Monday, March 29, 2010

Home on the Ranch

Remember how I said I am a "dash of this - pinch of that" cook? The problem with this is when I make stuff I really like, I never know exactly what I did to get it to come out that way. Like the ranch style dip I made last night. Yep, freestyle cooking strikes again. I do remember the ingredients I used though! Hopefully if I make note of them while I still remember, it will help the next time I want to make dip or dressing.

"Home on the Ranch" Dip

Sour Cream (I am guessing about one cup)
Regular Mayonnaise - I started with a couple really big spoonfuls, and then added more to get the texture I wanted. Probably ended up with 1/3-1/2 cup mayo.
(possibly whipped salad dressing/sandwich spread would work as well)

Flavor time!
Chives - 1 tsp. -ish I took some in my hand and crumbled it into finer pieces in the dip.
Oregano 1/2 tsp.
Garlic powder 1/2 tsp. (possibly a bit more, what can I say? I like garlic!)
Thyme 1/4-1/2 tsp.
Dill weed 1/8 tsp. Just a tiny dash.
Salt and Pepper to taste. This means I took the S&P shakers and went *shake shake* "Yeah, that looks good."

The dip was very tasty on fresh veggies and on salad. If you decide to be brave and try this at home, and you want to make it more pourable for salad dressing use, I would suggest adding milk or buttermilk 1 Tbsp at a time until it looks like salad dressing.

This stuff tasted terrific to me. My favorite features of this dip:

*I can use different types of sour cream, from the "All Natural" one that is just milk and cream and cultures, to the "low fat/lite" versions.

*It's super-quick to make, took me literally 5 minutes and most of that was opening spice jars and going "Hmmm... nope. Yeah, want some of that. Ooh, definitely this one!"

*I can make sure there's nothing in there that causes problems for my family.
No Hydrogenated oils
No High-Fructose Corn Syrup
No Monosodium Glutamate/MSG a.k.a. instant headache
No artificial flavors or colors

But even with all these "No-nos" there is zero sacrifice on taste. It's YUMMY!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cajun Flavor Chicken & Rice

Last night, I had not planned ahead for dinner, and I had a request from the family for something with rice. I figured, sure why not? I put a pot of rice on to cook, and then got out some chicken and tomatoes...

So here is what we ended up with:

Boneless chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
Heat oil in large skillet, cook chicken over medium heat til browned and tender.

1 cup fresh or frozen chopped bell peppers
1 medium onion, chopped OR 1/2 cup frozen chopped onion
3 cloves minced garlic OR 1 teaspoon garlic powder
Add to chicken and cook til tender and onion is slightly clear.

2-3 teaspoons Cajun style seasoning (more if you like it spicy, less if you don't)!
28 oz. can of diced tomatoes

Stir until mixture is bubbly, reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes to allow flavors to blend together. The amount of cooking time for the chicken ended up working out perfectly with the rice, so it was all ready at the same time.

Since I had never made this before, it was experimental. We had no leftovers, and it was really delicious and filling! This recipe was definitely a keeper.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Carrot Apple Salad

There are probably a million versions of carrot apple salad out there. This one is just my "tinkering" with a classic recipe! The orange juice adds a tangy flavor, and has the added benefit of keeping the apples from turning brown.

2-3 carrots, shredded
2-3 apples, chopped
1/2 cup raisins

1/3-1/2 cup mayonnaise (I used regular mayo, but you could also use miracle whip)
1-2 Tbsp. orange juice
1 Tbsp. honey (optional if using miracle whip, as it is already very sweet)
1/4 tsp cardamom (If you don't have cardamom, you can use cinnamon, allspice, or ginger, but I would suggest just picking one for this dish)

Mix orange juice with mayo one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached. It should be smooth, but not completely runny. Stir in spice. Pour over carrots, apples, and raisins in large bowl. Stir to thoroughly coat with dressing.

The final proof will be in serving it this evening, but based on the little taste I had (yeah, I licked the spoon after I mixed it!) I think this will definitely be a keeper!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sisterly Soup

My sister was kind enough to link my blog on hers! Thanks sis!

She also posted a recipe for Tomato Soup that looks delicious:

The Best Tomato Soup You've Never Had.

It looks like a great meal for a cold winter day, and I will definitely have to try it sometime!

