Friday, October 25, 2013

Squash chili

Lately, I've been cooking with squash the way some people cook with salt.

Gene's been a good sport about it but I do recognize that he's had to hold his tongue a few times about all the pumpkin on the menu.  Thank you for your patience, honey!

In the past two weeks we've had:
  • stuffed acorn squash
  • pumpkin whoopie pies (recipe coming soon)
  • lasagna with squash
  • squash soup
  • butternut squash chili

I had been planning to make this spinach salad from Parents Need to Eat, Too but a weekend of soggy, foggy forecasts, a recipe for Cheesy Stuffed Garlic Bread, and a recent post in Feastie turned my cravings toward chili instead.
Photo: Debbie Koenig

SQUASH CHILI - Serves 6-8
I used butternut squash for this recipe.  Use whatever you have on hand. This recipe goes together quickly but needs a long simmering time.  Assemble it in the morning before work and throw it into the slow cooker.  You can buy fresh prepared butternut squash in the produce section of your grocery store to save even more time.

1 pound ground beef
1 onion, diced
1 can black beans*, drained & rinsed (16 oz/pint)
2 cups chicken broth* (16oz/pint)
1 large can stewed tomatoes* (32oz/quart)
1/2 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic
1 TBSP chili powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1 T kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
*home-canned items from my pantry
  1. Brown the beef in a large stock pot.
  2. Add the onion and cook until translucent.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 2-3 hours.
  4. Top with freshly ground black pepper and any other toppings that tickle your fancy: cubed avocado, sharp cheddar, green onions, cilantro, croutons.
Lunch leftovers: squash chili & mini pumpkin whoopie pies
Tonight I'm going to make pumpkin overnight oatmeal.  Do you love or hate pumpkin?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Not a good thing

Martha Stewart pissed off a few people last week with a condescending comment about lifestyle and food bloggers.
"Who are these bloggers? They’re not trained editors at Vogue magazine. I mean there are bloggers writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create a kind of popularity, but they are not the experts. And we have to understand that."

This she uttered just moments after lighting up about how much she likes Twitter, and that she's probably not "too big" because others have larger followings and fiefdoms than does she.

I've been blogging for over three years now.  I'm not a "trained journalist" but I don't pretend to be, either.  Her comments lead me to believe that as long as I'm re-tweeting her thoughts, I'm an acceptable serf.  But as soon as I express my own opinions, or develop and post recipes, I'm to be put down as a member of the unwashed masses.

Count me in the "seriously annoyed" camp.

She also talked about the Home Depot wares not being "schlocky" (shoddy).  I assume by this comment that she is referring to her line of items that Hope Depot sells.

Since she's into luxury items and quality, let's examine the quality of the enameled cookware sold under the Martha Stewart name.  I've had two, identical Dutch ovens from the Martha Stewart line.  These ovens retail for around $150 at Macy's.

Last year friends of ours moved and couldn't keep their Martha Stewart Dutch oven due to space issues.  I had one that I'd gotten on a super duper clearance for $40 around the time Gene and I got married.  At just three years old it was chipped and severely discolored, whereas my girlfriend's had only been used a couple of times and looked brand new.

"Ohhh, shiny!!"  And off my three-year-old one went off to the Goodwill, the new one taking its spot.

Here is the Martha Stewart one after less than a year of regular use.  See the staining on the bottom?  There is a chip inside the pot but I have no idea how that happened.  It's also stained (which you can't see here) along the liquid/fond line on the sides.  Scrubbing & soaking have not made much of a dent.

In addition to the discoloration, its handles have chipped, despite the fact that we hand-wash it fastidiously with non-scratch pads.  The three-year-old Dutch oven this one replaced was considerably more stained and chipped, hence its replacement.

Le Cousances was a French brand of enameled cookware that has since been purchased by Le Creuset.  I bought mine in 1998 for around 200 francs (USD$40) in a store called Carrefour.  I brought that bad boy back from France in my luggage in the days before strict weight limits.

I have used this Dutch oven for 15 years.  I've roasted chicken, made chili, and created countless meals in this cookware.  It's earned a place in my kitchen for the rest of my life.  Here's the inside of it:
Flawless.  This picture was taken after I'd used the pot to make pumpkin chili that had started with browning ground beef and ended with 3 hours of simmering on a gas flame.  Clean-up took me about 2 minutes.

