A Blizzard and a Bowl of Soup

Charlotte, not-so-sweet Charlotte!  She’s been here and gone, but not without leaving her mark. I saw a cartoon that was a map of the state of Ct. with these words written across it:  “CLOSED,  come back later.”  Many roads are still not plowed, businesses that are open have only a few people who can get in, the rest are still snowbound.  Thousands of people have no power.  Thankfully we are not one of them.

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We are homebound, snowbound, and almost but not quite bored.  There are tons of things I could do, but somehow nothing I can think of appeals to me. Mr. D. is home because his office is closed, and of course we need to eat.  So in spite of having a “bucket of books” to read and many issues of magazines to catch up on, knitting and other projects to work on, the one thing I can really get in to is to cook something.

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This is a picture of our deck.  The snow is at least 3 feet deep.  We cannot open the back door out onto the deck.

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This is our lower patio.  What looks like a giant marshmallow is a table with that much snow on it.

Storms days usually make me think of soup and today is no exception.  Today’s soup is a beef and barley combination.

Hearty Beef Barley Soup

Hearty Beef Barley Soup

It is only in recent years that I have begun to use barley.  I don’t recall ever having it in my growing up years, and so when I began to cook for my family it is not one of the ingredients I used.  Then one day a soup recipe caught my eye but it contained barley.  I purchased some knowing it is a good source of fiber and low on the glycemic scale, so I gave it a try.  I was pleasantly surprised by its nutty flavor and how much it thickened the soup.  Now I would not make a beef soup without it, and sometimes I include mushrooms with it.  Not today, though, since I didn’t have any on hand, and I couldn’t go out to get some  if I wanted to.

As I assembled all the ingredients and began to prep the vegetables, and brown the meat, it occurred to me that I was following the very same steps you take when you make a braise.  Braising is a technique that is used on tougher cuts of meat to produce great flavor and tenderness.  Its a cook’s secret weapon and one that I use frequently to prepare the basic ingredients for soup, or to slow cook a piece of meat that will become fork tender and falling off the bone.  It is very easy to do if you remember four simple steps that I describe in the recipe below.

If you’re looking for a way to dial up your cooking skills, braising is a secret you need to be in on.  In my opinion there is no other technique that requires so little of you and yet gives so much back.  Just don’t tell everyone, OK?

BEEF and BARLEY SOUP

SERVINGS:    About 8

Assemble and prep the meat and vegetables in advance.

Assemble and prep the meat and vegetables in advance.

  • 1 pound beef stew meat
  • 2 Tablespoons olive or canola oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 2 cans beef broth
  • 5 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 – 3 carrots
  • 1/2 cup barley
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms, optional

1. Sear the meat: In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat the oil. Season the meat  with salt and pepper and brown the beef, in batches if necessary. Don’t crowd the pan, take the time to get good browning all over. Transfer to a large soup kettle.

Sear the meat in small batches.  That's where the good flavor comes from.


Sear the meat in small batches. That’s where the good flavor comes from.

2. Saute the mirepoix.  This is a French term meaning the classic onion, carrots, and celery combo.   Add chopped onions and celery to drippings left in the skillet, and brown them, aiming for a caramel-y brown color.

Add onion and celery and get everything browned.

Add onion and celery and get everything browned.

Add in the minced garlic, and the flour.  Cook for 1 minute, then transfer to the soup kettle. In this recipe the carrots are added later as they are part of the main ingredients of the soup.

3. Deglaze the pan. Pour a small amount of the beef broth into the skillet to deglaze the pan and scrape up all the browned bits. These bits are flavor bombs. When they dissolve in the cooking liquid, they enrich the whole dish.

Deglaze the pan with some of the beef broth.

Deglaze the pan with some of the beef broth.

Add this to the soup kettle with the remaining beef broth, the 5 cups of water, salt, thyme and pepper.

