Mostly about food, this blog is just a place for me to throw things that are of interest to me. I appreciate you taking the time to stop by an look around. This represents just some of the stops on the various pathways that this amateur home cook finds himself.

You may find that these foods tend toward protein and away from carbohydrates - this is due to diabetic issues, so I try to only sparingly use carbs, and good ones at that. Of course, sometimes I forget....

Feel free to drop me a line with any suggestions or just to let me know what you think. Thanks!

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Yá át ééh!

I want to thank you for the time that you spend here, and hope that you can find useful things here.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Italian Wedding Soup, another rendition

Zuppa Di Matrimonio
There are as many recipes for Italian wedding soup as there are mothers-in-law in Italy. Most of the ones I have seen or sampled are quite tasty, but yet thin and watery. With this version, I have corrected that little problem and still kept the calorie count down. Buon appetito!


2 qt. chicken stock/broth
1 tablespoon basil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 bay leaves
1 10 oz. box frozen spinach
1/2 cup Parmesan or Parmesan/Romano mix grated cheese
2 eggs
1 medium to large onion
1 lb. meatballs
8 oz. orzo pasta
salt & pepper

Place the chicken stock, basil, bay leaves, garlic and about a teaspoon of pepper in a large dutch oven. Bring to a low boil over medium heat. Once boiling, add in the thawed chopped spinach and stir to incorporate.
Ina 2-cup measuring cup, add the 1/2 cup of grated cheese. Add the 2 eggs on top of the cheese (without any shell), and add enough water to bring the amount to 1 cup. Using a whisk or fork, thrash the resulting concoction until well mixed.
While stirring the pot vigorously, slowly drizzle in the egg/cheese mixture, a little at a time stirring it in well. We are trying to avoid having lumps of scrambled eggs here.
Take 1 medium to large onion, peel and give it a rough chop, as below. Add the onion and the meatballs into the pot, stirring a bit to have them evenly distributed.
Let's talk about meatballs. I have a few good recipes for meatballs, but I didn't have all I needed here to make them. I defaulted to using frozen Italian meatballs I had purchased from Costco. They are certainly not fresh, but they're pretty good. Next time I'll make the meatballs and post the chosen recipe on here for you all. In the mean time - experiment!

What you have now is something that should look like the picture below. Add in the 8 oz. of orzo pasta, mixing it in well. Bring to a boil, stir well, then reduce heat to low and cover. Let simmer 15-20 minutes until pasta is cooked through.
While you are waiting, chop up about a cup of parsley. I used curly leaf, but flat leaf is fine too.
Once everything is ready to eat, taste for salt and pepper, adjust,add in the chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Chicken & Sausage Cacciatore Carbonara

There’s a pretty decent little Italian restaurant on San Antonio’s far north side that has some very tasty offerings. In particular, I like their take on sausage cacciatore. After taking some home and having it for lunch the next day, I realized that I could probably do a pretty fair job of it myself. So here we go with an enhanced version…

4 chicken thighs, boned, skinned, cut into chunks
4 links Italian sausage, about 12-16 oz. total; 2 wholes, 2 crumbled
2 green bell pepper – stemmed, seeded cut into half-strips
2 red bell pepper – stemmed, seeded cut into half-strips
1 lg. red onion, cut into strips
1 lb mushrooms, cleaned, cut in 1/3” slices - prepared
tomatoes 28 oz can, crushed, or 1 each 15 oz.r can of stewed & puree
4 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
1Tbsp Oregano
1 Tbsp basil
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp rosemary
1/2 cup red wine – Marsala, Chianti, etc.
1/2 cup cooked and chopped bacon

Optional Garnish:
chopped flat-leaf parsley
Parmesan cheese, grated

See Mushrooms 101 for mushroom instructions.

Set a large skillet over medium heat.I quickly put together a simple tomato sauce by adding some olive oil and minced garlic in a large skillet and adding the tomatoes. To this I added some salt and pepper and and the herbs let that simmer.

After simmering and reducing for a while, the sauce will thicken and darken, like this. Stir occasionally so that it doesn't scorch. Now's the time to add the wine and stir all together, then let simmer some more.
Remove cooked mushrooms from their pan. Fry the crumbled and the link Italian sausage until the grease has rendered and the sausage is just starting to brown. Remove the sausage and drain the grease.
Slice the link sausages into 1/4" slices and finish cooking the pieces. When done, drain the grease and reserve the sausage pieces with the crumbled sausage.

