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!

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!

Meat Alternatives

Having vegan and vegetarian children, I have done a lot of exploring of meat alternatives. From your very basic tofu to more adventurous options. I have to say that even I, the very carnivorous one, have found some truly tasty vegetarian and vegan options. And thanks to all the popularity of such lifestyles, there are so many variations of meat substitutes out there now.

When Katie was around 8, she decided to be vegetarian for a brief period. At that time, the options out there were still pretty slim, and I had very little knowledge of cooking vegetarian. I experimented with tofu. By experimented, I mean I googled some recipes and basically cooked marinated tofu in stir fry. I did discover tofu parmigiana, which was good enough that even my very carnivorous father-in-law at the time liked it. I tried a chocolate mouse but never had any success with preparing soft tofu.

I later experimented with TVP. I failed. I have yet to find a way to prepare that in any form I truly find edible. I know it’s quite popular, so obviously it is the cook in this case. Mostly, my vegetarian involved just leaving meat out of foods such as pastas, frittatas, etc. I did discover baking and frying tofu for various recipes. I also discovered beans as a nice alternative, especially chickpeas and black beans.

I’ve found most of the commercial meat substitute products lacking. I didn’t hate soyrizo, but I’ve tried some Italian sausage and chicken substitutes that I thought were pretty awful. I did learn quickly that you cannot go into eating these products expecting them to taste anything like the meat they are supposed to substitute. They are their own products, kind of like how Taco Bell isn’t really anything close to authentic Mexican flavors.

Most recently, I tried jack fruit. I had heard a lot about this product. My Melanie has raved about it as bbq. I found a recipe for jack fruit and black bean enchiladas on Well Vegan’s site. The recipe had some things I knew our youngest would not eat. I think I have mentioned her aversion to “spicy” and how low that bar can be. So, I adapted the recipe to what I knew I could get away with but took the basic principle of the recipe. I had Melanie and her friend Megan, who is also gluten free, over for dinner. It went over like gangbusters with the two of them. The youngest still didn’t love it, but she didn’t cry or spit it out, so minor victory. And I loved it! We’ll definitely try it again in more recipes.

This definitely inspired me to keep exploring new and exotic meat substitute ideas that are out there. I also just love cooking things I’ve never had before!

Instant Pot

An acquaintance told me about her Instapot recently. It definitely sounded like something I would love to try out. Luck would have it that the husband and I stumbled onto a Macy’s going out of business sale and there was an Instant Pot (not the “Instapot”, another brand). This has to be one of the most amazing inventions ever.

First, you can do all the things. Think one pot meal and this is your best friend. You can saute, slow cook, steam, warm, pressure cook…I mean the thing specifically has a risotto setting! Also, unlike most other kitchen gadgets you find, this one can eliminate other items in your kitchen! I’m going to keep my crockpot, but I COULD get rid of it.

The first thing I made with the Instant Pot was my risotto. I was skeptical, but it came out awesome. The best part was that the risotto normally takes over and hour and I’m stuck standing over a hot boiling dutch oven for most of the time. While the work out to my arms is awesome, it’s also exhausting. In the Instant Pot, I sauteed the shallots, wine, garlic and rice, and then just added my saffron, salt, pepper and vegetable stock. I set the pot in the steam function for 20 minutes. The risotto was awesome!

As weird as it sound, I love the Instant Pot for making pasta. It’s really the equivalent of one pan as far as dishes are concerned, so while it sounds like too much for such a simple dish, it’s worth it. The pasta comes out perfectly done. I’ve done a recipe where you make the sauce first and add the pasta and steam. I’ve also done pesto by cooking the pasta in the pot and adding the pesto after it’s done to the hot pot. In both cases, the pasta was delicious.

My next adventure is going to be chicken. I have some chicken thigh thawed and I’ve found several good looking recipes online. I don’t think I’m going to use one of the recipes, but I will use some ideas I got from them. I’m thinking of a garlic, onion and white wine chicken preparation. I’ll try to remember to update you on how it came out!