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the Dutch ovens' thickness.  The Martha Stewart one, at bottom, is considerably thicker.  Both are heavy beasts, even more so once full, but the Martha Stewart is unnecessarily difficult to manhandle due to its heft.

The undersides of the lids also show a difference in quality.  The Cousances lid has no defects in the enamel.  The MS lid, however, has places where the enamel did not adhere to the cast iron, creating opportunistic areas for rust to form.

I'll concede that the Martha Stewart Dutch oven works fine, despite its cosmetic deficiencies.  The stained areas do, however, tend to get darker with time and never fully disappear.

The only other Martha Stewart item in my kitchen is a rotary food mill that looks like this one.
I use the food mill extensively during canning season but am looking to replace it with one that has a larger capacity and a stronger spring for pushing the food through the sieves.  The MS one takes a long time and a lot of effort but I think that's more a byproduct of it being a rotary mill, not a Martha Stewart product.

In actuality, my experience with an expensive Martha Stewart product is that it is, after all is said and done, high-priced "schlock".  The enameled cookware is not worth the money we pay for it, clearance prices or not.  A cast-iron item should last a lifetime with proper care.  I, do not equate the Martha Stewart name with quality but instead with self-serving pursuit of ego-stroking and money.  Not only will I not purchase another item that has her name on it, I won't even bother to take it for free.

The moral of this story is to buy quality, not names.  This is not a new lesson, and I'm not the first to reach this conclusion.  My next major kitchen purchase will be a Le Creuset, and the Martha Stewart oven will go off to Goodwill.

(UPDATE: a little internet research is a good thing when you're unhappy with a product...)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to use unwanted beer

I belong to a barter group.  At our last barter I picked up 3 bottles of some kind of beer and 1 large bottle of another.  I don't like beer, but Gene does.

Unfortunately, Gene didn't like either of these beers.  He deemed one "watery piss water" and the other was "a good, well-made beer but not my type".  He forbade me from getting  beer from people again.

So much for that.

We were stuck with four bottles of beer neither of us would drink.

With "Soup Week" well underway, it made sense to make a quick bread to accompany dinner.

Beer Bread 

3 cups flour, sifted
3t baking soda
1t salt
1/4 sugar
12oz beer
1/4 cup butter, melted

  1. Preheat oven to 375 and grease a loaf pan.
  2. Mix dry ingredients with beer.
  3. Pour batter into the loaf pan.  Top with melted butter.
  4. Bake for 1 hour, then remove from pan and allow to cool for approximately 15 minutes.

I also made a delicious Irish stew with the big bottle of beer.  It was loosely based on this recipe.  Unfortunately, I didn't get pictures or write down my recipe changes.

What would you do with several bottles of unwanted or undrinkable beer?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pantry staples

People know that I'm always on the look-out for free produce.  This summer I was the lucky recipient of tomatoes, bananas, a pumpkin, plums, corn, a friend's CSA share while her family was on vacation, quince (which have yet to become something), grape leaves, and probably a few other things I can't remember.

With a small household budget, I try to stretch every dollar as far as it'll go and I'm happy to accept these offerings.  They usually send me into a frenzy of preserving activity.

I was posting pictures to Facebook of something I'd made with some unexpected cast-offs when a friend queried: how to you have the things on-hand to make this stuff at a moment's notice?  I shrugged off her question and replied that I simply have a well-stocked pantry.

But her question has been in the back of my mind ever since.  What, exactly, does having a "well-stocked pantry" mean?

To me, it means always having on hand what I consider to be essentials.  When I'm running low - and by "low" I mean probably 10% of something remaining - I add it to my grocery or canning lists.  I never, ever run out of these items.  I could open my pantry right now and make nearly any baked good (unless it has unusual ingredients), a hearty soup, or a pasta dish.

  • Baking: white & whole wheat flours; granulated, confectioner's & brown sugars; leavening agents; spices & seasonings; vanilla; vegetable, olive, & spray oils; chocolate chips & cocoa powder; gelatin; corn syrup; powdered milk
  • Fresh produce: onions, garlic, potatoes, lemons, seasonal fruit & greens
  • Canning: vinegar, pickling salt, whole spices, lots of lids (bought 500 on ebay a few years ago)
  • Freezer: berries, small supply of various meats; butter; variety of vegetables
  • Home-canned items: chicken stock, tomatoes, tomato sauce, green beans, jams, salsa
  • Pantry: whole-wheat pasta, rice, refried beans, tuna fish
  • Herbs & spices: I pretty much walked up to the bulk spice section and said, "yes".
  • Dairy: milk, cheddar, eggs
  • Bread: sandwich bread, tortillas
What are your pantry essentials that I didn't list here?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The C-word is coming

The C-word is coming.  No, not that "C" word, another one: Christmas.