Next, take the cut up chicken thighs and pepper both sides lightly. Place the chicken in the pan, waiting until it is lightly browned to turn.

When both sides are finished, remove from the pan and drain. Remove meats to plate/bowl and reserve.
Reheat the pan and add about 1-2 tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the peppers, onions and garlic.
When the vegetables are soft and start to brown, add the sausage stirring to incorporate it. Cook the vegetables and the sausage together for a few minutes. Once all incorporated, add in reserved cooked mushrooms and stir well.
By this point, the tomato sauce ought to be nice and thick.
Add your marinara sauce to the pan vegetables and sausage pan a little at a time while stirring, until the dish reaches desired consistency.
Finally, add in the bacon and mix it all well. Serve hot over pasta. I used whole wheat fettuccine, as it's a little better for you than the regular type.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Shredded Beef Enchiladas

Tired of the old hamburger meat filled enchiladas? This is a nice filling and tasty and hearty alternative. Chop up one medium onion into maybe half-inch pieces. Toss the pieces with a little spray oil (Pam), and sauté them over medium heat in a nonstick skillet until barely translucent.

Gather enough shredded beef for your filling, and mix it together with the onion, stirring until well- heated. Add one 4 oz. can of diced green chiles, mixing well to incorporate. As you prepare the filling, be sure to pour off most of any water or liquid that may accumulate, as you don't want this too soupy.

While this is heating, prepare your tortillas for filling and rolling. Once they are ready, select one tortilla and put a couple of tablespoons of filling down the center. Then roll it up fairly snugly, all the while corralling any filling that may sneak out the ends.

Place the enchilada seam side down in your baking dish and snug against one side. Repeat this for each remaining tortilla.

Once you have them all made, pour your desired enchilada sauce equally over the enchiladas. You can make your own quite simply (not covered here) or use a can of store-bought sauce, whichever you choose. Top that sauce with a nice layer of shredded cheddar cheese and pop it in a 350° over for 20-25 minutes until the cheese is all bubbly and barely starting to brown. Remove the pan to the stove top and let sit 5-10 minutes for heat to even out.

Serve as desired. In this picture you see a nice trio of enchiladas, topped with some fresh shredded cilantro.

Finally, a close up shot of the exposed filling. How could you not want to eat these?

Heck, you can even slide a couple under some eggs for breakfast!

Lower-calorie Soft Corn Tortillas

Usually when making dishes using corn tortillas, you are faced with some issues inherent in the tortillas themselves. When cold, they are kind of brittle and if bent very far will snap in half. If you heat them up, they become so soft that they fall apart, either immediately or when moving them around. The two methods most often suggested to help with this are to slip them in hot oil for a few seconds and then drain, or to dip them in hot enchilada sauce or the like.

I have found an easy way that you can make them stronger for use in recipes like enchiladas, without getting them either tough or hard and crunchy. It also has the benefit of not adding any fat, oil or calories to the process. It's really two steps - heating and tempering. Start off by heat ing a cast iron comal, or medium to large frying pan on the stove over medium heat.

Heat up your corn tortillas in the microwave - fast and easy. I use a tortilla warmer, but you can wrap them in a damp kitchen towel which will work fine. Once you take them out, they will be hot, but you'll see that they are also very soft and fragile.

One at a time, take out a hot tortilla and heat it on the comal, maybe 20 seconds, then carefully turn it over. You may need to repeat this. You will feel when you have heated that 'steamy' moisture out of the tortilla - it will be flexible but not weak. If you heat it too long this way, it will become like leather - toss it and try again. After a little practice you will get just the right consistency, and they won't be oily or soggy either. Give it a try!

Shredded Beef

Easy, inexpensive, juicy and full of flavor!

There are many cuts of beef used for making shredded meat, from top round to chuck roast. Hardly anyone uses brisket, because of its reputation for being so tough. Well, like so many other things, it’s more how you cook it. Brisket is not only full of beefy flavor, it is usually about the cheapest large cut of meat available. Let’s work some magic on it.

