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!

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!

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.