4. Braise it. Bring to a boil.  Meanwhile peel and slice the carrots.  Add them to the soup kettle with the barley.

Add carrots and barley.

Add carrots and barley.

When the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover with tipped cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.

5.  In the last half hour of cooking, I like to add some fresh mushrooms.  They seem to add to the deep beefy flavor of this hearty soup.

A warming bowl of soup.  So Good!

A warming bowl of soup. So Good!

SOURCE:  Cook’s Illustrated

Ginger, a Powerhouse in Your Pantry

As many of you know by now I really like the flavor of ginger and I use it often but mostly in baked goods.  Ginger, however, comes in many forms and has many uses, so I decided to do a little reading about this interesting spice and was amazed to find out how widely used it is and for so many different reasons.

Fresh ginger:  a knobby, fleshy, root.

Fresh ginger: a knobby, fleshy, root.

Ginger is a rhizome,  the part of the plant that grows underground.  It has a pale yellow-ivory flesh that is pungent, peppery, and sometimes a little sweet.  The outside is covered with a thin tan skin, that is usually peeled away for most recipes.  When fresh ginger is called for in a recipe, this is what you use.  Ground ginger, mostly used in baking, has a very different flavor, so don’t substitute one for the other.

Ground ginger, a sweet-hot, peppery powder.

Ground ginger, a sweet-hot, peppery powder.

The history of ginger goes back over 5000 years when ancient Chinese herbalists first used it’s root as a digestive and remedy for countless ailments.   Since that time consuming ginger as a natural remedy has endured up to the present time.   Since antiquity, the tropical areas of China have successfully grown ginger.  Today, China follows India as the world’s second largest ginger producer.  Approximately two- thirds of all Chinese herbal medicines contain ginger as a key component.

As the world’s top ginger producing country, India cultivates ginger as both a vegetable and as a dried spice.  Mostly used in lentil-based curries and vegetable dishes, ginger was also used to spice coffee, especially in the winter to help warm the internal organs and enhance digestion.

Indonesia is another country where ginger is grown widely and stands in the third spot of ginger-producing countries.  Indonesia has attracted spice traders throughout history, and with its tropical islands location and weather it is well known for its production of many spices, i.e. nutmeg/mace, cloves, galangal are all native to Indonesia.  You are probably aware that Indonesia also has thriving sugar cane and coffee industries.  One of the more interesting Indonesian coffee facts is the country’s common use of ginger in coffee drinks to ward off colds and fevers.  Most restaurants in Indonesia offer a sizable list of coffee-ginger drink options.  To make your own version of this drink, melt a few pieces of crystalized ginger in a cup of hot coffee.

Coffee with ginger, a warming drink.

Coffee with ginger, a warming drink.

Indonesia is also home to ginger candy.  Indonesian candy makers produce multiple varieties of candy made with fresh ginger and other natural flavors, such as coffee and peanut.  One such candy variety that I have received as a gift is called GinGins.  There are two varieties; one kind are small hard candies strongly flavored with ginger, the other kind are chewy, and also strongly ginger flavored.  Many people travel with ginger candy using it to ward off travel sickness, because it is believed to settle the stomach, and thus aid in digestion.

The hard candy variety.

The hard candy variety.

The chewy variety.

The chewy variety.

Each country has its own interpretation of how to use ginger.  Throughout Asia, ginger is used in many different ways.  In Japan ginger is traditionally served freshly grated or pickled and served with sushi to cleanse the palate between tasting different types of fish.  Ginger clarifies and heightens the flavor of all foods it is paired with, particularly fish.  Pickled ginger (Gari) is made in Japan by preserving the root in rice vinegar brine. Used in this way it is either thinly sliced or grated and often artificially colored pink using natural materials, such as flowers or beet juice.  Medicinally, ginger is used in Japan as the active compound in hot compresses to ease joint pain and  increase circulation.

