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A Change To Beef Stew

Earlier this week I was flipping through the most recent issue of Real Simple magazine when I stumbled on a recipe for a Slow-Cooker Shepherd’s Pie. The picture was enticing.  It looked like a pile of mashed potatoes surrounded by a beef stew, and that stew looked luscious!  I read the recipe through a few times and had questions.  One of the more interesting aspects of it is that you combined the beef and vegetables in broth, and then you nestle whole, peeled potatoes in the broth.  Once cooking time is up, you remove the potatoes and mash them up to be a separate component.  It’s an interesting idea.

The thing about that is, though, honestly, one of my least favorite things to eat is potatoes that have been cooked with beef.  I don’t know why that is, and I’ll eat them, but I don’t care for the flavor of a potato that has been cooked with a pot roast, or in a pot of beef soup, or tumbled into beef stew.  They are my least favorite bites of the whole meal.  But when I saw this picture of the mashed potatoes surrounded by stew, the wheels started turning.  Just last weekend I’d made a roasted chicken dinner and a large pot of mashed potatoes accompanied.  Those leftover potatoes have sat in the fridge all week, just begging for an opportunity to be put to use before they expire.

Another thing about the recipe in the magazine that I was hesitant about was the fact that it called for a cup of dark beer as an ingredient.  I’ve cooked with beer from time to time, and usually you can’t pick it out at the end, but I wasn’t entirely sure that using beer in the crock pot was going to be the best idea when 3/4 of my family does not like the taste of beer.  On top of that, Andy didn’t really have anything on hand that I thought would have the same profile as a cup of Guinness would.  So I eliminated the beer and reduced the volume of liquid overall.

When I went shopping for the beef to put in the stew, the recipe called for a chuck roast, cut into pieces. My intention had been to pick up a chuck roast, but right there next to the chucks was a large package of stew meat with a reduced sticker on it, so I went for the stew meat instead.  Hey, it was already cut up and prepared for me, I like that when I’m popping things into the crock pot to cook all day!

And finally, when all was said and done, I totally forgot to add any frozen vegetables as the magazine indicated.  They called for frozen peas for the last five minutes or so, and it just completely slipped my mind, so we didn’t have any extra veggies in the stew.

And honestly, it didn’t need it.  For being such a simple assembly of ingredients, this stew was delicious!  I already have an Oven Baked Stew that I really like and make often, but I have to say, I think I liked the flavors of this one even better, in spite of its simplicity.

And the whole idea of serving beef stew over mashed potatoes?  This was genius.  It was so homey and comforting.  I would make mashed potatoes from scratch just to do that again.  I don’t think I would take the magazine’s suggestion and cook the potatoes in the stew itself, just on the stove like any other time I make a pot of mash.  But do it again?  Most definitely.  This may be my new favorite beef stew- and way to eat it.  Because you know how you have a bowl of beef stew and you usually need some fresh bread or rolls to help you sop up the gravy left on the plate?  The potatoes do that for you in this case, and it’s just so much more delicious.  Like an elevated mashed potatoes and gravy.

I changed the recipe so much from its original version, that I am posting my new version below with a new name.

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Simple Slow Cooker Beef Stew

2 pounds beef stew meat
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large onion, peeled and diced
1 1 /2 cups beef broth
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups frozen peas (optional)

Directions:

Combine all the ingredients in a 4 to 6 quart slow cooker.  Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours.  Stir the frozen peas in about ten minutes before serving to give them time to cook through- if you are using them.

Cottage Pies. Amazing!

Oh my goodness.  Last night’s dinner was spectacular. It was a repeat of a dish I’ve made several times before, but never quite in this same way.  I’ve posted about this dish before- the original recipe came from Eating Well magazine several years ago.  Every time I’ve made it I’ve tweaked it here and there, but last night it finally arrived.

I think the big key to how delicious it was was that last night I finally made the cottage pies in individual portions.  I usually just use one large baking dish and make one large cottage pie that we all scoop out of.  Last night I used my French Onion Soup crocks and made four individual portions of these cottage pies.  They were absolute perfection.  The proportions in every bite were perfect.  I loved the kale added to the beef, but I especially loved the smoked paprika added to the squash.  Everything melded together perfectly, and it just was a personal bowl of yum.

