Breakfast is Complex

My husband loves breakfast. I mean really loves breakfast. He has a crazy obsession with eggs in most any form. However, I’m really not that into breakfast. Most days I don’t eat it. If I am hungry in the morning, I’ve been known to order the lunch dish if available at local restaurants.

When I was a kid, I remember breakfast for dinner being a big thing in our house. We loved having pancakes for dinner. I don’t even like pancakes at breakfast now. I like eggs, and I occasionally like toast or hashbrowns. However, that is about the extent of my breakfast likes. I mean, I can eat a good frittata or omelet on occasion, but it’s definitely not something I crave or go out of my way for.

I think part of my ho-hum feeling for breakfast is that I find it to be too complex with our multi-diet household. For example, if we make eggs in the morning, my husband turns into a short order cook. He makes fried eggs for he and I and something that resembles the flavorless egg in your fried rice for the little one. If we’re doing scrambled eggs, they either have to be boring and plain or again, we are eating them with ham and cheese and the kid is eating the “flat eggs” referenced in the last sentence.

If we decide to make waffles, pancakes, french toast…all kid favorites, I just suffer through as I’m not particularly a fan and later will supplement with some cheese or meat as a snack. I am also always majorly conflicted on the healthiness of eating a meal that consists of nothing but carbs and sugar. We do things like adding chia seeds or flax and yes, some of the recipes contain egg. But I’m always concerned about carb overload and balancing the diet, especially with kids that would joyfully live on carbs and sugar alone if we didn’t push other things on them. Luckily, they do eat vegetables, but it’s really hard to incorporate broccoli into pancakes!

Going out for breakfast usually makes meeting everyone preferences easier, though if all the kids are with us, we do have to be cautious that the place offers vegan options. It is very challenging to find a place that offers both vegan and carnivorous dishes. There are some places that offer vegan, vegetarian and such that aren’t just solely dedicated to those diets these days, so it’s getting easier. However, the above concerns about the kids diet still exist in that case. I’m just getting more of the food I want to eat, while they’re eating their sugar covered bread.

And don’t even get me started on muffins and donuts as breakfast. Taking the icing off a chocolate cake does not make it a meal. It’s still a cake. And donuts are also covered in icing! These are desserts or snacks, not breakfast. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have them as treats, but these are definitely not what I consider a meal, unless of course, you’re doing something like my Morning Glory Muffins and kind of tricking the eaters!

I do love brunch because it incorporates both breakfast and lunch dishes. I’m sure you can guess which I migrate toward. But if you love breakfast, as my husband does, please enjoy it. Just don’t cringe when I’m eating a steak taco instead of a breakfast burrito! Maybe I can experiment more with making dishes more like my gallette or french toast casserole, which I think both manage to incorporate more brunch like flavors and still have a lot of protein!

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!

Beer and BBQ Challenge – the day before

The day of the event is almost here. We get an email with the breakdown of the schedule leading up to and the event day. My part here is pretty easy. I’m to show up on the day before we actually start smoking meat, cause, you know, that’s my jam.

Friday, I show up at noon at a church/school parking lot. John, our fearless leader, is nowhere to be found. But a nice lady asks me who I’m looking for and directs me to our tent. I hang out a bit and wait. In the mean time, I meet a couple of the other competitors and see what kind of setups they have going. There was one with a really interesting smoker made from an old steel file cabinet. There was a point later where flames were shooting out the top of it that was a bit scary, but I admired the ingenuity.

After John got back from running home to gather more supplies, we go find our 70 pounds of meat. To explain, John had prepped the meat at Haymarket a couple of days before, and they had been storing it while it marinated. There was a refrigerated van they used to deliver it to the site. We located our meat in the truck, piled it on a serving cart and wheeled it off to the kitchen in one of the church/school buildings. Now, it was time to tie it. I’m totally new to this. I’ve been smoking for about 2 years, but I’ve never really tied meat. I learned that it really helps when you smoke meat for so long because yes, it becomes pullable, but it also can just come apart.

John tied four of them up and washed up in the time it took me to do three…or less time. Afterwards, we both wore the splatter cause achiote in the marinade creates a scene that looks like you might want to call CSI.

We get our smokers to the desired temp and we put the meats in. We have a large barrel smoker with 3 racks, so it holds 6 of them and then we have a smaller barrel smoker, that only holds one of them.

The first couple of hours, we’re struggling with the smaller smoker. Nothing will reduce the temp. We choked off all oxygen and it held. This defies all laws of physics, and we just can’t figure it out. Somehow, things even out. John leaves for a bit, and a little while later, both smokers start going insane. We’re talking temps dropping 30 degrees in seconds and other temps spiking just as sudden. I am flustered. I have never used this type of smoker, so I’m pretty much winging it. We eventually later decide the thermometers/blue tooth readers have just gone insane. Our meat temps are great, so the smokers can’t be doing what the thermo readers are telling us. We just roll with it.

Now, what I wasn’t prepared for was the night before the competition. You have a parking lot full of bbq teams who are just basically waiting for meat to smoke and monitoring temperatures. It’s just a big party. We hung out, we drank, we ate…oh the food these people share…if I get invited back, I have so many ideas for food to share that night.

Some folks have big reclining chairs and sleep on-site. A few have computerized monitoring stuff and everyone just leaves. John and I went back to his house and crashed a few hours while a younger teammate monitored the meats, and then he got some sleep in the morning while we did the final prep. I had been prepared to stay up on all night, but I was so grateful when offered his guestroom.

The big day was coming!

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Yes, the blog title sounds like a recipe. And the recipe can be found on my recipe page. However, penne with vodka sauce is more of a bonding experience with my daughter Katie.

