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.

Beer and BBQ Challenge

This crazy little thing happened. A friend of ours, John, competes in a Beer & BBQ competition each year. In April, I got an email inviting me to join his team. I love smoking and barbecuing meat, so of course, I said yes without the slightest hesitation.

The event is to raise money for a local Catholic school. The organizers paid up BBQ teams with a brewery and the basic jest is to create a beer and bbq pairing that go well together. So, the process really got started with a meeting at Haymarket Pub & Brewery where the teams were their assigned brewery. None of us had ever heard of our brewery, Open Outcry, but a well-known brewer had gone there, so everyone seemed to feel okay about it. This was my first time ever doing anything like this, so I, obviously, had no opinion. We briefly discussed ideas, but in a very broad manner, such as noting that it was super hot last year and so maybe we want a light and refreshing menu.

We were told at this meeting to give the organizers time to get our info to the brewers before reaching out. Weeks went by and not a word. Finally, we get an email suggesting a day and time to go visit this brewery. We all meet up on a Tuesday afternoon in the farthest southern end of Chicago I think I have ever gone, short of driving through. But the brewery was beautiful. We tried 6 or 7 beers. We talked about potential menu ideas, but it was all still very loose. We toured the brewery, which has an awesome rooftop if you need to plan an event. We left with only one really solid idea…pineapple.

So we had pork (organizers supply the meat), and we had the idea of pineapple. John had recently smoked pineapple and really liked it. My mind instantly went to Cuban, Latin, South American, you see where this is going. I decided to experiment with a play on al pastor. I researched a lot of recipes for it, including some that were using smoking. I eventually came up with a mixture I thought sounded good. When we were at the brewery, we had tried a bourbon rye or bourbon stout, so I had my husband go to the store and find me the closest thing he could to use in the marinade, and I mixed in and marinated my pork 24 hours.

I smoke the pork for 5-6 hours and then put the pineapple on top for the last couple of hours, kind of mimicking how al pastor is done. I only smoked it to a sliceable point and not to pullable in this time, but it was delicious, if a little on the HOT side. Unfortunately, John was out of town, so he didn’t get to try it. However, he must have believed me or my husband that it was pretty good. I sent him the recipe I used, making a few suggestions on how we could make it better and less likely to set someone on fire. He experimented with it a couple of times, and we had a recipe for the meat.

In the mean time, John had been experimenting with the pineapple. He found that cold smoked pineapple had great flavor and held it’s texture better, and he came up with a fantastic cold smoked pineapple salsa.

We’re on the phone, days before our recipe needs to be turned in and discussing what medium to serve all this goodness on. I suggested arepas. After I finally spelled it and we both googled to find out what all was in them and how they were made, this idea sounded pretty good. John started experimenting with the arepas, and I guess it didn’t go badly because he turned our recipe in with them listed. He also came up with a sweet and tangy vinegar based sauce for our meat.

John had a second tasting out at the brewery. Then he and I met up with the brewer and John’s wife, Jill, and had another tasting with beers, including one none of us had tried but that sounded good. He had made up arepas with cold smoked pablanos, jalapenos, and just plain. We had a very nice hazy IPA, and an ESB. Then we had the Hazy IPA with ghost pepper infusion. This was to die for. We were totally sold, even though we knew it was a big risk given the reputation of those peppers. Oh, and I forgot to mention the brewer happened to have a rye whiskey barrel-aged stout he’d been working on when we came up with our idea, which we used in our marinade for the actual event!

This was one of the biggest cooking collaborations I have ever done. I work alone most of the time, and I’ve never competed in any type of cooking competition, but this entire process was so much fun. I know, you’re thinking “That’s it? You aren’t going to tell us what happened?” Well, I will, but the actual competition weekend deserves its own entry, so it’ll be out in a few days. For now, I just wanted to talk about the process.

Scratch or box?

I’m a child of the 80s & 90s who had two working parents. I grew up on Hamburger Helper and Kraft. This is not a criticism of my parents, My entire generation grew up on these foods. This was still the early microwave dinner era. Suddenly, we could have anything in an instant. I’ve probably had more instant potatoes than would fill a bathtub.

And let’s face it, the instant and frozen foods have gotten way better than when I was a kid. Do they still make Hamburger Helper? I wonder if I could recreate that pizza bake I used to like.

But I digress. You can basically get anything premade, precut, assembly ready, dried, canned, frozen…the list goes on an on. I can walk into the Trader Joe’s and pick up my pizza dough, a mixture of precut toppings from veggies to meats, a can of sauce and voila!

Over the years, though, I have discovered that not only do you pay a premium if you want the pre-made foods that aren’t loaded with sodium, sugar or rat poison, but you are still getting inferior food at the end of the day. I’m not saying the food won’t provide the nutrients to keep you satisfied biologically and yes, some of it is just nostalgic, but you just can’t get the same flavors, aromas, and all around food-love vibe.

My first revelation in this was mashed potatoes. Don’t laugh because it’s true. I don’t know if I had real, made from actual potatoes, mashed potatoes in my teen years. We always had a box of instant. Then, I remember having mashed potatoes made from scratch. I thought they were the most amazing thing ever. I think I was 18 and was at a friend’s mother’s house for dinner. I thought this had to be the most difficult dish ever. (Keep in mind, ya’ll, I didn’t cook yet at this point.) Then I made mashed potatoes.

It turns out it takes maybe a couple more minutes. And they are so good. My favorite are now made with Yukon gold potatoes, sour cream, too much butter, garlic, and heavy cream. And I now own a ricer, so I’ve complicate it more, but omg, so worth it.

Do you know how long it takes to make pizza dough? You can do it in half an hour. The trick is to make the dough and put it in the microwave after heating a mug of water for a minute first. Leave the mug in with the rising dough. Like breakfast sausage? Read the packages sometime, and that opinion might change. But you can mix up a batch of breakfast sausage (Sausage Balls Recipe) and let it sit 30 minutes to an hour, or overnight, and you have excellent tasting breakfast sausage with nothing you cannot pronounce.

And let’s not even joke about those little package season mixes you can buy. You know, you buy the packet, add it to some beef and magically, you have taco meat or chili or turkey gravy. That last one might frighten me more than anything. First, about 50% of them are loaded with 1/2 spices and 1/2 preservatives. I’m not a total health nut, but I’m not big on preservatives, and I certainly do watch our sodium intake because I have high blood pressure, and I want to live at least until I’ve eaten my way around the world. Also, these mixes are far inferior to fresh combinations of spices. You don’t have to go crazy, but keeping the basics around, including fresh cumin and a grinder, makes a far superior chili than any mix I have ever tried.

Last night, I made my own version of Sloppy Joes. My husband has named this the “Disheveled Joseph” as he feels it is too elevated to just be called a Sloppy Joe. However, it was super easy. I had bought a can of the store sloppy joe sauce. I then looked at the can and read how much sodium was in it along with some other things I try to limit, like high fructose corn syrup. So, I decided to make it myself. Our house smelled like heaven, and this one definitely fell into my “make enough for the week” leftovers philosophy. The recipe is posted under the Recipes tab.Discheveled Josephs (my version of sloppy joes)

I’m not saying not to ever buy the boxed or frozen foods. We buy Trader Joes’ frozen pasta dishes and such frequently. Let’s face it, no matter how much I love to cook, there are going to be nights I just don’t have a creative bone in me, and we have a 9-year-old to feed. But I’m finding experimenting with making some of the old favorites from scratch is proving to change the way I look at some of the old favorites.