Here are two recipes that I found in the Food Network Magazine.    They give you the opportunity to include ginger in your everyday meals:

Ginger Dipping Sauce

Mix 2 Tablespoons each grated ginger, finely chopped ginger, and chopped scallions in a small bowl.  Add 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/4 teaspoon white pepper.  Heat 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil in a small saucepan until smoking; pour over the ginger mixture and stir.  Add a splash of water if the sauce is too thick.  Season with salt.  Serve this dipping sauce with roast chicken or grilled meats.

Pickled Ginger

Peel and thinly slice a 4-inch piece of ginger; put in a small jar.  Pierce 1 or 2 Thai chilies with the tip of a knife;  add to the jar.  Bring 1/2 cup each rice vinegar and water, 2 Tablespoons sugar, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 2 star anise pods to a simmer n a saucepan;  cook 5 minutes, then pour over the ginger and let cool slightly.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.  Will keep up to 2 weeks.  Can be used as a condiment or topping on burgers, hot dogs, or sandwiches.

Ginger has both antioxidant and anti-inflamatory properties.  During this cold season, ginger may be used to boost immunity, or if you are already in the clutches of a winter cold, then ginger can be taken to relieve many of its symptoms.  Where colds are concerned, the active components in ginger that are helpful are the volatile  oils and pungent phenol compounds.  These elements are believed to have natural healing properties that may help reduce cold symptoms.

Here’s how it works:

  • Warming properties in ginger act as an expectorant, helping to clear nasal passages.
  • Ginger also contains antipyretic properties, an agent that helps reduce fever.
  • Ginger’s natural anti-inflammatory elements help relieve sore throats.
  • Ginger is anti-fungal, meaning that it inhibits the growth of yeasts and molds.
  • As an antitussive, ginger is a cough reliever.

Some ways to take ginger if you have a cold:

1.  Make a ginger soother;  steep a piece of fresh ginger in boiling water with a tea bag;  add honey and lemon.  Drink hot for added comfort.  This is also a good remedy for an upset stomach.

2.  Melt 1 – 2  hard ginger candies or generous piece of crystalized ginger in a cup of boiling water.  Let steep to desired strength, and drink while hot.

3.  Ginger Tea:  Bring 8 cups of water and 1 cup thinly sliced ginger to a simmer until reduced to about 5 cups ( takes about 25 minutes).  Sweeten with 1/4 cup honey, strain and pour into a mug (s).  This tea is great also as iced tea.  Chill first and serve on the rocks.

How much ginger to take and in what form can be confusing.  Remember this:  fresh ginger preparations (ginger juice, minced fresh ginger, for example), are stronger in concentration than ginger found in supplement form.   Most pill forms of ginger may only contain isolated compounds in ginger, whereas  fresh versions contain all compounds found naturally in the ginger rhizome.

My research on this subject has enlightened me to the fact that ginger is available in more forms than I was previously familiar with. The best place to purchase it is at natural food stores, where such items as beverages, candies, condiments of pickled ginger, cooking sauces, and crystalized as well as ground ginger are widely available.

Ginger juice, Ginger soy sauce, minced ginger all readily available for cooking.

Ginger juice, Ginger soy sauce, minced ginger all readily available for cooking.

Be adventurous and try the many useful and beneficial ways of using this versatile spice.  A powerhouse in your pantry!

Rustic Applesauce

Homemade cinnamon applesauce.

Homemade cinnamon applesauce.

Fairly often during the winter months I like to make homemade applesauce.  The fresh apples from the nearby orchards aren’t available any longer, so as a substitute I make applesauce with what’s available at the supermarket, and put it in my husband’s lunch.

Now to make applesauce like this I don’t want to purchase premium apples just to cut them up, cook and mash them.  So I keep an eye out for apples that have been reduced in price and placed on the shelves where slightly bruised but still useful produce is displayed.  Many times there will be a package of 4 – 6 apples at a very good price.  And also these packages may contain two or three different kinds of apples.  Just what I want for my applesauce, because for my taste, the most flavorful applesauce, like the most flavorful cider, is made from a variety of apples.