Christmas is, at the time I wrote this, just 80 days away.  Walk into any major retailer - Costco, Lowe's, Target - and the truth is unavoidable.

Because of how bills work out, I have just two paychecks that have any hope for leftover funds in the next 80 days.  My parents' and Kaelen's birthdays each fall in that time span.  My cousin is getting married on New Year's Eve and my brother's birthday is mere days into the New Year.  Money is tight.

As much as I hate to admit it, I'm thinking about holidays and gifts.  Mostly I'm trying to figure out how to manage it all on a margin-less budget.  Gene starts a new, full-time job in December (hooray for two incomes for the first time since we've been parents!).  Financially, however, that won't affect our situation much until after the holiday.  Luckily I've squirreled away a few toys for Kaelen's birthday and financial expectations are - I hope - relatively low for adult gift-giving.  I've got a trunk full of luscious yarn and, provided I get on with making things, will knit some really gorgeous gifts for loved ones.  Kaelen is going to get a pair of slippers.

If you're starting to think about holiday gifts, now is the time to make those liquors.   

Last month I started some slivovitz.  It's a deep garnet color now.  I haven't tasted any, though my boss had some of his own (he was inspired by my post about plums from him!).  He said it's pretty damn good.

Every year I think about making an orange liqueur, and every year it's too late by the time I remember around Thanksgiving.  Orange liqueur takes at least 2 months to infuse the alcohol.  Other flavored liquors can take longer depending upon the recipe you're using and the flavor you want to achieve. 

Have you seen what a bottle of Grand Marnier costs?  Yeah, it's delicious and amazing, but bottles of booze starting around $30 are out of our reach.  I made my batch of orange liqueur for about $15.  I already had the brandy from my slivovitz and had only to buy the oranges.

ORANGE LIQUEUR (aka Grand Marnier)
Zests of 6 oranges
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups of brandy (cognac is also fine)

1. Pour boiling water over the oranges to remove the wax.  If you're using organic oranges, this is not necessary (but do wash them well).  Remove zest.

2. Mix zest, sugar, and alcohol.

3. Store in a glass bottle in a cool, dark place.  Shake whenever you think about it, or once every couple of weeks.  I'm using the original bottle the brandy came in.  As the orange zest ferments, it may cause the cork to pop off the bottle (this happens every time I had a vanilla pod to my bottle of vanilla vodka).  It's fine and not an indication that anything is wrong.

4. The orange liquor will be ready in roughly 2 months.  Strain out the solids using a fine mesh sieve first, then a coffee filter.  It will keep indefinitely.

What would do you do with Grand Marnier?  I love it in hot cocoa.  It's better than Ambien for me.

On second thought, I might not give any away after all.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Soup week - Seafood chowder

Last month I splurged and made salmon for our fourth wedding anniversary.  I had to filet it myself, however, and it was my first attempt at butchering a fish.

I was pleased with the filets but disappointed by how much meat was left on the carcass.  Part of the problem was that I didn't have the right knife.  Rather than throw it out, I put the rest of the fish into the freezer.

Fast-forward to October.

I thawed the salmon carcass and poached it gently for about 5 minutes.  It didn't need long.  
My zombie salmon
Removing the last bits of meat was a breeze.  I got about 1 1/2 cup of meat which would have otherwise been discarded.

I wanted to make chowder with this salmon.  Ever since I was a little girl, clam chowder has been one of my favorite things to order in a restaurant.  I don't order it often anymore but dang, it's still on my top 10 list of soups.

But I didn't want to make just a salmon chowder: I wanted a clam chowder with salmon in it.

Behold, the results. 

Gene often complains that I never make things the same way twice.  Here's the recipe I developed AND documented so that I can repeat this... and make it again I shall.

Salmon & Clam Chowder
Recipe by yours truly.  Serves about 4 as a main course.

