Rice!

I have recently been on a serious rice kick. We have a 9 year old that loves all things carbs. Getting her to eat food other than carbs and sugar (granted some of those sugars are from fruits) is a challenge. We found ourselves eating a lot of pasta, which constantly made me feel guilty about her nutrition.

Now, rice is not healthier than pasta. Most of my research has said that they are the same nutritionally. (Side note: I can’t eat brown rice.) However, I have found that I can find a lot of creative ways to incorporate protein and vegetables into the rice dishes, and she still eats every bite. So I’m sneaking in some nutrition!

Stir-fried rice is one of my favorites. I can add eggs and basically any vegetable, and she’ll eat it! I’ve also come up with several versions of rice pilaf which include things like peas, carrots, mushrooms, etc.

Rice has also allowed me to expand her spice tolerance. Now, this is not really about nutrition, but I’m desperate to have more flavor in our foods. If I put it in rice, she’ll try it. We’ve been able to add things like turmeric, garlic, and even a little red pepper flakes, and she still eats it up!

As a side note, it has also made life very easy as all of my creations have been done using my instant pot! I put things together, set it, wait 20 minutes and we have dinner!

My next goal is to finally tackle a vegetarian paella! I’ve seen some recipes online, but none that just screamed flavor. I am going to experiment with some of the new meat substitutes to try to really mimic that wonderful flavor profile without using meats!

Food Planning

Two major changed occurred recently in our house. First, we decided to start menu planning at the beginning of each week to avoid the “what’s for dinner” conversation every day and the impulse to just order in or go out. Second, my 18 year old moved back home. These two developments have resulted in me producing too many leftovers. I hear you laughing, because I have so touted leftovers as such a great thing. But I have learned that, in fact, you can produce too many leftovers, and this leads to food waste, a thing I hate so very much!

First, because I’m planning meals every night, we inevitably cook more food than can be used up in lunches and such. This is especially enhanced by the fact that, with our 18-year-old, we never know if she will actually be home for dinner. You all remember that age. Your social life is very dynamic! So I plan dinner thinking there will be four, and there are only three of us. Or I buy things expecting she’ll be home, and she doesn’t come home for half the week, so things like avocados and bread that aren’t shelf stable don’t last!

I’m working on ways to tackle these issues. My husband and I are working on adjusting to more leftover nights on nights when the kids are both out. I’m trying to find more foods that freeze well. I’m going to try making muffins using the avocados I have this week, we’ll see how that goes. But I think muffins freeze well, so this may be a good answer.

I’ve gotten really good at dehydrating fruits and veggies, thought that is starting to pile up in my kitchen. I’ve recently started bags in my freezer of vegetables with the intent to make my own vegetable broth as it’s recently become more difficult to find in local grocery stores. I’m not sure what that is about, but we use vegetable broth in a lot of rice dishes, so this seems like an economical answer to the problem.

I’m also fighting the southern influence from my grandmother that makes me think I have to make sure there is enough on the table that no one could possibly leave feeling like they didn’t get enough of any one thing. So I’ll make the portion for four instead of assuming everyone is going to want seconds. We have fruits, veggies, and lots of snacks around if someone finds themselves hungry after dinner. So far, we have not had to resort to any of those. The portion sizes might actually make sense!

Portioning is an ongoing learning experience for me, but I am determined to avoid food waste, so I’ll continue working on this issue. My biggest challenge is that, as you know if you’ve read previous blogs, I love having leftovers! But if you make a full dinner every night for twice as many people as you have, it just goes to waste! There are foods that freeze and reheat well, like chili, and then there’s stir fry. Stir fry just does not. And some pastas reheat well, but some just do not!

I continue to learn constantly about food, cooking and family, and I have to admit, I enjoy the journey!

Don’t give up

We all get discourage. It happens. I have a 9 year old and know how picky kids can be about food. Ours is compounded by the fact that she’s been raised vegetarian, so the options are further limited. We had been making a lot of progress in trying new things. Then we hit a rut. For the last few months, she’s been back to a very limited palate. This is difficult for me because I go to great lengths to try to create healthy, delicious vegetarian meals for her that are not just carbs and cheese, which are her go-to dishes.