First you have to prepare the brisket for cooking. You can’t just take it out of the package and throw it in a pot. Remove the unwanted fat and other stuff, as described here. Then you’ll want to season the meat on all sides fairly well with fresh ground black pepper. We aren’t using any salt at this point for a couple of reasons. We are going to be reducing the cooking liquid, which would tend to make it saltier and saltier. Also, salt will draw moisture out of meat, that’s even an ancient technique for preserving it, so we don’t want to dry it out. Finally, we can always add it later, but you can’t take it out if you overdo it.

Next, you want to identify the grain direction in the meat. In the picture above, you can see that it runs from the upper left to lower right. You will then want to cut the meat in strips directly across the grain, each strip being a little wider than you want the final shredded meat to be. It is a lot easier to cut to length now than after it is cooked when it is so loose. Below you see pictures of both a brisket flat (top) and point (bottom) which have been peppered and sliced against the grain.

Now you can get out your 10” or larger Dutch oven, and add 16 oz. (one can) of beef broth, using reduced or no sodium if available and the same amount of water. Turn the heat to medium or medium-low. After that, into the pot goes the meat. It is okay if it’s not completely submerged, you’ll be moving it around later.

Cover the pot and let it cook at a low boil / simmer, rearranging the meat and adding liquid as needed about once an hour. After 3 to four hours, you will find that the meat has become quite tender, similar to a good pot roast. After 5 or 6 hours, you’ll find that the meat is falling-apart tender. Time to carefully fish it out.

Using two forks take out the pieces of meat one at a time and shred them. Continue this until the meat is all shredded. You will end up with a large pile of goodness like this:

As you shred each chunk of meat, put the finished shreds back into the cooking liquid to keep it moist, because once shredded it can dry out fairly quickly. One of the advantages of de-fatting the meat prior to cooking is that you don't end up with all that grease in the broth that remains. You will eventually end up with a nice big pot of shredded goodness. Use it from here, or you can prep to refrigerate or freeze it in portions, liquid included. Whatever you do, just be sure to keep it very moist, or you’ll end up with shredded jerky.

Brisket Prep 101

This is a tough topic to discuss. For some it will be far more than they want to know, and for some it will be old hat and nothing new. That doesn't make it any less valuable or worth going over one more time. Today’s topic is brisket – popular in many ethnic schools of cooking worldwide, and the pride of Texas BBQ masters. Brisket is known as the most difficult meat for BBQ smoking this side of a whole hog, and frustrates many a home and competition cook. Picking a brisket involves a lot of variables, including weight, shape and grades. All these things may have an affect on your final result, regardless of how you choose to cook it. Brisket is usually available three way: as a whole or "packer" brisket, found sealed in a heavy cryovac bag; as a brisket flat, or less often as just the deckle or point. I always buy packer briskets, as they are usually significantly less expensive per pound and I can prep them how I like. They also have a longer refrigeration/freezer life and less of a chance of contaminants as they are handled fewer times. The packaged flat and points are generally made up at the market, which means they are packaged and handled locally and not as sanitary as the factory anaerobically-bagged ones. Here is a 10 lb. typical ‘packer’ brisket:

On top of all that, I’ve seen briskets from as small as 7 lbs. to as large as 16 lbs. This raw weight can’t be directly used as a measure of how many portions you will end up with, because there is significant loss when cooking a packer brisket. Between all of the excess fat and some shrinkage in cooking, you can only expect to end up with between 50%-60% of the raw weight when you are done.

Brisket, like other cuts of beef, is also available in three grades: Select, Choice and Prime. This is determined primarily by the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, which is present in the beef, but also to some extent by the age of the animal. This type of fat equals flavor, tenderness and juiciness, so Prime beef is the most-marbled – and most expensive grade of beef. In most cuts, it is also the most difficult to find as a great deal of it goes straight to restaurants, and only 2% of beef is graded Prime. Choice is the next highest grade, and is perfectly acceptable for cooking. Select is third-highest grade, and usually the lowest grade found in stores. Meat that is not shown as graded is usually Select, but may be even lower. In my experience, It is worth buying Choice over Select, but except for a few great steaks, the price premium you’ll pay for Prime over Choice is rarely worth it. Try and buy Choice briskets if you can. Notice the imprint (below) on the cryo bag – the ink color is different depending on the grade of the meat. If present, this will either say USDA Select (black ink), USDA Choice (blue ink), or USDA Prime (red ink). If you can’t find the grading stamp on a cryovac bag, go elsewhere. Remember, this system is for beef. There is no comparable grading system for pork, you just have to use your eyes and your experience.