The first time I tried to make this dish was a total disaster. No one, not either of my daughters or their father would eat it. This wasn’t one of those things where people politely pretend to eat it or peck at it. It was terrible. The sauce was so bad that I heard about it for more than a decade after that awful dinner episode. It took years before Katie would even try vodka sauce in a restaurant. She discovered, as we all suspected or knew, that it was her mother and not the dish itself that was to blame for that traumatic dinner experience.

A year or so ago, I decided to try this dish again. This time, I used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe. It was fantastic. Since then, my Katie has periodically requested this dish and, between the story and her love of the dish itself, this has become more of a bonding experience than just a simple dinner.

I recently acquired an instant pot, and there will be an entire separate post on that soon, but I tried making the penne with vodka sauce in it. It was a raving success. And it combined my love of experimenting with cooking with being totally lazy. Throw all the stuff in a pot and see what happens. Add a couple of ingredients and serve.

The best part about making the dish in the instant pot is that I got to just hang out with my daughter, who is going off to college soon, for a half hour and just chat. And when it was ready, we had a classic Italian dinner on the patio with great conversation!

Home Fresh

So, we ended up with a free Hello Fresh order this last week. A former neighbor may have an error in updating his address. I contacted Hello Fresh and was told to enjoy. I’ve tried these services in the past, and while some of the recipes are good, and it’s nice having someone just deliver the ingredients, I found them to be very stressful. My husband and I both work full time and sometimes very late. It stressed me out that the food needed to be cooked so I didn’t waste it. So, I gave up those services and instead subscribed to a spice membership for a while. I liked that, but ended up with a lot of spice combos, which is less my thing.

We had three meals that we needed to make, or it was going to result in food waste. I’ve made two of the three recipes so far. The first one was a chicken sausage spaghetti dish. It was very good. I was annoyed that the instructions included “remove sausage from casing.” I’m not lazy or anything, but the casing is then waste. I often buy sausage that is just ground with no casing, so I’m not entirely sure why it was delivered in casings. But that was trivial. What I did note was that the dish could use some spice. The sausage could definitely have been spicier, and it needed like a little red pepper flake or something. But, the cooked onions and bell pepper were delicious.

The second dish was a recipe for Juicy Lucy’s. These were good, but I would definitely make some alterations if I were going to make this dish again. I have to admit, it is unlikely I would make it again. It wasn’t a bad dish. I just didn’t find the cheese being stuffed in the burger any more appetizing than just throwing the cheese on top at the end of cooking. The recipe also called for cooking the burgers in a skillet on the stove. I find this to be the least flavorful way to cook a burger. I prefer the grill above all else. However, if the grill is not an option for whatever reason, your broiler is ideal for making burgers. Use a cast iron skillet and put in the broiler for a few minutes until browned on top and then flip and cook again. You get burgers that are far more akin to grilled or your local pub. The dish also only had potato wedges for a side. It was definitely missing something green or fresh.

The last recipe is for chicken and pineapple quesadillas. I’m not putting pineapple in a quesadilla. I get some people like that kind of thing. I like cooked pineapple with ham. I also recently experimented with smoked pineapple and really liked it. However, I am not generally a pineapple person. So the plan is to alter that recipe and just use the ingredients to make a chicken and cheese quesadilla and serve the pineapple on the side or send it with my husband for a snack during the day.

However, the entire experience has made me rethink the Hello Fresh-type industry. I like that I learn some new recipes. And I like that your meal is planned out for you in advance. My take on this, however, is that I need to go back to pre-planning meals the weekend before and just buy myself the ingredients required to execute them. I used to do this when my older two girls were little, and it worked wonderfully. It’s also good for the budget and health as you are less tempted to order pizza!

Change is a constant

One of the more interesting challenges of dealing with picky eater children is that their tastes also change. And sometimes, they change like a see-saw, so it’s hard to keep up. I mean, my Katie has changed from vegetarian to vegan to vegetarian to pescatarian to eating some meat but not all meats. I literally have to ask any time we’re gonna have a meal to make sure I’m on the current menu!

We all know that our tastes change as we grow. I didn’t really like red meat as a child. It turns out this was partially because my mother only eats meat so well done that most cultures would be making clothing or shoes from it. When I was around 19, I tried a rare steak, and I’ve never looked back. But there are other foods I’ve tried after years of not having and discovered that I now like.

But combine changing tastes with pure stubborn child-like attitude, and man, it gets fun. For example, the 9 year old won’t eat anything that has a texture similar to mashed potatoes or applesauce. However, she loves pesto. I am not going to explain that it’s basically the same texture she claims to not like. Somehow putting it on pasta makes it edible. But short of a penne that had a little kick, I haven’t really found much pasta she wouldn’t eat. I am trying to convince her she should retry different textures as that definitely changes with age. So far, not too open to that idea.

And her food preferences or tastes change so frequently, we need some type of daily briefing to keep up. She’ll eat eggs every morning for months, then one day, the eggs are just left on the plate, and we’re told she’s just kind of tired of them. I recently bought strawberries from a street vendor. She was super excited when I bought them. I gave her a bowl for snack and each strawberry was half-eaten. When I inquired, I learned that she saw a wrinkle here, or it wasn’t worth the work to get around the stem. After a little more discussion, she informed she really doesn’t like strawberries that much. Well, this was new, as she usually eats them up. Next week, we could have a total reversal of this opinion.

The best part is that asking prior to offering the food is of no help. As an added bit of fun, she doesn’t have the self-awareness often to even know that these changes are happening. In her defense, I’m not sure how you would know your taste buds have changed until you try something. But it usually takes a couple of times of her not eating it or eating it weird (I’ll try to explain eating weird in another blog sometime) and us asking a lot of questions to get her to analyze and realize that said changes have occurred. So add food-therapy to our dilemmas?

Oh the fun of having picky eaters!