Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I finally made something good in my crock pot.

I know I've been kind of missing in action lately, but I haven't cooked anything interesting in a while. The garden is going, but there haven't been any exciting developments there either.

Yesterday, however, I FINALLY cooked something worth eating in my Crock Pot. As I mentioned before, I was not fully on the slow cooker bandwagon. I'm still not sure, but things are looking up. I only made some shredded chicken thighs, but they came out really well so I'm going to share the recipe. I just ate the chicken plain with guacamole on top, but this would be good in tacos or sandwiches.

Shedded chicken:

About 1.5-2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 bottle of beer
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
1 chipotle pepper
1 TBS tomato paste
1 bay leaf
Salt, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, cumin, coriander, chili powder, granulated to taste

I just dumped this all in the crockpot and cooked it on low for 8 hours. It probably sat on warm for about 3 hours after that. When I got home I put the meat in a bowl and shredded it with two forks. It was so easy, it just fell apart. I added a little bit of the sauce back in to keep it moist, but it wasn't very necessary. I think I under seasoned mine a little bit, next time I will definitely add more spice and more salt.

I served this with guacamole and sweet potatoes. For the guac I just mashed up two avocados with the juice of one lime, about two tablespoons of chopped cilantro, one clove of grated garlic and salt and pepper. We eat avocado with dinner fairly often. It is one of the easiest and most delicious sides out there. For the sweet potatoes I heated the oven to 400 degrees, peeled and sliced the tubers, seasoned them with salt, pepper, red pepper flake, fresh thyme leaves, and drizzled them with olive oil. I let them bake for about 20 minutes so they are cooked through and crunchy on the outside. This is my favorite way to make sweet potatoes.

Anyway, here is a picture of my Crock pot success:

I just want to note we have a decent amount of chicken leftover. I made sure to cook extra because I think part of my problem with the slow cooker was that I wasn't putting enough food in it before. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Homemade Sausage

My husband and I received a Kitchen Aid stand mixer as a wedding gift, and while I was thrilled because I've always wanted one, I wasn't quite sure what to use it for. Since I don't have a sweet tooth and I'm not eating much bread at home I just didn't know what to make. It turns out that the mixer is great for making sausage. I used the last of our giftcards to buy the meat grinder and sausage stuffer attachments and got busy with some leg of lamb I had in the freezer.

Since I had lamb on hand I decided to make a merguez, a fresh North African lamb sausage. I mainly used this recipe, although of course I ground my own meat instead of starting with ground lamb. I also used prepared harissa. There is a great Mediterranean restaurant in my area called Cava Mezze and they sell a line of hummus, tzatziki, harissa and other Mediterranean condiments at local Whole Foods. I love harissa, it's a great dip for pita  (if you want to eat pita) and a really good marinade for chicken. It's also what gives merguez it's awesome flavor.

Anyway, the first step for making sausage was to take the lamb out of the freezer, and put the stainless steel bowls (one from the mixer and one extra) and all the metal parts of the grinder in the freezer. Everything I've read said that sausage works best when everything is as cold as possible. I basically just let the meat thaw enough so that I could cube it and then ground it while it was still partially frozen. I also put my casings (I used Eastman Outdoors casings I ordered on Amazon) in a bowl of warm water to prepare them.

After I had the meat cubed I but it in a bowl along with the flavorings (cilantro, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, coriander, and harissa) and a few pieces of pork fat. I got the fat from the butcher at Whole Foods, I just asked for some trimmings and they actually didn't even charge me for it. It's good to have on hand because sausage needs to be about 40% fat or else the texture gets weird.

Looking back, however, I probably did this in the wrong order. i should have added the seasonings after the meat was ground. I think that would have been cleaner and easier overall. 

After adding the seasonings I passed the meat through the grinder once, using the larger die. This is what it looked like:

I stored the ground lamb in the freezer while I put the stuffer attachments on the mixer. At this point my casings had been soaking for about 30 minutes and I had rinsed them a few times to try and get rid of the salt they were packed it. I chose to use the larger of the stuffing tubes and loaded on my casing. 

Next came the actual stuffing part. This was a little tricky, and I could definitely use some practice. I think I was letting the casings out too quickly and not letting them fill up enough. Overall it's easier than it looks though. The machine really does most of the work for you. Here's my finished product: 

This is actually only about half of the sausage I made that day. I started with about 3 pounds of lamb and ended up with about 20 links. We ate the ones pictured for dinner that night. I just put them in a pan with water and a little bit of oil. The water cooked them through and when it evaporated the oil crisped the skins. 