Make these.   I used kale in the dish because I spent yesterday cleaning out the garden- everything except the kale plants that are still going strong.  So I harvested some of the kale and thought this cottage pie would be a great place to add the kale without it taking over.  It absolutely worked perfectly.  If you don’t like kale or don’t want to use it, you can use spinach or any green you prefer.  Or even green peas or diced carrots, really.  It’s pretty adaptable to whatever veggies you have on hand and want to include.

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Squash-Topped Cottage Pies

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup beef broth
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
3-4 cups chopped kale
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 teaspoon salt
few grinds fresh black pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/3 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese

1. Position rack in upper third of oven; preheat broiler.

2. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the bell pepper and garlic and cook for another minute.  Reduce heat to medium, stir in ground beef and cook until browned. Add the tomato paste, salt, pepper and flour, and cook, stirring, for just a minute or two until everything is incorporated. Add broth and Worcestershire sauce, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the broth is the consistency of thick gravy, about 4 minutes. Stir in kale and cook until wilted and most of the liquid has disappeared- about 5 more minutes. Remove from the heat.

3. Place squash in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and boil gently until the squash is tender- about 7 or 8 minutes.  Drain and transfer to a bowl. Stir in the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, a few grinds of pepper and the smoked paprika. Divide the meat mixture among four 10-ounce broiler-safe ramekins or soup bowls. Top each with about 1/2 cup of the squash. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet. Broil until heated through and bubbling around the edges, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with cheese and broil until it is just melted, about 3 minutes more.

A Twist On Chicken Pot Pie

A small change has come upon The Waz household this week which is a very welcome change.  After working out of town Monday thru Thursday since…hmm… I don’t remember, it’s been a long work season away from home, Andy is now home every evening from work.  Their job site this summer is over a 90 minute drive from home, so they’d been staying overnight at a local hotel. They do that so that they can work while the sun shines and still get a decent night of rest before the next day.  Daylight Saving rolled around though, and since it’s well and dark by about 5:00 pm, they have plenty of time to drive home, eat a good meal, and get a good night of sleep before the next day.  Andy never minds an early morning commute, so he’s pleased with the change.  For me it means that I have the opportunity to have a little more fun cooking all week long instead of just on the weekends.

You wouldn’t think that would change things much, having Andy gone so many days a week.  I mean, we all need to eat. But I would hesitate to make any of his favorites when he was gone, but then he’d come home for the weekend and it was a mad scramble to make sure he ate good meals at least on the weekend.  That led to a fridge full of leftovers for the week that probably didn’t get eaten by the rest of us.  Further compounding our problem was that Andy’s hotel did not have a microwave available for him to use.  Eating out every day gets old so fast, so we let him take the microwave with him every week.  Wow, we’ve often talked about eliminating the microwave from our home.  I really don’t use it very often, and it takes up a ton of space.  But once without it, I realized how much I do rely on it.  It takes a while to soften a stick of butter on the counter when you want to bake cookies and it’s only 65 degrees inside.  All those leftovers in the fridge?  Require multiple pots and pans to re-heat and consume for another meal instead of just making a plate and giving it a zap.  Leftover Chinese take-out was definitely not as good warmed up in the stove as it would have been in the microwave.

So.  Now Andy is home every night for dinner, so he’s eating much better.  We have the microwave back so I can use the leftovers a meal generates and not be wasteful.  And overall we get to settle into a new normal again.  For a few weeks anyway until something changes again!

Yesterday morning I was puzzling about what to make for dinner when I saw something pop up on my Facebook feed.   It was an Alfredo Chicken and Biscuit bake that was somewhat intriguing.  I read through the recipe and discarded it when I saw it called for jarred alfredo sauce as well as canned biscuits.  On top of that, you cut the biscuits into pieces and then folded them into the saucy chicken, and I just couldn’t see that working quite right.  I envisioned gummy nuggets of biscuit and that didn’t sound good at all.  But I liked the idea of those things combined, so I decided I would put together my own creation.  I already had leftover chicken sitting in the freezer, so I pulled that out to thaw, as well as a couple of cups of frozen mixed veggies and set to work.

