Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy Noodle Bowls : )

Noodles, man. I love noodles. Carbohydrates are what I crave deep within my animal brain, and lately I crave noodle bowls. Also within my animal brain I occasionally am able to make connections between things, the latest sparked by my displeasure with the cost of noodle bowls at local restaurants. Janet and I tried the Vietnamese Garden restaurant on the Battleground, and our experience was great. Their food is outstanding, and the price is good if you catch one of their daily specials, a lot of which feature vermicelli. Unfortunately, noodle bowls are $13.95. I would not call myself miserly, but I am always on the lookout for good value, and this does not fit into my good-value category.

So the HT had a special on spaghetti: five boxes for five dollars (vermicelli specials on the VG menu + bargain spaghetti = lightbulb.) That's a good deal. I already had chicken broth in my pantry, so I decided to do a bit of research on making noodle bowls, which is essentially noodle soup or a revved up version of Oodles of Noodles.

Apparently, to get a nice eastern flavor, dishes may include what is called "five spice." Chinese in origin, it's a powerful spice blend that is meant to include five flavors of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and pungent. Many variations exist of the blend, but most consist of cinnamon, cloves, anise, black peppercorns, and fennel. I had no anise, but fennel has a taste that resembles anise, and that is enough for me as it's not my favorite flavor anyway.

I threw about a half of a handful in my pan to roast the fennel, along with two cloves (definitely enough for me) a bit of powdered cinnamon, powdered ginger, and several peppercorns. I roasted them until the fennel just browned, and then I threw them into my coffee grinder. Into the broth they went. I tasted it, and I liked it. I also had a piece of shriveled ginger in the fridge, so I threw it into the broth along with an amount of low-so soy sauce.

Earlier that evening, I stopped at the store for mung-bean sprouts, basil, mushrooms, and a few limes for my noodle bowl. I thought I did not like sprouts, but it's alfalfa sprouts I do not like. Mung sprouts are so good and crunchy, and they add a nice texture to the bowl. I sliced the mushers, chiffonaded the basil, and threw that into my pot. So far so good. The broth smells good, with a peppery and gingery taste, but it is not overpowering. I am getting excited now, as my inaugural foray into cooking this dish might actually work.

In the freezer, a bag of sugar peas begged to be used, and in they went. Delicious. I also had a bunch of green onions, so I diced about four of them and threw them into the pot. A bit of chicken that I had leftover from a bird I roasted earlier--into the pot. And I simmered all of that deliciousness while my spaghetti cooked. I topped my bowl with P's hot hot pepper flakes and a bit of lime juice, and it was good. I will make noodle bowls again. It's a hearty dish without being laden with calories. Noodle bowls make me happy.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Birthday Cake and Seafoods

Janet asked me to make her a strawberry cake for her birthday, so yesterday I went to the Downtown Farm Market (I like to call it the 505 Market) for some fresh strawberries. Cake was good, though a bit dense from the mashed strawberries I incorporated into the batter. This is what fruit in the cake does. Perhaps I could have cooked the cake longer, but then it would have been dry, so I am fine with the density of this cake. Flour, sugar, many egg whites, a lot of butter, milk--I think that's it. But the frosting or icing or whatever you prefer to call it took the cake.

More butter, confectioners' sugar, and more mashed strawberries. I mixed these items and they tasted good, though a bit sweet. Also, I had a problem with the icing separating, which did not look appealing, so I decided to add a mess of whipped cream. Problem solved. A few berries between the layers, and I had butter-cream frosting on a white cake with strawberries, and it was good.

I also made a pot of corn chowder, and it turned out pretty well. First, a mirepoix and garlic sauteed in olive oil. After that softened, I added a bit of bouquet garni and two quarts of vegetable broth. Earlier I had roasted five ears of corn, six potatoes, and two red peppers. I de-cobbed the corn, de-skinned the pepper, quick-diced the taters and added them all to the pot.

By now, it tastes pretty good, but chowder should be thick, I suppose, so I made a blonde roux from one stick of butter and a little flour. I think I used one pound of butter all told cooking today. As if that was not enough richness, I also added a pint of heavy cream and a pound of shrimp. Salt and freshly-cracked Pepper, the slightest amount of dried hot-pepper mix, and that finished the chowda. Ya big chowda head.