The sausages were delicious. Spicy but still very fresh tasting. They were much less red than other merguez I've had before, and I'd like to think that's because I didn't use any artificial ingredients. They still tasted just as good as any merguez I've eaten before though. I served them with green beans and a roasted carrot and parsnip soup. 

Next I think I'll try a beef chorizo. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Garden DIY

Although I'm really excited about gardening, and I know (or hope at least) that my efforts will save me money in the future, the start up costs have not been insignificant. So far I've probably shelled out close to $200 on seeds, containers, fertilizer, and soil and besides some sprigs of herbs, I don't have any food to show for it. I'm very hopeful that the vegetables will start rolling in a few weeks from now, but it the meantime I'm trying to save money where I can. There isn't much I can do about the cost of seeds or soil, but I have made some of my own planters.

For herbs, I've been saving two liter bottles and turning them into hanging planters:

It's really pretty easy and the only tools you need are duct tape, string, a hole puncher, and a drill. I also spray painted my bottles with chalk board paint in the hopes of labeling them, but that step isn't necessary. I found the tutorial at Urban Organic Gardener

I've also repurposed some wooden wine boxes into small raised beds. These weren't free, I got them each for $5 at Total Wine, but they are still relatively inexpensive and certainly much more attractive than most of the plastic planters at Home Depot. 

These were also really easy. I just drilled some holes in the bottom then varnished them. I found the instructions at Life On The Balcony. I have four boxes total, but I've only planted one so far. I transplanted my arugula and kale seeds outside to make room for more seedlings inside. I also planted new seeds in rows next to the seedlings in the hopes that I can have a more continuous harvest.

Here's another picture of the transplanted seedlings:

In other news, I think I've found the trick to starting seeds: plastic containers. So far I have not managed to get anything to grow in the Jiffy pots I bought specifically for that purpose, but anything I've put in an old plastic tub or the bottom half of a soda bottle has done great. I planted broccoli seeds weeks ago in Jiffy pots and they didn't do a damn thing. This Saturday I put a few more in the bottom half of a 20oz plastic bottle (I cut the top off) and covered it with Saran wrap and the next day I had sprouts. I think it must have something to do with keeping the moisture in the soil.

In addition to broccoli, I also planted cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes this weekend. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

I have baby plants!

Even though it's just barely February, I've already started some seeds. I know it's probably too early, but I'm impatient and if these don't work I still have plenty of seeds to play with. Plus, it's been a mild winter, so I'm hoping the growing season might start a little sooner this year. Anyway, I've been wanting to garden for SO LONG I just can't contain myself anymore.

So far the only seeds I've had success with are kale and arugula. They both popped up almost immediately and have been growing well for a few weeks.

The one on top is the arugula and the one on bottom is kale. I just have them in old cheese containers with some holes cut into the bottom. I also started some basil, cilantro, parsley and broccoli but those haven't come up yet. Hopefully they will soon. I'm going to be sad if this starting plants from seed thing doesn't work. 

I also started some cherry tomatoes in the Aerogarden I received for Christmas. They are growing well. 

The more I think about it though, the less I like the Aerogarden. It uses electricity and prepackaged nutrients and isn't actually that sustainable at all. At the end of the day I just don't really think it jives with what I'm trying to do. I'll keep using it because I already have it, but I doubt I'd ever buy another one. I guess it's still better than buying cherry tomatoes from South America or something though, so that makes me feel better. Also, I'm currently using the Aerogarden as a grow light for my seedlings, so I guess that is helpful. Now if my herbs would just sprout I'd be really happy.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Olive stuffed chicken breast

I love chicken breast. I always have some hanging around, it's easy to cook and it's usually a crowd pleaser. Let's face it though, chicken can get boring. Whenever I feel like I'm in a bit of a chicken rut I poke around my fridge and pantry and try and find something to stuff the chicken with. This has two benefits, it makes dinner more interesting (and usually more delicious) and it helps me use up whatever odds and ends I might have laying around.