The first step was the alfredo sauce.  Real, honest-to-goodness alfredo sauce is made with heavy cream, Parmesan cheese and butter.  So decadent and delicious, but this was going to bake in the oven for a bit after it’s creation, and plus I did not have heavy cream on hand.  I opted to follow my recipe for Creamy Macaroni and Cheese with a few changes.  The first change was garlic, and lots of it.  I minced up four large cloves and threw those in the pan while the butter was melting.  Once the butter was very fragrant and the garlic somewhat cooked, I added 1/4 cup of flour and stirred that in to make a roux.  Next I stirred in one can of evaporated milk, and then used the milk can to add one can of water to the pan as well.  I whisked that together until it just started to bubble up, and then added salt, pepper, and 1/2 of a cup of freshly grated Asiago cheese.  Once the cheese was melted- which was almost instantly- I stirred in my chicken and frozen veggies, and then turned off the burner and set it aside.

Next I needed the biscuits.  My biscuit recipe is quick and easy, so I made up a batch of that for rolling them out (as opposed to drop biscuits, which is what I usually do).  I cut out the biscuits with a circle cutter, and then cut each circle into quarters. I re-rolled my dough a few times until I’d used almost all of it up. I had a nice little pile of biscuit nuggets, so then I assembled my casserole.

First the chicken-alfredo mixture when into a 9×13 pan, and then I scattered the biscuit nuggets evenly over the top of that- pressing them in just a touch.  Finally, 2/3 of a cup of a Parmesan/Asiago/Mozzarella cheese plend went over the whole thing and it went into a 425ºF oven for 35 minutes- or until the top was nicely browned.

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This was really good!  It was a tasty change to a regular old chicken pot pie.  I loved the addition of the garlicky alfredo sauce.  The once change I would make- and my recipe below reflects that- is that I would add some flavor to the biscuits from the inside.  Namely, a hint of garlic powder, black pepper, and Parmesan or Asiago cheese.  But other than that, it was a very nice dinner and a slightly different way to utilize chicken leftovers.  Note: My recipe below assumes that you want to make everything from scratch.  By all means, if you like jarred alfredo sauce, feel free to use that.  If you like canned biscuits, go ahead and use them.  Your ingredient list will be much smaller then.

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Chicken Alfredo Casserole

 Sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
12 ounces of water (use evaporated milk can to measure)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, Asiago or Romano cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups cooked, shredded chicken
2-3 cups (or one package) frozen mixed vegetables
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, Asiago or Romano cheese (or a blend)
Biscuit topping:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 stick of butter
2/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425ºF.  Grease a 9×13 baking dish with butter or cooking spray and set aside.

In a saucepan, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  Once melted, add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes, or until nicely fragrant.  Whisk in 1/4 cup of flour until nice and creamy and smooth.  Slowly add the evaporated milk, followed by the water, stirring constantly.  When the sauce begins to bubble, add 1/2 cup of your grated cheese plus salt and pepper.  Stir until the cheese is melted and fully incorporated.  Add the shredded chicken and the vegetables.  Mix well and remove from heat.  You can now pour the chicken mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread it evenly.  Set aside.

To a fresh mixing bowl, add the 2 cups of flour, baking powder, sugar, cream of tartar, salt, pepper, garlic powder and grated cheese if using.  Mix well.  Using a pastry blender, cut in the stick of butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the milk all at once and stir just until the dough starts to come together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough a few times with your hands- just until everything has come together.  Roll or pat the dough into 1/2-inch thickness.  Cut with a 2 1/2 inch biscuit cutter, and then cut each circle into four even pieces with a knife.  Gather the scraps and re-roll- repeat until you’ve used all the dough.

Scatter the biscuit pieces evenly over the top of the chicken mixture in the baking dish.  Sprinkle your remaining half cup of grated cheese over the top of everything and pop into a 425ºF oven to bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is hot and bubbly.

Makes 6 servings.