Is that it? No, it isn't. Janet went and visited Landon at The Shrimp Connection yesterday where she purchased the aforementioned shrimp as well as lump crab meat and scallops. Some folks call these mollusks scAL-ups, and some folks call them scALL-ups. Doesn't matter, really. Scallops are not my favorite, but some people get fired up about eating them. I think the recipe came from Landon for preparing them. I do not rinse the scallops, but rather leave their own juice for flavor. Simply dredge them in a little flour, Old Bay and Salt. Into a pan of a little olive oil and butter for brownness until they get a little crust and they are done. I will eat one or two, though, as I like their smooth texture.

Now, Janet is usually in charge of making crabcakes, and she does a right fine job of it. All I had to do was cake them and bake them. She made the mix. I made the aioli, which is quite good: Duke's, lemon juice and zest, diced garlic, and a ton of fresh basil. Mix it and serve it with the crabcakes, and it's a winner. That is quite a feast. This morning for breakfast I heated a couple crabcakes and ate them with an over-easy egg and Texas Pete. Very nice to have good-quality leftovers on a Saturday morning.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Say It With Me...Chicken Paprikash With Spaetzel

Chicken Paprikash is delicious. It's not okay, it's not pretty good--it's delicious. As you might imagine, my TV-watching habits tend towards cooking shows, and that is where I first saw this dish a few months ago. Now, many things pass by me like an 18-wheeler on the PA Turnpike, but when something piques my interest, I pay attention. Chicken Paprikash is one of those things. I knew immediately that I would try creating a version.

As the name indicates, paprika is an integral part of this concoction. P's sells several varieties, and I chose the Hungarian Half-Sharp last time I ordered. It is bright reddish orange in color, accompanied by a slight heat that I augmented in the dish with a diced jalapeno pepper. Also into the Dutch Oven went two scallions and a shallot that burned my eyes. Probably three cloves of garlic and a can of crushed tomatoes.

As these ingredients sauteed in olive oil, I added four chicken breasts purchased from the Fresh Cuts Butcher Shop. I covered the chicken with chicken broth, and then I added quite a lot of paprika and a good amount of P's Bavarian Seasoning (a mixture of crushed brown mustard, rosemary, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, and sage), which I thought apropos for the dish. I also added two more bay leaves and then covered the dish to cook until the chicken was done. I pulled the meat from the bones and added a little more Salt. To finish the Paprikash, I added about a cup of sour cream and continued cooking until it was warmed through.

Truly, though, the best part about this dish is the Spaetzel. Spaetzel means "little sparrow," and I enjoy that part of it, also. It is pretty easy to make, once you get your ingredients together: flour, an egg, salt, and water. Mix that up until your dough forms and then cut little spaetzels with your knife. I think I may have made mine slightly larger than most, but again, that is the cook's prerogative. Throw them into the boiling water until they bob to the top. I suppose you could stop here and eat your dinner, but one more step makes all the difference in the world.

Let the sparrows fly into a skillet containing a pat of melted butter. Coat the sparrows, and add a bit of salt and Green-Can cheese. Saute them until they brown a little and serve them with your Paprikash. As I said, das schmeckt! Abendessen! Ganz Gut! Bis Spater!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pizza For Two, And Two For Pizza

Pizza Day. I have only wanted to eat pizza lately because I am a pizza bum. I checked a few local menus, but for good-quality pie, their prices are more than I wanted to spend. My favorite local joint is going down the tubes, or so it appears to me based on my last visit there, and I am surly today anyhow so I baked my own damn pizza.

Flour, salt, water, yeast, a little olive oil makes the crust that I use. Mix it, knead it, raise it. Flatten it out with your hands. Good therapy.

I took a ride down to the 505 Market on Greene Street today for some local meat and veggers. I watched "Food, Inc." a few days ago, so I was pretty disgusted and bummed out by what I saw. I do not think I am willing to end my carnivorous ways, but I wanted to buy some meat that was local, grass-fed and clean. I bought a few tomatoes, a few button mushrooms, and then I stopped at HT for some store-made mozzarella that was pretty good.

I wanted to make a Margherita pizza and a carmelized onion and mushroom pizza. Both turned out okay. I pulled them from the oven before they could cook to the point of brownness that I like, but the wife will probably throw hers on the pizzazz machine when she gets home, and that will finish the pizzas.