Thursday, January 7, 2010


The biscuit, such an icon of American cooking, and particularly Southern cuisine! For a long time truly good biscuits eluded me. They would be hard, or flat, or crumbly instead of flaky. What's a girl to do when her biscuits aren't quite right? Well, in my case, I asked someone in my husband's family who is legendary for her baked goods: Grandma Nellie.

She told me she uses White Lily brand self-rising flour, and adds a couple tablespoons of powdered sugar for sweetness. She also drizzles melted butter on top of each biscuit as they come out of the oven. No wonder my husband raves about her biscuits!

I tried the self-rising flour, and it did improve my biscuits significantly. However there came a time when I didn't want to buy a separate bag of flour just for biscuits. I don't use self-rising flour or cook things that require it very often.

Here is how I make biscuits:

2 cups all purpose flour (I use unbleached, personal preference)
1 TB Baking powder
2 TB powdered sugar
1/4 tsp salt

Mix together in a large bowl.

Cut in 1/2 cup real butter (one stick) until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. If you have a Kitchen Aid mixer, you can just stir up the dry ingredients with the regular beater, then slice the butter into the bowl and turn it on. It will be coarse crumbs in a minute or less.

Add 2/3 cup cold milk or buttermilk all at once. I like to sour the milk if I don't have buttermilk by putting about 1/2 tsp. lemon juice at the bottom of the measuring cup, then pouring the milk in. Sour milk reacts with the leavening agents in the baking powder to make the biscuits fluffier.

Stir dough JUST til moistened. This is important, do not overbeat!

Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface, knead by very gently pressing and folding dough 8-10 times. You just want to smooth the dough out just a bit, but not make it tough. Not kneading it at all will tend to produce crumbly biscuits, over-kneading will make them hard.

Gently pat or roll to 1/2" thickness. Cut with a floured biscuit cutter. Place biscuits 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until they are golden brown. Drizzle tops with melted butter if desired. Serve hot.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Chicken and Leek Pie

This recipe came from a cookbook my family checked out of the library when we were studying Ireland in our home school. I have long ago forgotten the name of the cookbook, but this incredible recipe stayed with me.

It's very rich, and involves a lot of effort, but it gets rave reviews every time. Because the sauce is not thickened at all, it is very runny. If you prefer pot pie with a thicker gravy in the filling, you can take the broth and make basic sauce with it before adding it to the pie. It tastes great either way!

The ingredients for this are readily available in most grocery stores.
If you've never had leeks, they look like green onions but they are larger and very mild in flavor, most grocery stores do sell them in the produce department.

Chicken and Leek Pie

2 lbs. leeks
1 onion
3-lb broiling chicken
1 lb ham
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp nutmeg
1 c heavy cream
1 short crust pastry (recipe below)

Wash the leeks thoroughly. Trim off the dark green tops. Slice the pale green and white sections. Slice the onion. Place the chicken, ham, leeks, onion, and spices in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, turn down heat, cover and simmer for about 1.5 hours or until chicken is tender. Turn off the heat and let stand covered, for one hour.

Take out the chicken and ham and carve into pieces. Discard bones and any ham rind. Drain broth and set aside. Layer meat and leeks in pie pan or casserole dish, add cream then broth from the pot not less than 1/2 inch from the rim of the pan.

Wet the rim, cover with short crust, crimp edges, trim extra, make slits in center for escaping steam. Bake at 400 for 15 minutes then reduce heat to 350 and bake 10-15 minutes or until crust is golden brown.

Short Crust Pastry
2 c flour
1 c real butter (no substitutions!)
1/2 c ice water or less

Work the butter well into the flour, to a crumb consistency. Add the water, a little at a time, working it in with a wooden spoon. Add the barest minimum to make a stiff dough. Knead the dough by hand until you can form a ball with it. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour. Roll out dough between two pieces of wax paper or parchment paper until slightly larger than your dish. Makes one generous crust.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Basics: Rice

Rice is a staple food in many countries. It can be used as a base for all kinds of dishes, from casserole or gumbo to dessert!

Cooking rice can be confusing at first. Sometimes it comes out crunchy or chewy. Sometimes it's overcooked and sticks to the bottom of the pan. How do you get that nice fluffy rice that tastes so good?

One solution is to get a rice cooker! These things are amazing. Add the rice and water by following the lines on the inside of the pot. Press the button, and it pops up when it's finished!