I’d spend time finding, creating and making interesting recipes, all with foods she likes, just in new formations. She’d eat maybe two bites and say she wasn’t that hungry. Or it’s “too spicy” or “not my favorite.” I had a weekday where there was no time and ended up making Trader Joe’s frozen gnocchi. Of course, she had three helpings. I was crushed. It got to the point that I was ready to give up. I mean, why put in all the effort to then just throw out the food, or at best, I end up eating the leftovers because no one else does?

In what was almost a moment of defiance, I decide to make a dish that is basically a vegetarian version of orange chicken using chickpeas in place of chicken. I served it with steamed basmati rise and roasted cauliflower. She ate. She said it was good (which she sometimes does, only to eat none of it), and she actually ate a pretty good amount of it. It wasn’t the “mac n cheese” eat three helpings, but it was a good amount. The dish was actually pretty good. And what she didn’t know is that it had ginger and crushed red pepper, which we thought were reasons for her aversion to dishes in the past. So those spices are back on the table!

I needed this victory to remind me to keep trying. Yes, the kid will always prefer bread and pasta, but there’s a chance I can still help her expand her culinary adventures and try new things! She reminded me that kids challenge us in so many ways. And her challenging me to find interesting meals that we can all enjoy has helped me grow tremendously in my cooking over the past few years!

Fall Foods

I love fall. It is my favorite season. I love the cooler temperatures and the beautiful changing leaves. I love my fall wardrobe, and I love fall foods. I am not one that necessarily believes certain foods should be relegated to certain weather conditions. I will make chili in the middle of summer. But let’s face it, there are some foods I will cook more when the temperature drops. For example, I will go great lengths to avoid my oven when it’s hot out, as I am also a cheapskate and don’t want to pay to run the air conditioner any more than required. So here is an “ode” to my some of my favorite fall dishes.

Anything in the crock pot is a winner for me. I currently have a cut of beef in the fridge waiting to make a variation of the NYT Mississipi Mud Roast recipe. I’m making mine in an instant pot, but still planning to use the slow-cooker function for the actual roasting. I also am planning to add red onion. I also love a simple slow-cooked pork loin with onions and herbs. I’m currently in the market for a trivet for my instant pot so I can experiment more with things like roasting chicken and such in it.There is also a paella planned in the near future using the instant pot.

My chicken pot pie recipe is a go-to in cooler weather. It’s gonna heat up the kitchen and it’s a very hearty dish, so it really does get mostly relegated to cooler temperatures. Roasted vegetables also make a more frequent appearance, along with more scalloped potatoes or potatoes au gratin. I love potatoes, but definitely like them better when I can run my oven longer. I’m also thinking of playing with an old shepherd’s pie recipe I used to get at one of my adopted “moms” dinner tables when I was younger.

And breads! I love baking breads. I am thinking the next several months I am going to do a lot more bread experiments. My husband loves more complex breads like ryes and such, and our youngest loves croissants, baguettes, and basically any bread. I have a focaccia recipe I’ve been meaning to play with. I may try something easier than the Julia Child’s french bread recipes this year as her croissants took me two full days to make. But they were so good! Oh, and bierocks! If I haven’t yet, that recipe will definitely be forthcoming as it gets cooler out!

Finally, soups! I have never been a crazy soup fan, but then I discovered all these very hearty, thick, flavorful soups. I love a loaded baked potato soup. I also have a broccoli-cheese soup I made from adapting a Wisconsin beer cheese soup recipe that is delicious. Of course, my chili will make frequent appearances. I’m also looking to experiment with some mushroom soup recipes since the little one loves mushrooms.

The cooler the temps get, the heartier the food becomes. By mid-winter, my oven practically groans from all the use, and we probably gain a few pounds. I have weekend days where it looks like I’m cooking all the things like I expect a great snow-in or something, but I am so happy when my counters and table are covered with cooling breads and my refrigerator and freezer are filled with leftovers!

Women in BBQ

I remember when I was a kid. Dad did the grilling. I’m not even sure if my mom knew how to work the grill. (Before she yells at me, I’m sure she could, I just don’t remember it happening.) The first grill I ever had at my house as an adult was my former husband’s grill. I think I used it once, and it took some work to figure out. But for some reason, at least where I have lived, the grill was a man’s arena. Mom cooked the indoor sides and such, but never the steaks!