It all starts with the apples.

It all starts with the apples.

I call this “rustic” applesauce because I mash the apples to create a chunky sauce.  You can certainly make it smooth, if that’s your preference, by processing all or part of it in a processor or blender.  Lastly I tint the applesauce pink with my “secret” ingredient:  cinnamon  heart candy.

The secret ingredient.

The secret ingredient.

Stay with me here as I show you how to make it.

RUSTIC APPLESAUCE

YIELD:   about 6  cups

Prepare the apples:  Collect about 8 medium to large apples, a mixed variety is good. Keep in mind that not all apples cook-out the same.  Some retain their form, while others mash easily; so use apples that are compatible.  Two kinds I like to mix are Empires and Cortlands. Generally, if they are good pie-apples, they will make good applesauce, too.  Peel, core and slice the apples into a large saucepan.   Add a very small amount of water to the pan,  just enough to cover the bottom.

Slice the apples into a large saucepan.

Slice the apples into a large saucepan.

Cook the apples:  Over medium heat start the apples cooking.  As the water in the bottom of the pan starts to simmer, turn the heat to low and allow the apples to cook slowly, uncovered, stirring occasionally, so they don’t stick to the bottom.  They will produce more juice as they cook, so don’t cover the pan or it will become too juicy.  This takes anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes, depending on kinds of apples and how thick you cut them.

Making the sauce:   When the apples are very tender ( any maybe falling apart, or becoming “saucy”), remove from the heat.  Mash to desired  consistency with a fork or potato masher.

Cooked apples are tender and "saucy".

Cooked apples are tender and “saucy”.

Flavoring and tinting:  While the sauce is still very hot, add in about 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon hearts red candies.

Add cinnamon candies to hot sauce.

Add cinnamon candies to hot sauce.

Stir in and as they melt they will flavor the sauce and tint it pink.  Now, taste and adjust flavor by adding some sugar;  1-2 Tablespoons, and ground cinnamon to taste.  A pinch of salt will bring out the flavors or a splash of lemon juice will also brighten it up.

Applesauce tinted pink as candies melt.

Applesauce tinted pink as candies melt.

Do yourself a favor and give it a try.  It’s so much better than the bland, smooth stuff you buy in a jar!.  This applesauce is also a very good accompaniment to pork entrees, or serve with potato pancakes.

So good and fresh tasting.

So good and fresh tasting.

SOURCE:   A Carolyn Original

Meat Marinades and Rubs

If you really want to spice up your barbecue  you could put on a limbo competition or dance the salsa, but a more conventional way is to use a meat marinade or spice rub.  Many backyard chefs are relying on these mixtures to tenderize and give an infusion of flavor to meats.

There are a multitude of premade marinades and rubs on the market from the classic to the exotic; each one promising to add an  explosion of flavor to an otherwise ho-hum piece of meat.  In my exploration of these products I have found that many of them contain a variety of additives that I’m not keen about eating such as high fructose corn syrup, modified food starch, xanthan gum (whatever that is) and potassium sorbate as a preservative. No thanks, I’ll make my own.

Marinades consist of acids, oils, and aromatics or flavorings.  It’s that simple. But when you have  the wrong proportion of acid to oil you can turn a beautiful steak into a gray, tough, flavorless, expensive embarrassment.  Acids such as vinegars, wines, fruit juices, yogurt, buttermilk, and even fresh ginger break down the collagen on the surface of meats and can denature the proteins, thus damaging the protein’s structure.  Meats,  i.e. proteins,  especially delicate ones like fish and chicken, left in a marinade too long can be totally ruined.  The proteins break down to the point where they lose moisture and structure and become dry and mushy.

So what does it take to make a good marinade?    The general rule is to use a light touch with strong acids such as vinegar or lemon juice, using no more than one part acid to four parts oil.  It’s the oil that carries the flavor anyway.