Deluxe Chocolate Marshmallow Bars

It’s a beautiful thing when your children get old enough to bake or cook on their own.  When the fancy strikes, Abigail just gets in the mood and wants to bake something, and we’re almost always pleased with her creations.   Today’s recipe is no exception.  Deluxe Chocolate Marshmallow Bars start with a layer of brownie, followed by a layer of marshmallow, followed by a layer of a chocolatey-peanut buttery-rice krispie thing.   She made these bars for a conference weekend, and they were the perfect bit of sweet to follow (or precede) our quick meals that weekend.  The bars actually came together quite quickly, even though there are multiple steps to them.   We also decided they needed a few small changes, and my recipe below reflects those changes.

The original recipe called for just 4 cups of mini marshmallows, which you melted in the oven and then spread out over the bars.  I thought about how irritating spreading melted marshmallow was going to be, and instead, we just used an entire bag of mini marshmallows and spread them out over the whole pan of brownie before baking.  One bag is the perfect amount to cover a sheet pan.

The other change we made is to the topping.  We thought the recipe as written did not have quite enough for the sheet pan, so I multiplied that as well.  Work quickly when you spread the topping- the chocolate and peanut butter set up quickly.  By the time I finished pouring the topping on one side of the pan, the other side had already started firming up.  Increasing the amount of topping makes the spreading part easier, so it should go well for you should you decide to make these.

Definitely make them.  They were delicious and not cloyingly sweet in the least.  The crunch of the krispies makes this a very satisfying dessert square to serve at an upcoming gathering.

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Deluxe Chocolate Marshmallow Bars

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons baking cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional, and we left them out- they don’t need the added richness)
1 bag of miniature marshmallows
Topping:
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter
5 tablespoons butter
3 cups Rice Krispies Cereal

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF and grease a sheet pan well.  (We used an 18 x 12 sheet pan.)

In a small bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat in vanilla.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt; gradually add it to the creamed mixture.  Stir in nuts if using.  Spread in the already greased pan using an offset spatula.  This layer will be thin, just spread it evenly to the edges and corners.

Bake at 350ºF for about 15 minutes, or until set.  Spread the marshmallows evenly over the whole surface of the bars.  Bake for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until melted, but not toasted.  Cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping, combine the chocolate chips, peanut butter and butter in a saucepan.  Cook and stir over low heat until blended.  Remove from heat.  Stir in the Rice Krispies and immediately spread over the bars.  Allow to cool completely before cutting into them.

In Which Zander Makes A Pavlova

One of our primary focuses in our homeschool this school year is world geography.  For the most part, our main social studies focus is always on history, and this year Zander is combining the two with a study of the Eastern Hemisphere- a part of the world rarely studied in-depth in American schools.  He’s studying the history and the geography of Australia, Africa, Asia, Antarctica, and all the little island nations floating in that general area.  It’s a fascinating study- one that Abigail enjoyed for her sixth grade year, so I thought it was worth repeating with the little man for his own journey through sixth grade.

As he studies each region or country, the opportunity comes up to do a project related to that area of the world.  Things like research reports, craft projects, topography mapping are some of the recommendations in the guide we are using.  Of course, there are frequently food suggestions, but I confess, I didn’t really see Zander choosing many of the food options this year.  He’s not been as interested in cooking as his sister, and though he will definitely learn how to cook before he leaves the nest, it won’t be by his choice.

Or will it?

Because when he saw the options given for the country of New Zealand, he very quickly told me he wanted to make a pavlova.  Then he asked me what a pavlova was.   As soon as he saw the pictures, he wanted to go ahead with the project, and since I had everything necessary on hand, we sought out to learn to make a pavlova together.

I’ve only ever had pavlova once, and that was many years ago when we were hosting a weekly group in our home. A friend made a pavlova, and while I absolutely loved it, for some reason it never came to me to make one myself.  Be assured, it’s going into the file as something to consider for company in the future, because Zander and I discovered that it is actually very easy to make.

The difficult part is carefully separating the 4 eggs needed for the recipe.  Zander has seen many a cooking show where separating eggs proves to be a challenge, so he was a little nervous about that step, but managed with flying colors.  After that, it was really easy to beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and then add the remaining ingredients.  We made one large pavlova, which Zander spread out into a 9-inch circle, and then baked for one hour at 300ºF.  Once it cooled, we smeared on some lightly sweetened whipped cream, and his choice of fruit was raspberries.  The tangy raspberries were absolutely perfect with the sweet meringue base.  The only thing I would have liked better would have been many more raspberries- Zander was a little sparing in his decoration.  But overall, the pavlova was impressive and delicious.