So, let’s get it out of the bag and look at what we have. The first thing you'll notice is that the brisket cut is roughly a long triangle. The brisket is actually parts of two different muscles, held together by connective tissue, and it comes from the breast area of the cow - one on either side between the front legs. Think chest muscle. The wider but thinner part is referred to as the 'flat', and the thicker, more pointed end is known as the point or deckle end. It is important to understand the difference between these two muscles, as you will see shortly. There is also a considerable amount of fat on the surface and within the brisket. One side of the meat (the top) seems to be entirely covered by fat, and the other side (the bottom) usually has some spots and one giant hard knot of fat. If you examine this fat more closely, you’ll see that there are three different ‘types’ of fat on the brisket. The two large muscles are held together by connective tissue and considerable fat. If you have ever had a large slice of brisket, chances are you’ve noticed a strip of fat running down the middle lengthwise – this is that layer.

The first type is a white very hard fat. The second type is like regular deposits or layers of a softer fat, and the third is a thin, membranous fat. You can see examples of these pointed out in the pictures below. The red circles outline some of the hard fat, and the blue circles some of the regular type fat. Once you identify the different types on your meat, you’ll be able to recognize it anywhere it occurs on the brisket.

Top (point side up)

Bottom (point side down)

Trimming a brisket for cooking really depends on the demands regarding how it will be prepared. When it comes to me, however, I always trim it very closely, discarding almost all external fat. This is a source of some amusement to some of my BBQ friends, as it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. The mantra of cooking brisket low & slow is to cook untrimmed and fat side up, so that the melting fat cap “bastes” the meat below. Apologies to all, but that's hooey.

In my experience, the only way in which the exterior fat enhances the moisture in a brisket is that it hinders moisture from escaping, like a waterproof ‘blanket’. Unfortunately, if you are putting it on a smoker, the fat will also prevent the smoke making it’s way into the meat, and will keep any mop or rub you use from actually penetrating and seasoning the meat. As a result, I trim my briskets rather drastically, regardless of how I’ll be preparing it. As long as you pay attention to your cooking methods, you shouldn’t have an issue with drying your brisket out.

First I check to see if there is any patch of old brown surface (shoe leather) on the brisket. This is an artifact from the processing / aging process and is definitely not good eats. This usually occurs along the side, and you’ll want to remove this from your brisket wherever you find it.

Next, I remove all of the hard fat and large globs of regular fat from both surfaces of the brisket. These two pictures below correspond to the two smaller pictures above – same meat in the same position, just with the fat removed. In the pictures below, there are some patches circled in blue. Here you see some thin, light fat areas – this type of stuff is fine to leave behind.

Top (point side up)

Bottom (point side down)

Top (point side up) after trimming off the fat:

Bottom (point side down) after trimming off the fat:

Next, I remove all the hard fat I can from the area between the flat and point. Usually, I actually separate the two pieces completely for cooking, even if I am putting them on the smoker. The point end has much more marbling in it than the flat, and they tend to cook at different rates. Furthermore, the grain in the point runs at an angle of about 45° from the grain in the flat. This is important because brisket is something that you always slice across the grain to serve, just because of all the fibers. If the grain is running in two different directions, that is rather hard to do. Here you can see that I have hem separated, and all the large fat in between removed.

I know this is a lot of trouble, but if you pay attention you will have delicious meat without all the extra fat involved. If you are planning on removing the fat after you cook, I suppose you can, but it will be soft and much more difficult, in addition to all the other negative aspects of cooking with it intact.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Native Supper

A simple dinner tonight, taking our foods from the First Peoples in the western hemisphere. From the Táino peoples of the Greater Antilles in the Caribbean, we have the origins of the sweet potato. Also, from the plains we have the Great American Bison.

And finally from the Four Corners area, we have Anasazi beans and the three sisters of beans, squash and corn. Before the Navajo, there were the Anasazi, who somewhere around the 8th century began to rely more and more on cultivated crops. These included squash, maize (corn) and beans. Although their civilization mysteriously vanished in the 12th and 13th centuries, their food heritage has not.

I baked the sweet potato just like you would a regular potato - you can use either the oven or a microwave, just don't over cook. I also put together a Three Sisters Succotash, and grilled up some bison filets on the super-hot rocket grill. We had a simple, easy to prepare and nutritious Native American supper, with about as few artificial ingredients as there can be in a meal.