A few days ago I happened to have some olives and prosciutto on hand so I decided to do a "tapenade" stuffed chicken breast. I bought the olives for my Mediterranean salad and had almost a whole jar left over, and as I mentioned before, olives aren't something I eat very often so I needed to figure out something to do with them. I looked up some recipes and didn't seem to have all of the ingredients for a traditional tapenade (I was mainly missing capers and anchovy) but I figured I could still do some kind of olive stuffing. I diced up about 15 kalamata olives and mixed them with about a tablespoon of lemon zest, a teaspoon of minced fresh rosemary, a clove of grated garlic, and some pepper. I left out salt because olives are already salty on their own. I could have done this in the food processor, but I didn't feel like getting it dirty for such a small batch so I just mixed everything in a stainless steel bowl.

A mortar and pestle would have come in handy, but unfortunately I don't have one of those (yet). The next step was to stuff the chicken. I rinsed and dried each breast then used a paring knife to cut a slit in the thicker half of the breast. After that I seasoned the inside and outside of the meat with salt and pepper then put half of the filling into each breast.

The next step was to wrap each breast in two slices of prosciutto. This helps to keep the meat together and the filling inside while cooking. Also, what food isn't improved by being wrapped in cured pork products? After everything was put together I added the breasts to a cast iron pan on medium heat (I think I used a little bacon fat for lubrication, you can use whatever's around) and preheated the oven to 350. 

After searing both sides for about 3-5 minutes each I transferred the whole pan to the oven and left it in there for 15-20 minutes. I served my olive stuffed chicken along with green beans. I just steamed them for 10 minutes, drained them, then sauteed the beans in butter with some garlic, salt, and pepper. In my house we like them soft and a little brown around the edges, but you can make them as crunchy or as soft as you like. This is a pretty common side in our house though.

Here's the finished product:

Overall I was happy with this experiment. The prosciutto was crispy and I liked the olive filling. I could really taste the lemon zest, it added an element of freshness I love. I'll probably make this a few more times, until I run out of olives anyway.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In which I accidentally make meat jello.

Guys, I don't love my Crock Pot. I feel like this is a big confession. I know most people love theirs all to pieces, and I feel a little bit broken inside because of my indifference. But try as I might, I just can't get it to cook me anything really yummy (the one exception being the homemade stock). I've tried a couple roasts and stews, but they are always just a little bit off for some reason. I always get so excited about using my slow cooker, but end up disappointed.

I think the first reason is the complete dearth of quality Crock Pot recipes out there. I don't want to dump in some meat, a package of ranch dressing mix, and a can of cream of chicken soup. I would really prefer to use real food if at all possible. I'm sure some of those recipes taste good, it just isn't what I'm looking for. The second issue is that I think I'm gone too long during the day. I leave the house by 8 and sometimes don't get home until after 7, which is a long time for a slow cooker to run. Mine is programmable, so it can go on low for 8 (or however many) hours and then automatically switch to "warm," but I swear my stuff still gets overcooked. I could still use it on weekends I suppose, but that seems to kind of defeat the point. Anyway, I haven't tried to make pulled pork or Chipotle style barbacoa yet, maybe my Crock Pot still has a chance to redeem itself.

Anyway, my latest slow cooker failure was oxtail stew. As I said in my last two posts, I was feeling adventurous last week. I've been interested in trying to eat from "snout to tail" and exploring different cuts, oxtail seemed like a pretty tame place to start so I picked some up at the farmer's market. I thought I would be able to find a good recipe, but nothing looked good to me so I decided to improvise. I browned the sections of tail, put them in the pot with carrots, half a green pepper, a bulb of fennel, a few cloves of garlic, and a can of chopped tomatoes. I covered it with stock, added some spices, and let it go for 8 hours on low. When it was done I sauteed some grated cauliflower in butter so I could have "rice" to serve with my stew.

The end result was just OK. The individual components tasted good, but there was nothing to bring them together. (Can you tell I watch too much Chopped?) The one good thing (so I thought) was that I'd have plenty for leftovers, and who doesn't love leftovers? Sometimes there is nothing better than not having to cook every meal. 

The only problem was when I pulled it out of the fridge the next day it was JELLO. I made MEAT JELLO. And it wasn't just a layer of fat on the top or anything, the whole thing was like one big Crock Pot shaped, meat flavored, vegetable studded, Jello Jiggler. The Jello salad from hell. Needless to say, we skipped the leftovers and I cooked again.