For the Margherita, which is not the authentic Neopolitan version but a corruption of it, I used a bit of sauce that was simply canned crushed toms, a little olive oil, and salt. Apparently, a council in Naples has declared the exact specifications for this pizza to be considered authentic, but I do not have a wood-burning oven and a few other items. Spread the sauce in a fair amount, cover it with sliced tomatoes, a generous amount of mozzarella cheese, and top with basil. I used a lot of basil. The initial offering was cooking away to crispness atop the pie, so I added more. Pretty good, though I should have cooked the crust a little before adding the heavy and wet tomatoes.

I caramelized a large onion and a few cloves or garlic in olive oil and salt for my second pie. Just about when the onion was ready, I added my button mushrooms and sauted away. A little olive oil on the crust, then my mush and onion mix. I used some shredded provolone piccante and that fresh mozz as my cheeses, and it was good. Monday is Pizza Day. I am slightly less surly after having eaten my pizza, but ONLY slightly.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Booyah, Brunswick Stew, and Burgoo

I wanted to change the name of my blog to "The Salty Cracker," but that URL was already taken, much to my chagrin.

After I write this, I'm going to walk the dogs on this pleasant Saturday afternoon. I have been sitting here at the computer for a good portion of the last couple hours, listening to Wilco and looking out the window at the azaleas across the street. Azaleas began blooming here about two weeks ago, and I have enjoyed observing their reds, purples, pinks, and whites. We have a nice pink azalea in the backyard, but you can't see it unless you're out there. It finally began blooming a couple days ago, but it needs pruned and fertilized, which I will do after all of its flowers have faded. Then next year, it should flourish.

A few days ago, I planted four new azaleas in the front yard--two Midnight Flares and two Wolfpack Reds. Janet is a fan of red azaleas, as they are more rare to see around here than the rest. I will estimate that if you counted the number of azalea bushes in this neighborhood, you would reach 100 quickly, and that makes walking the dogs much more pleasant. Lord knows I need some exercise, and the dogs do, too.

So I was talking to a guy at the ballpark and he mentioned how he made Brunswick Stew on camping trips occasionally. I knew immediately that I was going to make a potful as I love Brunswick Stew. I first became aware of this dish when I moved to North Carolina and started eating at barbecue joints. Brunswick Stew, as far as I can tell, is customarily served with barbecue, and if you have any interest in food, you cannot help but learn about the barbecue culture that exists here. Of course, more flavor is added to Brunswick Stew by a little controversy regarding the origination of this dish that exists in the southeast between several towns and counties having the name "Brunswick."
Pork barbecue fits into this stew impeccably, but it is not limited to that protein. Originally, squirrel meat was used as well as rabbit, but contemporarily, pork, chicken and beef fit the bill. I had a beef roast thawed and ready to go, so that's what I used.

As I researched the topic a bit, I learned that a similar dish exists in Kentucky, but they call it "Burgoo." Pa White said that when he was a boy growing up in Minnesota, they cooked a version of it in a huge kettle at school, but they called it "Booyah." One of the reasons why I like cooking so much is that I am not very good at exactitude. Cooking allows for many versions, many variations and estimation--a little of this and a little of that.

I began my Brunswick Stew like so many dishes begin, with a diced onion in a fair amount of olive oil. I also had shallots and garlic, and I threw that in as well, redundant as it may seem. I had some diced green pepper in the freezer, and in it went. Six carrots, peeled and thinly coined. About ten medium tomatoes, roughly chopped. Recipes for this dish call for ketchup, but instead, along with the aforementioned tomatoes, I incorporated Worcestershire sauce, a little cider vinegar, a bit of sugar, and a couple glugs of hot sauce. A quart of chicken broth, Salt and Pepper, a little of P's Sandwich Sprinkle, a little Pasta Sprinkle, a little Paprika, and I think that ends the seasoning list.