Yá'át'ééh, shik'is.

The Three Sisters

Naa'ołi, Naadáá' dóó Naayízí

Succotash is probably *the* original American food. Corn, beans and squash have been and remain the principal foods of many Native American tribes. They are called the sisters because they are often used in companion planting, helping each other to thrive. The corn grows tall strong stalks, but has relatively shallow roots. The beans can use the corn for climbing support, and their roots fix nitrogen in the soil for the corn to use. And finally, the squash provides good ground cover, it's large leaves shading the corn's roots and retaining moisture.

Try this as a vegetable dish whose roots go back a long time. The idea is to make it quick and not to overcook the vegetables.

1 unpeeled zucchini/summer squash, medium dice
2 fresh ears (stripped) or 10 oz frozen corn
1 cup cooked beans (Anasazi, Tepary or any variety of heirloom beans), liquid reserved
2 Tablespoons diced red pepper for color
1/8 teaspoon ground sage
fresh ground black pepper to taste
salt to taste

MethodHeat a large, nonstick skillet (or cast iron) over medium high heat.
If using fresh corn, strip the kernels off of the corn cobs - be prepared to chase a few.

Lightly spray the hot pan with an aerosol oil, like Pam. Toss the stripped (or frozen) in the heated pan, stirring constantly so as not to burn them.

Once you smell the roasted corn and see the kernels starting to brown a bit, add in the drained beans and stir to mix well and heat up. Here is an example of dried heirloom beans.

Once the beans are warmed, add in the diced squash, peppers and the sage. Add in enough of the reserved been cooking liquid to adjust the consistency, then taste and season to as desired with salt and pepper. Stir until all is hot and serve immediately. You still want the squash to be a bit firm, not soggy.

Optional: Add some mutton and make it a stew!

Chimney Grill - fast, good, cheap and easy

I had two small 2" thick bison filets to grill for tonight's dinner, and it is such a waste to fire up a big old Weber kettle for these two small, quick cooking beauties. A good steak ought to be cooked fast over a hot fire, leaving a nice firm crust (a la Ruth's Chris) and still a nice juicy interior. Can you accomplish this in a fast, easy and inexpensive way? Absolutely! Make sure your meat is at room temperature before putting it on this grill.

Like many people who use and appreciate the subtle excellence of charcoal grilling over propane, I use a chimney for starting my coals instead of *ugh* lighter fluid. They work very well, very quickly, and don't leave any funky tastes behind like petroleum. The best way that I have found to start the chimney is to take 3 paper towels, fold them into the size of one, and drizzle some cooking oil in the center.

Stuff this lightly into the bottom of the chimney, and add the desired amount of charcoal in the top, depending on how much you will need. Once you light the paper, the oil will keep it burning much longer than say, the frequently-used newspaper. The paper towels will also completely disappear, unlike newspaper which leaves a big nasty bunch of ashes behind.

Follow the above instructions for starting the chimney, but you only need to add 15 - 20 briquettes. Told you this would be fast and cheap! Light the paper towels, set the chimney on your regular grill, and let it be for a few minutes until your coals turn gray.

Do not under any circumstances use this technique and set the chimney on any type of concrete or cinder block (CMU) Concentrated heat like this produces can superheat the moisture in the concrete, and cause it to fracture violently or explode.

The way the chimney works, it draws air up through the bottom and the hot air from the coals shoots out the top. This burns much faster and hotter than in an open grill, and we can take advantage of this.

When this happens, set a small grate on top of your chimney - this will be your new rocket grill. You won't believe how well and quickly this works.

On go the fillets. You will see and smell the goodness almost immediately. Monitor the cooking constantly, this isn't something you can walk away from. Turn after 2-3 minutes. Repeat until both sides are done. Personally, I use a Thermapen from Thermoworks to make sure my internal temps are right - about 125°-130°. You may actually have to move them on and off the fire so as to not overcook the outside while finishing the inside - it's that hot.

Once you pull them off, cover the steaks lightly with foil and let rest for 5 minutes to let the juices redistribute. If you cut it open now, all the nice juice would run out, and leave the meat more dry. If you wait, you get this:

The best part is that what's left f the coals will soon die out, and you have a much easier cleaning up job than if you fired up the whole grill.