guiltily wielding that salt shaker, how homemade sauce compared with commercial, and how many actual teaspoons of salt were in those jars at the store. Well, now that I have you people to please, I figured I'd actually, finally do the math and quit just wondering about it. So I googled "nutrition facts" "tomato sauce," recorded what I found for sodium, standardized the serving sizes and units of measure, did some number crunching, and found out that typical commercial sauce (not salt free or low salt) has about a teaspoon of salt per pint of sauce! If you can't visualize this, go measure out a teaspoon of salt. And then think of the volume (depending on your preferred indulgence) of a pint of beer or cream or chocolate fudge ripple. A whole teaspoon! Per pint! If I made my sauce as salty as commercial sauce, the recipe would call for more than two tablespoons of salt! I can't even imagine that tasting good! Sorry for all! the! punctuation! but I am shocked. And, I suppose, consoled. No matter how much salt I add to my sauce, it would still end up with a big "reduced sodium" sticker on it if I were selling it in the grocery store.