We’re moving into Japan this week for school, and I really hope he chooses another cooking challenge.  Eating our way through Asia sounds absolutely wonderful to me!

One quick note about this recipe. I’ve seen many instances over the years of people trying to cut back on the amount of sugar in baked goods.  By all means, if that is your M.O. keep doing it, just don’t do it for this recipe.  The proportion of sugar to egg whites and cornstarch is critical to the success of the meringue holding it’s shape and texture.  If you want to reduce the sugar, do so with the toppings.  I sweetened our cream with a few tablespoons of powdered sugar, but you can certainly skip that part.

Oh, and surprise of surprise, this held perfectly overnight in a refrigerator. I expected that when we went to get it out the second day it would have softened and turned into a pile of goo, and that was not the case.  It was just as good the second day as it was the first.

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Pavlova

4 egg whites
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 pint of heavy cream
fruit of your choice for topping
Directions:

Preheat oven to 300ºF.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Draw a 9-inch circle on the parchment paper with a pencil.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.  Gradually add in the sugar, about 1 tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat until thick and glossy.  Gently fold in the vanilla, lemon juice and cornstarch.

Spoon mixture inside the circle drawn on the parchment paper.  Working from the center, spread mixture toward the outside edge, building edge slightly.  This should leave a slight depression in the center.

Bake for 1 hour.  Cool on a wire rack.

In a small bowl, beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form; set aside.  Remove the paper and place the meringue on a flat serving plate.  Fill the center of the meringue with whipped cream and top with the fresh fruit of your choice.

Facebook Recipe: Caramel Apple Sheet Cake

Every day I would say there are dozens of recipes that scroll across my facebook feed.  There are many that catch my eye, but then I’m frequently disappointed when I click on them and they end up being something that started with cake mix or cookie dough or some other product that I might not use.  I expected this cake to be the same, and was surprised when I clicked on it and discovered that it was an actual scratch cake.  That very same day Andy asked if I could possibly be persuaded to make him a pan of Gooey Apple Sheet Cake to take to a work party for Monday Night Football.  It was serendipitous, and I told him I would definitely make the cake, but it would be a Caramel Apple Sheet Cake instead.  I mean, how could that be bad?

It came together quickly, and also baked quickly, but since it was going to a party, I was unable to sample anything more than a few swipes of batter.  Monday night the report came in that it was a huge success, practically gone within 10 minutes of being unveiled.  My sweet husband directed all his co-workers to this blog for the recipe, and then texted me that I needed to post the recipe on the blog.

While I was happy to accommodate, what kind of food blogger would I be to post and review a recipe that I hadn’t actually sampled?

And so a second sheet cake came into being this week.  It IS quite good- gooey and buttery and full of apple flavor, but for the sake of full disclosure, I have to confess that I think it’s missing something.   I did alter the original recipe a touch by adding salt to both the cake and the glaze, and I’m sure that was a good call.  But I still think there is something missing.  I thought about adding a half cup of chopped pecans, and the only reason I didn’t is because Zander is not crazy about nuts in his baked goods.  It turns out that I could have added the nuts because he doesn’t care for the cake anyway.

Since Andy is working out of town these days, it’s a bit of a challenge for us ladies to consume an entire sheet cake, and because it’s so gooey, it’s not really shareable.  But it IS good, and I definitely recommend it.  The next time I will sprinkle the finished product with toasted pecans before the glaze sets up- I think that may take care of the thing that is missing.

Follow the directions carefully on this one- the process is a little strange with melting things together and adding them to the flour, but it worked.

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Caramel Apple Sheet Cake

2 cups flour plus 2 Tablespoons flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
1 cup water
½ cup shortening
½ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups peeled and chopped green apples

Frosting
½ cup butter
6 Tablespoons milk
3½ cups powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
? cup caramel sauce- ice cream topping is good

 
Directions:

In a large mixing bowl, measure flour, sugar and cinnamon and stir to combine. Set aside.