I also added a cup or so of green Lima beans that I had been boiling awhile. After these items cooked together some, I threw into the pot my beef roast. Just before I can shred the meat with a fork, I will finish the dish with a couple of my remaining Lima beans and a few diced potatoes, and that will be that. Brunswick Stew.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fish Tackos

I've been hankering for fish tacos for some time now, and with a little gentle prodding from the INTERNET> I finally decided to make my own. We were down on Ocracoke Island the first time I ever ate fish tacos, and I loved the dish. Next time I went there, the place that served them had closed, as is the custom of a lot of restaurants there. Now, I can get fish tacos around here--I just never do. But we had in the freezer two filets of good-quality flounder purchased from our fishmonger Landon at the Shrimp Connection, and I figured a better opportunity to make fish tacos would never present itself. So the first filet I cut into one-inch chunks, coated it with a little flour, Old Bay and Salt, and pan fried in shallow vegetable oil. After frying awhile, the fish was already good eating, but I was not finished yet.

Fish tacos should be accoutred with red-cabbage slaw. I am always happy to use cabbage, as I think it is quite underrated. To make the slaw, I chopped about half of a head of red cabbage thinly. Then I dressed it with my favorite house dressing: Duke's mayo, some apple-cider vinegar, a few capers, Salt, and Pepper. Mix that well and dress the cabbage, and you have a very nice slaw on your hands and on your tacos.

I needed a wrapper for these tacos, so I decided to try my hand at making corn tortillas. Corn tortillas are very simply prepared. Composed of masa harina, salt, and water, all you have to do is make a big, soft ball from which you make smaller balls. Simple, right? Eh, not quite. I think if a person owned a tortilla press the tortillas would form much more uniformly around the edges. As it was, when I pressed the balls between two sheets of waxed paper and rolled, the edges became ragged. I do not mind a ragged edge, but I think a rounder tortilla would wrap nicely, not to mention being more aesthetically pleasant. Really, though, I simply have not made tortillas enough to discover the tricks and secrets the masa holds.

I cooked them on the flat side of the griddle pan two at a time. The first couple tortillas I made I did not cook long enough, but then I started removing them from the heat after they browned slightly. I was already learning. I think next time I make corn tortillas I will add a little bit of fat. I like the corn taste, but the texture wants something. A few cilantro leaves and a little bit of Texas Pete and my tacos were done. The pictures did not turn out as well as I wanted them to because I was in a hurry, both to eat the tacos and be out the door.

As a side, I also made a little macaroni and cheese. It is so simple that any fan of mac and cheese should embrace this method, never to return to Krap boxed mac and cheese or that Velveeta shells and salt, er, cheese. I boiled my macaroni, and when it was ready, I added a little milk (cream would have been splendid, but I did not have any) Salt, Pepper, and some shredded cheddar cheese. Of course, you could use any type of cheese that appeals to your little heart, but I like cheddar. Next time I will have a chunk of good-quality cheddar for this dish. Stir it together and eat it. Delicious.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Charcoal Grill and Used Books

Last year, we grilled out zero times here, and it was because the grill was plumb wore out. The legs were rusted, and the burners, which had already been replaced once, were burning and rusting away again. This year, instead of an expensive propane joint, I wanted to get a little charcoal grill. I purchased this red Aussie grill, made in the good old US of A. After her inaugural run, I must say I am as pleased with the performance of the grill as I was with the price.

I had a few cubes of beef remaining that needed to be cooked from beef-stew day, so I figured I would skewer them and throw em on the grill. I had a bit of onion, cantaloupe, and cherry tomatoes that I skewered with the meat, and I will admit that these items were not exactly perfect complements. The beef grilled okay, though, with a little Salt and Pepper and something called “Mural of Flavor” from P's.

But I also had a few chicken leg quarters that I wanted to grill, and they turned out super duper. I seasoned them with P's Poultry Seasoning under and over the skin and a little bit of Salt. They probably cooked for an hour before they finally arrived at the place where I wanted to eat them. The skin was crispy, and the meat was fully cooked. I do not mind chicken just at temperature, but my preferred style is well done. Taken off at the right time, the chicken will be cooked while maintaining some juiciness. I was very happy with my grilled chicken. I have enough charcoal to last at least into the summer, so I will be utilizing my little red grill regularly.