I always knew that Jello had something to do with bones, since vegetarians don't eat it, but this was a really good illustration of how that happens. It was less than appetizing. I don't eat gelatin often, but I don't think I'll have any problems turning down Jello shots in the future. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Looks aren't everything

Apparently I was feeling very adventurous while food shopping last week, not only did I roast my first chicken and cook fennel for the first time, I also picked up some celeriac, also known as celery root, and decided to try that for the first time as well. It is not a pretty vegetable, but it's January and I know it's going to be a couple of months before I can eat pretty vegetables again.

Turns out it is delicious however! I used a Claire Robinson for Celery Root and Carrot Puree and it turned out great. I mostly followed the recipe, but since I don't have a TV contract that limits me to five ingredients I also put in a little cream and chopped parsley at the end. I was also excited because I got to use the chicken stock I had made a few days earlier. Overall celery root does taste like celery, but it's a less sharp and intense flavor. Adding the carrots mellowed out the flavor of celery as well. Neither my husband or I like eating raw celery, but we both loved this. Robbie actually loved it so much he requested it again for this week!

I served the puree with some spiced lamb. This recipe was originally inspired by a Rachael Ray recipe (which I can't seem to find a link to, sorry) but I think I've changed it a bit over time. 

Here's what you need:

1 to 1.5 pounds of boneless leg of lamb, cut into bite sized chunks 
Spices: I included salt, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, paprika, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and ground cloves
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup of wine (red or white, whatever's open) to deglaze the pan 
1/4 cup of dried currants (raisins would also work)
1 cup chicken stock

Combine all of the spices in a ziplock bag. The amounts, and even what spices you use, are up to your discretion. I put in pretty much whatever I have, with the exception of anything that's dried leaves or something else that might burn easily. This time I think I used a little but too much clove, so I'll have to try to be less heavy handed next time. Anyway, after you have the spices in the bag put the meat in and shake it up so all the pieces are evenly coated.

Meanwhile heat some olive oil and saute the garlic. When it's browned a bit add the lamb and turn the meat occasionally so that all of the meat gets seared on the outside. After that's finished, deglaze the pan with the wine, then add the currants and stock. Cover the pot and let it simmer for about twenty minutes. That's it! This is a super easy and quick way to cook lamb, an ingredient that can be somewhat intimidating. Here's my finished meal:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Roasted Chicken and Homemade Stock

The farmer's market in my neighborhood is technically year round, but I guess we at the time of year when the farmers just have nothing to sell. There were no produce stands at the market last week, which was very disappointing. Next Saturday I'm going to try the market in the next neighborhood over to see if maybe they have more to offer. Anyway, the meat vendor from Smith Meadows Farm showed up, so my trip was not in vain. I bought some eggs and because I was feeling adventurous I also got a whole chicken and an oxtail. More on the oxtail later.

Although I roasted a duck for Thanksgiving, I've never done a whole chicken before. For some reason I found the idea really intimidating and kept putting it off. Man, was I being silly. Roasting a chicken is SO EASY and SO GOOD. Since this was my first time doing it, I decided to stick with a recipe which is uncharacteristic for me. I used Ina Garten's Perfect Roast Chicken recipe and followed it almost to the letter. The only things I did differently were to omit the onions (because I hate them) and to put some fennel fronds in the chicken cavity just because I had them and why not. Since my bird was a little smaller, around 4 pounds, my cooking time was closer to an hour. Here is the finished product:
Golden brown and delicious!
In addition to roasting chicken for the first time, this was also the first time I've cooked fennel. My husband and I both liked it. It has a subtle sweetness and I think it's great for these kinds of applications. Since I dislike onions so much I think I might start using fennel as a substitute for things like roasts, and maybe stews. It isn't my new favorite thing (like cauliflower was, haha) but I'm happy to add something new to my repertoire.

The hardest part of cooking a whole bird is carving it, but I think we managed to do that without butchering it too badly. We each had a breast and a drumstick for dinner.

In addition to providing us with a wonderful Sunday night dinner, I also got enough meat off the chicken to use in four lunch salads and I was able to use the carcass to make stock. After thanksgiving I made duck stock with our leftovers and I did that on the stove top since I was home from work and had the time to babysit it. This time I decided to try the crock pot, however, and it worked beautifully. Basically I just threw a bunch of stuff in and left it alone. First I added the carcass, and I left the aromatics inside the cavity. I figured they couldn't hurt. Then I added spices, mostly red pepper flake, bay leaf, thyme, and rosemary. I think I also added additional salt. I threw in the leftover roasted fennel and carrots, then added more carrots and two stalks of celery in addition to more fennel tops. Recently I read that putting acid in a stock helps leach the nutrients out of the bones and into the stock, which is where you want it, so I also put in a few dashes of apple cider vinegar. I covered it with water and left it on low for 20 hours. The result was beautiful, I got over two quarts of lovely, rich, dark brown stock.
I forgot to take a picture before I strained it, sorry!