But, a couple of years, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to a grill. I was frustrated with trying to use one of those indoor grill pans in an apartment with no real ventilation over the stove, and it was tough to clean. I shopped around and ultimately bought a Weber charcoal kettle grill. In my research, I discovered the chimney lighting method would relieve me of the lighter fluid smell/taste. So, I got a chimney and some charcoal and started grilling. About a month or so into my adventure, I researched how to turn the grill into a smoker. Now, I mostly smoke, although I do occasionally grill say a hamburger or bratwurst or such.

Here’s the kicker: I’m a woman. My husband has never used the grill to cook. As a disclaimer, he does clean it for me periodically because he’s awesome. I really thought nothing of this until I participated in a BBQ competition recently. There were 22 teams with 4-6 members average on each team. The number of women actually on BBQ teams was minuscule to say the least. And to my knowledge, not a single team was led by a woman. There was one team from a restaurant that I believe is husband-wife owned.

Then, I’m watching Food Network’s new show BBQ Brawl and Michael Symon actually points out how amazing it is that 3 of the last 4 contenders are women. I realized I’m not the only one that sees that the BBQ world is very male dominated. If you check out shows like Pitmasters or any of the other televised BBQ competition shows, you won’t see many women, especially not leading teams. I just can’t decide if this is a result of an old fashioned idea that the grill was a man’s arena or some other bias. I’m not sure if women don’t want to go to these things, don’t know that they can, or if they really aren’t welcomed into the arena.

I will say that I did not feel at all odd about being on a BBQ team, and I didn’t feel like the other team leads and members I spoke to thought anything of a woman being a pitmaster. But still, even at this simple, local event, there were only a handful of women working any of the pits.

More women are definitely entering the world of BBQ competitions, and you can tell that the younger generation has no fixed ideas of gender when it comes to BBQ. But then again, the world of chefs, despite the likes of Julia Child, used to also be a male dominated field as far as the most elite were concerned. Maybe this is just one more way we are removing gender barriers in our society.

Vegetarian/Vegan Smoking

So many of you know that I turn my Weber grill into a smoker on a regular basis and smoke a lot of meats! But I also smoke mushrooms and tofu for my little veggie eaters. However, I hadn’t really experimented with a lot of vegetables. So I decided to do a complete vegetarian smoke. Here’s my review of the things I tried:

Corn on the cob was delicious, but I opted to smoke them in the husks, and I think the taste was not much different than when you grill it this way. It didn’t really pick up the smoke except near the tip where it may have been a bit out of the husk or the husk opened. I will be retrying this without the husks to see how that works. However, the corn was sweet, delicious and the perfect texture.

Smoked mushrooms were a hit with the 9-year old. I’ve done portobella mushrooms in the past. This time, I found some larger baby portobellas. I skewered them and coated them with olive oil and some salt. I don’t like mushrooms, so I have to trust the kid’s opinion here. She said they picked up a lot of smoke.

Smoked red, yellow and orange bell peppers were delicious, and my tiny food critic agreed. They were sweet as you’d expect, but they also picked up a substantial amount of the smoke.

Zuchinni also picked up a substantial amount of smoke. It was not squishy soft like squash can get, so some might like it cooked longer, but I loved it. It was no longer “crisp” like eating it raw, but not to the squishy point either. It had the zucchini flavor along with the nice amount of smoke. As a note, I cut them in half length-wise and added olive oil and salt before putting on the grill.

Smoked red onion is delicious! The 9-year old wouldn’t try it. She has a fear of spice, and at the mention of the word “onion,” she acts like a vampire around garlic. Someday, I’ll get her to see the beauty in onions. Luckily, she doesn’t recognize that they are in a lot of the foods we eat and does not realize shallots are in the same family!

Smoke cauliflower was not good. I followed an online post I found, but I may not have done it right. However, to both myself and my husband, there was an intense smoke flavor but it completely overwhelmed the cauliflower. Also, the cauliflower did not soften the way it does when you roast it.