But what if you don't have a rice cooker, or can't afford to buy another kitchen gadget right now? Good rice on the stovetop is not impossible!

For brown rice, you will need 2 cups of water per one cup of rice.
For white rice, you will need 1.5 cups water per cup of rice.

Here's what you do: Put the rice and water in the pot (or you can use broth, which is incredibly good), add a dash of salt if desired. Cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Turn the heat down and leave it alone while it cooks. Do not stir it. Do not even touch it! You can peek every once in a while, but leave the lid on, we want the steam to help the cooking process.

If you look into the pot and see that the liquid is absorbed, and the top of the rice has little "craters" from the bubbles of liquid, it's time to turn off the heat. Leave the cover on, and NO STIRRING yet! Let it set for 15 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.

Brown rice will take about 45 minutes to cook.
White rice will take about 30 minutes.

If you have never tried different types of rice, I encourage you to experiment a bit. Jasmine and basmati "aromatic" rices are amazing, the smell while they are cooking is heavenly.

Cooking "styles"

There are many kinds of cooks.

Some are "to the letter" cooks. Give them a recipe, and it will be followed to the letter. Everything added at the precise moment, measured to the 1/8th teaspoon, cooked to the millisecond. Being precise and having attention to detail are great qualities in a cook! Baking requires this precision, because it is chemistry. Get the chemistry of your cake batter off, and it will be flat, or too delicate to hold up when you try to remove it from the pan and frost it. Your muffins may be more like hockey pucks. A precise detailed cook will rarely have failed dishes, as long as they follow tested, proven recipes.

Some cooks love mixes. Pre-mixed ingredients are a big help in many kitchens. Just add water! Recipes they love best often involve one package of this, mixed with one box of that, and a can of cream soup. Mixes are really great for beginning cooks as they learn, and younger children who want to get involved in the kitchen. Many of my "Family Favorites" cookbook recipes are this style. Families with food allergies have a more limited selection, but before we encountered our allergy journey, I kept more pre-mixed ingredients on hand.

Some cooks are free spirits. A dash of this, a pinch of that. Add some of those "to taste." Hand a recipe to this cook, and the end result will probably be close to the recipe, but it will have a definite personal touch. Being adventurous in the kitchen can lead to amazing new discoveries, and some that are not-so-amazing too. I have seen this type of cooking described as alchemy, taking humble elements of food and transforming them into something delicious and nourishing, even comforting, by a mysterious and often unrepeatable process.

Recipes from this type of cook can be really grating to the first type of cook. You can't measure "a pinch" of something! How much is "to taste?" Aaaargh!

I am a dash-and-pinch cook. I often make a dish by starting with a basic concept: Soup or stew, for example, and then I open my spice cabinet and see what looks good. I take a sniff here and there, and toss in what smells good, until the supper smells good!

Because I know that this can be confusing, I will try to at least make an estimate on quantities. If a recipe I post is confusing, please leave me a comment asking, and I will try to clarify.

Gray Slop! It tastes good, I promise!

I asked my husband what recipe I should post next. He suggested I share something our family enjoyed, despite it's completely unappealing appearance.

Gray Slop!

This is really simple.

All you do is make mashed potatoes, and brown some ground meat. Throw in some seasonings, powdered garlic, herbal seasoning, salt and pepper. Mix it up, and slop it onto some plates. If you use sausage for the ground meat, that's delicious too.

The great thing about this is that it's fast and cheap.

If you prefer, you can make the ground meat into a gravy, and serve it over the potatoes.

It really does look awful, but the kids would ask "What's for dinner" and the answer "Gray Slop" was always met with cheers!

Basics: Italian Style Red Sauce

Credit for this goes to my friends, Joanne and Elizabeth.

Joanne's recipe contribution to our church's cookbook project got my friend Elizabeth started making her own red sauce. Her raves about how easy and delicious it was inspired me to try it.

I have changed mine around a bit, and to be honest it's never exactly the same as the previous batch!

This recipe is good for a large family. I make it in an 8-quart pot and usually end up with 5-6 quarts of sauce, if you halve the recipe it should fit in a 4-quart pot.