A tougher cut of meat can tolerate a longer marinating time using this proportion of acid to oil.  A tender cut of meat may not need any acid at all; just a little oil and some aromatics for flavoring.  In fact recent studies concluded that marinades do not tenderize meat as once thought.

So even though marinades aren’t used for tenderizing, they do help to add flavor and moisture.  However for most meats the marinade will generally only soak in about 1/8″ to 1/4″ deep.  The acids soften the exterior of the meat, allowing the oil to penetrate.  The denser the meat, with more connective tissue, the less the marinade will penetrate, so these meats can take a longer marinating time.  Meats in a marinade with oil and very little acid can remain overnight in the refrigerator.  A sure sign that red meat has marinated too long in a too-acidic marinade is a gray exterior.  For chicken or pork the exterior will turn white.

Another way to infuse BBQ with flavor is with dry rubs, a combination of spices, herbs, salt and sugar that creates a flavorful crust, something marinades do not.  A rub is not really rubbed into the meat but rather patted on rather heavily.  When a rub is applied, the browning of the proteins and sugars in the meat create a toasted, roasted, grilled flavor.  The sugar in the rub also creates caramelization.  Larger cuts of meat and especially slow-roasted meats can tolerate being left marinating with a dry rub over night in the refrigerator.  Tender cuts such as steaks, kabobs, and chicken breasts will like a light sprinkling of dry rub before grilling to provide a quick flavor boost.

The combinations of seasonings in a rub can be  tailored to your own particular taste preferences, or to a specific ethnic cuisine.  Mix up the herbs and spices representative of Cajun, Indian, Greek, Italian or Mexican cuisine, and add some brown sugar and salt to the mix.  Start with a few proven rub recipes, then add or subtract ingredients until you get the mix you like.  Now you’ve created your own….    In tomorrow’s post I will be presenting a pork recipe that features a rub that I put together.  Stay tuned!

Hopefully  this post has not been too technical,  but has perhaps answered some questions for you or cleared up some misunderstandings.  Periodically I would like to include posts such as this one seeking to take an in depth look at specific products or methods of food preparation.  Having spent quite a few years of my professional life as a teacher, I frequently say, “once a teacher, always a teacher”, but I do not want to come across too strongly in that regard.   From time to time, I would like to present a post like this as I continue to seek the niche that will satisfy more readers.  However, If this is not the type of post you would like to read, please let me know.  Thanks so much for your comments and input.

Happy Grilling and Barbecuing , and Happy rest of summer!

Homemade Pesto

When we say pesto most of us think of basil as the primary ingredient.  But pesto(s) can be made from a variety of herbs, vegetables and condiments; or combinations there of.  What is needed is a food processor–and chop, chop–you can be enjoying the flavors of summer all year long.  I include the making of pesto in my series on kitchen basics, because it is so easy, and so useful in a great number of ways.

Depending on what flavor you have on hand you can do any of the following with it:  spread it on grilled corn, toss with grilled veggies for extra flavor, spoon over a spreadable cheese and serve with crackers for an appetizer, use in place of sauce on pizza, stir some into eggs for a seasoned omelet, add a spoonful to soup for an extra flavor hit.   See how versatile it is?  I’m sure you can think of other uses, too.

It is so easy to make that I am giving the general directions first, followed by the ingredients list for four (4) different kinds.  Each one makes  about 2 cups of pesto.  I like to divide mine up into 1/2 – 1 cup amounts and store in the freezer, removing a small container of it as needed.  The flavor stays as fresh as the day you made it.

GENERAL DIRECTIONS

Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides as needed.  Period!  Did I say Easy?   Divide up into small jars or plastic  containers, and use creatively.

BASIL

1.  BASIL PESTO

  • 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2/3 cup good quality olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 3 Tablespoons cold water
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt.