Earlier that day, though, Janet and I went for breakfast at the Smith Street Diner downtown. We love this place. Everything is fresh and prepared to order, and they advertise “Country-Style Cooking, 8 Days a Week,” which translates to buttery deliciousness. Their menu is excellent, but so far I have only ordered the Mexican Eggs, a huge bowl of grits, cheddar cheese, two eggs cooked to your preference, sour cream, and a little salsa. Stir it up with a little Texas Pete, and I am home. But the kicker is this huge biscuit that accompanies the meal. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it is four inches by four inches, and when you pull it apart, you can see the spots of yellow butter interlaced in the fluffiness. I am afraid that I will never be able to order anything else. Janet ordered pancakes. She allowed me a bite, and I will be on the horns of dilemma next time we go there.

After breakfast, we stopped at Empire Books, a cool little used-book shop near Guilford College. They always have something of interest there, but lately I have been buying food books and cookbooks. As you can see in the pic, I found a trove of tastiness, my favorite so far being the Pennsylvania Dutch Cookery. Pennsylvania Dutch, by the way, were Germans, not Dutch. I also found a novel by Anthony Bourdain, of whom I am a fan. Good day, all in all.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Get In The Stew Pot

Since I had not been cooking so much, I had several food items around the kitchen that needed to be eaten quite soon, and when that is the case, it's always a good idea to make stew. So a stew is what I made and what a stew it was. As I said before, I love dishes that cook in one pot, and I was very happy, nay extremely happy, with the dish, as was the wife who mentioned the stew's flavorfulness as soon as I arrived home last night.

But what was it that made this stew the best stew I have made thus far? I used a lot of onions, like a mountain of onions, which I sauted in a mixture of chimichurri and straight olive oil. Several stalks of celery, and about eight potatoes that were growing eyes, as my Gram might have called the roots that begin if you allow them. Carrots. Garlic. Salt and Pepper. A container of cremini mushrooms that I sliced into the dutch oven. I also used a quart of tomato sauce that I had frozen awhile back. To that, I added a quart of low-so chicken broth, and two more cans of diced tomatoes, no salt added. Perhaps it was the beef, which Ma White sent to me from a little butcher shop in Asheboro that sells very good quality products. Maybe so. But the kicker, I think, was the addition of my newest Penzey's: Balti Seasoning (Thanks for the rec, KB. I really like it.) It is quite good and contains a huge mixture of spices, some of which are completely unfamiliar to this old boy. A tablespoon more of that marjoram that fit this dish much better since it mellows the longer it cooks, and that was it.

I ate a bowl, and then I ate another little bowl. Very good eating with just a little more Salt and several twists of the Pepper mill. I just ate another bowl, and the stew has developed its flavor even more after sitting overnight in the fridge. I am pretty sure the remainder will be gone by tomorrow.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Opening Day Rain Delay?

It's opening night at NewBridge Bank Park, and the Grasshoppers are on the schedule versus the Augusta GreenJackets. It's going to rain, so the big question is will it rain hard enough to postpone the game? I am on the schedule, so I made my dinner quite early. I thought it was a good idea, but now I'm sleepy.

Anyway. I bought a hunk of beef at the Teeter yesterday and I had a bag of greens in the fridge, so that's what I had. I also made kluski noodles, which I love. Actually, this is the first time I have done any real cooking in a week, so I'm working it out.

I will be honest with you—I am trying to like greens. Perhaps I just have not found the particular green that most appeals to me. Perhaps I have not added the proper spicing. Today I had mustard greens and turnip greens. One of them was way too bitter, but which one? I don't know. I prepared them with a little olive oil, Salt and Pepper, some green onion, a little garlic, a bit of balsamic, and a little splash of cream at the end. The bitterness dissipated some with cooking, of course, but I did not want to cook and cook and cook them. The wife asked if we were done with greens now, but I am willing to try them again, so I guess I will have to do a little bit of research on the matter.

I did the beef how I usually do it, with a liberal sprinkling of Salt and freshly cracked Pepper. Browned in the skillet a little and then finished in the oven to medium. No sauce today.

The kluski noodles were my favorite, though, being the carb fiend that I am. To the boiled noodles, I added some olive oil, Salt and Pepper, some cremini mushrooms I sliced and sauted, and a little bit of marjoram, which I just bought from Penzey's. Marjoram is an herb I have not used much, and it did not immediately win me over in this dish. I thought it was somewhat flowery. But the addition of some shredded Provolone Piccante cheese helped me like it a little more. Really I wanted to buy cabbage for cabbage and noodles, but I had those damn greens that needed to be eaten. I don't know. I'm a little rusty.