1 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 medium white onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 bottle clam juice
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium red potatoes, cubed
3 cups chicken stock (I had an experimental batch of corn cob stock on hand, so used that)
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp dill weed
1/4 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp thyme
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup corn (frozen or canned)
1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 1 tbsp cold water
1 can of baby clams, drained
1-2 cups of salmon, flaked (canned is OK)
1 cup cream or half-and-half

1. Melt the butter in a soup pot.  Add the onions and celery.  Cook until soft, about 5 minutes.

2. Put the clam juice, garlic, potatoes, stock, salt, dill, pepper, thyme, red pepper flakes into the stock pot and bring to a simmer.

3. Simmer gently until potatoes are soft, about 8-10 minutes.

NOTE: You don't want to allow the chowder to boil from this point onward.  The corn and clams could become chewy and the salmon dry out.

4. Add the corn and bring back to an almost simmer.

5. Stir in the cornstarch to thicken slightly (use more cornstarch for a thicker chowder)

6. Add the clams, salmon, and cream, and stir gently to incorporate.  Allow to cook at an almost simmer for 5 minutes so that flavors blend.

True to my west coast roots, I served this with sourdough rolls and freshly ground pepper.  Go ahead and offer up some oyster crackers if your tastes go that way.  I won't judge.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Soup week - Kielbasa, squash, and wild rice

This week's weather is getting better.

My office view has gone from this...

To this...

Today it's a gloomy blanket of grey drizzle across that same view.  Sigh.

But, that same weather is what inspired this, the second in a series of posts on soup.  The first post was the green potage on the left.  Today's focuses on that orange jewel in the middle.

Let me begin by saying that Gene does not like squash.

I, on the other hand, love it.  My dad is a New Englander.  Maybe that has something to do with it.  Forget the Thanksgiving yams with their weird marshmallow topping: hand me the butternut squash puree with butter.  I'll happily have a dinner of an acorn squash with butter and brown sugar or maple syrup.  When I was pregnant a local restaurant served chili in a cooked pumpkin bowl that you ate as you devoured the chili.  Divine.

Quite a few years ago I stumbled across Emeril Lagasse's recipe for "Smoked Sausage, Butternut Squash, and Wild Rice Soup".  Intrigued, I made it.

And guess what: Gene loves it.  In fact, he asks me to make it every winter.  The problem is Emeril's version is a pain in the ass to make, gets a ton of things dirty in the kitchen, and requires way more hands-on work than a rustic soup has any right to ask of someone.  Cube & cook & puree & saute & cook & mash...

Screw that.  We can do better than spend 3 hours on making soup.  This will still take about 2 hours from start to finish but there's considerably less hands-on time and fewer things you'll need to get dirty.

I made this recipe healthier AND dairy-free by omitting the cream.  Swap out the kielbasa for vegan sausages and add some liquid smoke to make a vegan version of this soup.  A note about the squash: I used 1 butternut, 1/2 acorn, and a quart of sugar pie pumpkin that hadn't sealed because it's what I had on hand.  To streamline this recipe even more, you can use squash puree found in the frozen section of the grocery store or cubed squash from the produce section.

Here's my version of that soup.  I halved it from the original, which makes a TON.  The corn and squash make it sweet.  The kielbasa lends it savory smokiness.  The rice provides texture and a nutty taste.  Try it and let me know what you think!
Photo: (because I forgot to take pictures)
Kielbasa, Squash & Rice soup  
Inspired by Emeril Lagasse's original version on 
Serves 4-6

1 squash, about 3 to 4 pounds, cut in half and seeded
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
7 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups chopped onions

3/4 pound kielbasa, cut into half-inch cubes
1 cup corn
1/2 cup wild rice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Place the squash cut-side down on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes or until tender.
While the squash is cooking, coat the bottom of a soup pot with the olive oil and brown the sausage over medium-high heat until browned. Add the onions, corn, salt, and pepper. Saute for 5 minutes.  

Once tender, remove from oven and allow squash to cool until workable.  Scoop out the pulp and use a potato masher to mash the squash in a bowl.

Add the stock and the squash puree. Bring to a boil. Add the rice, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Skim off any fat that rises to the surface.  Simmer for another 10 minutes or until the rice is done but not mushy.  Add more stock if you want a thinner soup.

Adjust the seasoning and serve.  This soup reheats beautifully.  We had it with beer bread, for which I'll post a recipe soon.

CANNING NOTE: I did not can any of my Soup Week soups.  I stored them in the fridge in canning jars for ease of finding & accessing them.  If you want to can your soups, use the National Center for Home Food Preservation website's guidelines for canning soup.  

Next soup post, my west coast and east coast roots collide in a most delicious way.