CILANTRO

2.  CILANTRO PESTO

  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 2 cups loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

ROSEMARY

3.  OLIVE PESTO

  • 1  7 0z. jar pitted kalamata olives, drained
  • 1  7 oz. jar pimiento-stuffed Spanish olives, drained
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  •  3-4 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika

OREGANO

4.  MIXED HERBS PESTO

  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, or  1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, or 1  teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (pignoli)
  • 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

SOURCE:   adapted from  Foods, Quick and Easy.

Blackberry Jam

I’ve made a plan for my postings this week around the theme of  “berries”.  Each day I’ll have a recipe that uses fresh berries in a different way. Looking into my crystal ball I see a lot of baking in my future, and along with that I see the pounds/weight going up.  I guess I’ll also need to increase my dancing in order to work off the calories.  Any way you look at it its a win-win situation:  more baking which I love, more dancing which I love, and more blogging;  all for you, my dear readers!   So to begin, here’s  the story about my adventures in making homemade blackberry jam.

It’s always a challenge and an adventure when you pick blackberries!   Not too far away from where I live there is a farm which features “pick-your-own” fruits, beginning with strawberries in the spring, right through to apples and pears in the fall.  My favorite fruits to pick are raspberries and blackberries.  Blackberry picking has not started yet, so what is pictured is the farm open for this year’s harvest of raspberries.

When you drive down the lane to where the bushes are located you can see the berries hanging heavy on the branches.  Blackberry bushes are planted in rows with straw beneath them to keep down the weeds, and they grow thick and high.  The best berries are the inky black ones, and they are usually found deep into the bush.  Oh, did I mention that blackberry bushes have THORNS?   Yes, well no matter how carefully you try to avoid them those thorns will bite you.  So to get those wonderful fat, juicy, black berries you must suffer.  When you have picked your limit and set out for home, there will be blackberry juice, scratches and dried blood on your arms and legs and a blackberry stain around your mouth.  (Who can pick without tasting?)   Anyone would think you have been in a fight.

Why do I do this year after year?  Because it’s so worth it.  There are so many things you can do with blackberries like make jam, pie, cobbler, liqueur, and sauce.  They freeze beautifully.  Just lay them out on a baking sheet. Stick in the freezer for a while and when frozen place in zip-lock bags for future use.   Today I will share with you my recipe for blackberry jam.

BLACKBERRY JAM

Yield:  6   six-ounce glasses

  • 6 cups blackberries
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 6 cups sugar
  • 3/4 – 1 cup orange juice
  • 3 – 4 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon grated orange zest

Cook the berries with water until they are heated through.  Crush the berries and rub through a sieve to remove the seeds.  Add sugar, fruit juices and grated orange zest.  Cook over low heat until thick.  Because blackberries are naturally high in pectin,  and the juices add citric acid,  this mixture thickens well without the addition of more pectin.

While the berries are cooking I put my jars, lids and rings in the dishwasher and run it to wash and sterilize the jars.  Then as the berry mixture is thickened and ready to be jarred, I remove the hot jars one at a time from the dishwasher, (keep the other jars hot)  fill it leaving about 1/8  inch space at the top.  Wipe jar rims and threads.  Cover with two-piece lids and screw bands on tightly.  As each jar is filled and covered, immediately turn it upside down on a dish towel.  After about 5 minutes turn jars upright.  Soon you will hear a snap/pop sound as the vacuum forms and the jars become sealed.  This is so neat!  There will be no need to boil jam-filled jars in a large kettle to achieve this same result.  If for some reason a jar does not make a seal, then that’s the one you can start to enjoy right away.

This jam was made last summer.  As long as it is well sealed it will keep for several years on your pantry shelf.  I like to give a jar of jam and home baked bread as a Holiday gift or Hostess gift when I am visiting.  It is always welcome.

SOURCE:  Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook   ? edition.  This wonderful cookbook was given to me as a wedding gift, and it has seen much use over the years.  It is well worn and well loved.