I strained it into a pitcher so I could just pour it into whatever I want to use it for later in the week. I'm just obsessed with the color. It's so much darker than the store bought stocks or broths. Even Kitchen Basics, which was my preferred brand, is a few shades lighter than this. Making the stock was so easy I really have no excuse to ever buy it again. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Meat and Potatoes

Potatoes are a bit on a controversial food for me. They aren't really an approved part of any Primal or Paleo diet but they are just so delicious and versatile it's hard for me to give them up altogether. Luckily I have found some great substitutes, like pureed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes, but I still haven't found anything to replace really delicious roast potatoes. So, I just eat them. Not often because of the high carbohydrate content, but on occasion. Probably about once every two weeks.

In any case, Friday night I had some beautiful New York Strip to cook, and what better to pair it with than roast potatoes?
This whole meal is a great example of how simple food can be delicious. The steak was simply crusted with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper then seared for about five minutes on each side in a cast iron skillet. For the broccoli, I just steamed it for about 5-7 minutes then sauteed it in butter with a little bit of garlic. This is pretty much how I cook most vegetables. It makes anything taste good.

The potatoes were a little bit special, though. I still had some duck fat left over from Thanksgiving so I coated the small halved potatoes with that. In addition to salt and pepper, I also grated a clove of garlic on the spuds and added a bit of rosemary. I put all of the potatoes cut side down on a baking sheet so that they would have a lot of contact with foil and get extra crispy. I roasted them at 400 for about 20 or 25 minutes. They turned out perfect, very crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, and the duck added an interesting flavor. I know not everyone has duck fat on hand though, and I think bacon grease would work equally well.

Overall, this was a very quick and simple meal, but it still felt special, a little celebration for the end of the workweek.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy 2012 everyone! I know I'm a bit late, but better late than never. I've also been a bit MIA lately, sorry about that. My husband and I were in Italy on vacation eating lots of delicious although mostly carby food. Now that vacation and the holidays are over, however, I'm ready to get back on track with old goals and start working on some new ones.

So far my goals for the upcoming year are to
-Recommit to eating Primal. I let myself cheat a bit too much in the last few months and I could tell the difference, both in the way I looked and in the way I felt.
-Stop drinking Diet Coke. For real this time!
-Continue to avoid the grocery store whenever possible. This also involves finally ordering some bulk meat from a local farm. I need to get a freezer before we do this, but hopefully I can do that before March when Polyface starts delivering meat again.
-Experiment with other things to make my lifestyle more sustainable, like perhaps washing my hair with baking soda or making my own green cleaning solutions.
-Keep working on my garden. It was going pretty well, but everything kind of died while I was away. The herbs, lettuce, and kale are all really droopy, I think they froze at night. The oregano, rosemary and thyme seem good though, so I think they can be salvaged. I'm not too disappointed, I knew this might happen, and I'm was planning on planting replacements for the things that died anyway.

Speaking of gardening, I just placed my order for seeds from Baker's Creek Seeds. Here's what I'm getting:

Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli
Long Island Improved Brussels Sprouts
Tonda di Parigi Carrots
Snowball Self-Blanching Cauliflower
Violetta Itallia Cauliflower
Marketmore 76 Cucumber
Florida Market Eggplant
Forellenschluss Lettuce
Hollow Crown Parsnip
Early Prolific Staightneck Squash
Black Beauty Zucchini
Spaghetti Squash
Butternut Rogosa Violina Giosa Squash
Mary Robinson's German Bicolor Tomato
Yellow Pear Tomato
Amish Paste Tomato
Genovese Basil
Italian Parsely

All of these are organic and heirloom varieties. I'm also getting some Lacinato (Dino) Kale seeds from Amazon because Baker's Creek didn't have the kind of kale I wanted. I just can't wait for all my stuff to come in so I can start seedings in mid-February! I also need to get some containers and soil between now and then, but I'll work on that later. I also want to start growing tomatoes in my new AeroGarden and try to sprout the orange seeds my friend Brittany gave me for Christmas. I think I have a busy few months ahead, but I'm excited for this new challenge!