Overall, I would say dinner was a success. (Just a disclaimer, I grilled a few bratwurst after the veggies were all off the grill which us meat eaters had with the vegetables.) I would definitely be willing to try more vegetables in the smoker. I’m also considering trying cold smoking in the near future, and I think tofu may react well to such a process!

Ten Things I’ve learned about food and cooking

This could be a multi-edition posting, as I’ve learned so much over the years. However, these are just a few valuable things I have learned about creating amazing flavors.

  1. When sauteing mushrooms, you need to sweat them first. You need them to release all their natural juices, and then you can sear that off for an amazing sauteed flavor. Put your mushrooms in a pan with your oil or butter (butter is always better, but it’s okay if you want to be healthier) and cover with a lid. Wait until you have a pool of juices bubbling, then remove the lid and cook away the liquid.
  2. Fresh ground spices are better. This isn’t always easy to do, and for some spices it makes more of a difference than others. Grind your own cumin. It adds a couple of minutes to the process, but the amazing smell and flavor will take you to new places. Pepper is another one. Pepper starts losing flavor immediately after grinding. It is well worth it to invest in a pepper grinder. Talk at length to your spice dealers. There is a reason they carry some spices whole.
  3. Chicken fat is gold. I know, I know, we are all supposed to be low-fat and all. But chicken fat is delicious. You can use this to flavor anything. Don’t drain it off when making broth. I freeze the chicken broth and leave the fat in with the broth. This adds rich, amazing flavor to soups and stews. You can also cook anything in chicken fat. I’m telling you that it is almost as good as bacon.
  4. You can roast any vegetable. We frequently roast broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Cut them up and toss them with olive oil and kosher salt. I usually add rosemary, garlic, onions or shallots, depending on my mood and what is lying around. Put in an oven preheated to 450 degrees and let it roast. For most of them, I roast until there starts to be a little blackening, so just past where I’d have thought them done. It’s a delicious side dish to anything!
  5. Potatoes are not just potatoes. It really does matter what kind of potatoes you use, depending on what you want to make. For a nice scallop dish, you really want Yukon gold. Also, I’m pretty sure russets are not good for anything other than a baked potato because you can cover it with everything in the fridge. Yukon golds make way better mashed potatoes. Red potatoes are great for roasting and homefries. And any of the tiny potato varieties are great for roasting!
  6. An instant read thermometer is invaluable. I really knew very little about cooking when I first left my parents’ house. There were some pretty awful disasters as I began to self-teach. My biggest frustration was chicken. I swear it would look beautifully golden brown, but we’d sit down to eat and cut into raw chicken. My instant read thermometers are also invaluable for smoking and grilling all sorts of foods. Also, when a recipe calls for a certain temp on the milk or water, it really does help if you get it right.
  7. Patience. Those that know me will tell you that this is not my strong suit. My first cooking adventure that began to teach me patience in the kitchen was alfredo sauce. You cannot rush it. Hollandaise also had some lessons to share on that subject. I’ve had to develop lots of coping techniques to force myself to allow my flavors to develop and certain foods to come out as they should. Smoking meat has by far been my Yoda of teachers on this subject.
  8. Some people think it is possible to have too much garlic or onion. I am not one of those people. Well, not if your using raw garlic or onions. Dried, granulated, jar stuff you find in the spice aisle can definitely be overdone.
  9. Mise en place is for real. I’m a terrible person about following directions in life, and my mother will surely tell you I tend to dive in headfirst and then worry about whether there are hazards in the water. But all those chefs on Food Network are not making it up. Making sure you have everything before you start will save you so many headaches. There is nothing like being halfway into a dish and discovering you forgot a key ingredient. Going all out, including measuring out spices and such, is also super helpful if you are cooking with a tiny human.
  10. Balance is key. I like hot. I don’t mean I’m a crazy fanatic eating all the ghost peppers and such. Frankly, my stomach couldn’t handle it. But I like spice. However, you want flavor, not just heat. At some point in adulthood, I just stopped liking sweets most of the time. However, if you balance heat, sweet, acidic, etc., you get amazing flavors.

These are just a few things I’ve learned. Most of these more recently (like last decade). I could write a novel on some of the more basic concepts I had to figure out early on in learning to cook. But there are all kinds of cooking for beginners books out there that probably cover those. I probably should have picked up a few!