5 large cans of whole tomatoes (The recipe calls for the fancy Italian style tomatoes. I buy the cheapest ones).
One 8-oz. can tomato paste
These are really necessary for best flavor
Onions 2 large
Garlic to taste (I use either 4-5 cloves of fresh garlic, or 2 teaspoons powdered)

Optional veggies to add if desired:
Peppers 2-3 sweet bell peppers
Celery 2-3 stalks
Carrots 2-3 large
Fresh Spinach (you will not even realize it's in there, honest!)
Fresh Mushrooms if desired

or just get an Italian Seasoning blend

Olive Oil
Red wine (optional)

What I do is use my blender. I chop up some veggies to fill the blender about halfway, pour in a can of tomatoes and puree it. More veggies, more tomatoes, pour it all in the pot. Add about 2-3 tablespoons of herbal seasoning, 1/2 cup red wine if desired, a couple tablespoons olive oil. Simmer over low heat 2-3 hours.

This is another one you can freeze if you like. The great thing is, even if your kids don't generally care for vegetables, they might like spaghetti, lasagna, pizza or other recipes using this red sauce with "hidden" veggies.

Basics: Sauce

When two of my children were small, they were unable to have cow's milk. Many recipes I was used to cooking called for "Cream of..." soup. Well, there went all those recipes! Or did they?

The solution was simple, and also healthier than some of the highly processed canned products with MSG and chemical preservatives.

Basic Sauce

The "rule of thumb" is 1 tablespoon of flour/butter per cup of liquid.
Heat butter in saucepan. Add flour and stir til smooth. Pour in liquid all at once. Stir constantly over medium heat til mixture is thick and bubbly. The constant stirring will reduce lumps and with milk/cream sauces will prevent scorching.

The great thing is once you have your basic sauce, you can make it ANY flavor!
Sautee onions in the butter before adding the flour, and you will have onion sauce/cream of onion sauce.

Add broccoli/and or cheese, chicken, mushrooms, garlic, whatever your family likes!

If you add cheese and serve over pasta, you have homemade macaroni and cheese.
Make your sauce with broth, pour over chopped turkey, top with leftover dressing, and bake for a tasty leftover casserole!

Wanting to watch the calories in your foods?
Make the sauce with broth, or add only a small amount of milk. Then you will get some creamy flavor, but it's not as rich as a sauce made with cream or half and half.

Basics: Beautiful Broth

One basic item every cook will need at some point or other is broth!
While broth is easily purchased in cans or cartons in most stores, I find these products are less flavorful than home-cooked broth. Not that my broth creations are "perfect" by any means, but when I get it right, it gels up in the fridge, and tastes "rich" in whatever dish I cook with it.

The basic premise is the same whether you are making chicken, turkey, or beef broth. Time is the key!

To make beautiful broth, you will need a large pot. At least 4 quarts.

In the pot, place one onion cut into wedges, a few carrots cut into sections, and a stalk or 2 of celery, cut in large sections.

Add your meat and bones:
Whole chicken
Turkey frame leftover from a roast turkey
Soup bones (beef, ham, etc.)

If you wish, add a bay leaf (you will need to make sure it gets discarded later! Bay leaf stems are a choking hazard).

Fill the pot with cool water. Place it on the stove and bring to a boil. Scoop off any film or foam that rises to the top, and discard it. Once the water is boiling, reduce the heat as low as you can and still allow the liquid to simmer. Cover your broth-in-progress and walk away!

Let it simmer several hours, all day is better! A crockery slow-cooker is ideal for making broth because you can cook your broth overnight, or while you are busy doing other things, and you don't need to check up on it at all.

Strain your broth, and put it in storage containers. Broth freezes well for later use. I store broth I will use soon in glass jars in my fridge, but plastic is better for freezing broth.

The meat can be picked off the bones and used in all kinds of things:
Pot pies
or anything your imagination can cook up!

The Best Turkey Noodle soup I've had in ages!

Last night, we had Turkey Noodle soup. It was incredible, and we made it all with leftovers/stuff on hand!

2 quarts turkey broth (made from the Christmas turkey carcass, simmered for several hours)
2 cups leftover turkey meat, chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2 large carrots, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1 cup whole wheat shell macaroni
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp sage
1/2 tsp rosemary

We just simmered it until the potatoes and carrots were cooked. It was so soothing and warm on a chilly winter night!

Food and Reflections

Well, after resisting for a long time, I've finally started a blog. I have no idea if I will actually "keep up" with it.

I'm not a shutterbug, so don't expect dozens of pictures.

I hope to post ideas I have about food and cooking. Culinary experiments and their relative success, or failure!