In medium sauce pan combine butter, water, and shorting. Bring to a boil. After mixture reaches a boil add it to the four mixture and stir to combine.

Add buttermilk, then baking soda, then eggs, then vanilla in that order, mixing in between each addition. Stir in apples.

Pour into a 15×13 inch greased jelly roll pan.

Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes. Let cool for about 10-15 minutes.

While cake is cooling, make frosting by combining butter, and milk in a medium mixing bowl. Microwave until butter is melted. Add powdered sugar, vanilla, and caramel sauce and stir until smooth. Pour frosting evenly over cooled cake.

Lacto-Fermented Salsa

I have wanted to try this recipe for a very long time.  Every time I see the recipe or have a discussion about fermented foods (what, you don’t have those?) my thoughts drift to this salsa and I wonder what it tastes like.  Yet, I’ve never done it, mostly because it doesn’t make sense in my head.  Have you smelled rotting tomatoes?  Very unpleasant.  I just couldn’t see wanting to eat that smell, you know?

But this week my garden gave me an unexpected parting gift of a whole basket of fresh tomatoes.  They are not the best of the season, but they were certainly unexpected.  Since they were a bonus, I decided this was the time to try the lacto-fermented salsa recipe in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon.  I followed the recipe precisely, except when it came to the tomatoes.  I did not peel or seed the tomatoes as directed, as I never do when I make salsa.   Oh, and I also eliminated the oregano.  Not a big fan, and I wanted to try the salsa without it.

I mixed all the ingredients together in my quart jar, and then added a two-piece lid.  Then it sat on my counter.  The next day I popped the lid for just a moment- in case there was any gas in there that needed to be released.  The second day I did the same- especially after I pressed down on the lid and met no resistance.  That day I decided I should give the salsa a stir, since the liquid had separated out and it looked as though the salsa were floating on tqo inches of water.  Today being the third day, I opened up the top and found a fine layer of white mold all over the top.  A quick google search told me this was normal- as long as the mold was white and not black, brown or green, it could be removed.  So I scraped off the top bit of moldy salsa, stirred the rest up, and when in for a taste.

I was very pleasantly surprised!  The flavors all melded together beautifully.  There is this tang in the finish that can only come from a fermented product, but it is only slightly there.  The overall flavor of the salsa is simply delicious.  The cilantro really comes through, as does the onion, but not in an overwhelming way at all.  Andy thinks he could sit down and polish off the jar in one sitting.   I popped it in the fridge to chill before we tried it with chips, and it’s even better cold.   It is a touch on the salty side, as expected, but it’s not overly so.  I think if you followed the direction to use extra salt instead of whey that it would be borderline inedible.  It’s not hard to let a bit of yogurt strain for a few minutes to get 1/4 cup of whey, and I wholeheartedly recommend that method.

Overall it’s a surprise hit.  The one thing I would change for next time would be to seed the tomatoes.  I still would leave the peels on, because the peels don’t bother me, but the salsa is very, very liquidy, and I think that would be reduced some if I’d seeded the tomatoes as suggested in the first place.

Post Script:  I had to come back and add just one final note for anyone looking at this salsa and having dubious thoughts like I did.  I really, really, really dislike the taste of a a lot of fermenting foods.  I like sauerkraut and flavored kefir and that’s about it.  I dislike beer very much, and I also dislike sourdough and other breads like rye that have that distinctive yeasty-fermenting taste.  This fermented salsa does not have that funky taste at all.  It’s pleasant and it makes me keep going back for another bite.

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Lacto-Fermented Salsa from Nourishing Traditions

4 medium tomatoes peeled, seeded and diced
2 small onion finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped chile pepper, hot or mild
1 bunch cilantro chopped
1 Tbs fresh oregano chopped
lemons juiced
1 Tbs sea salt
4 Tbs whey (or additional 1 Tbs salt)
1/4 cup filtered water

Directions

Mix all ingredients and place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar. Press down lightly with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer, adding more water if necessary to cover the vegetables. The top of the vegetables should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about 2 days before transferring to cold storage.

A Simple Hot Pepper Sauce

I have a confession to make.

I’m getting tired from processing the garden.  This is a fabulous place to be, because it means that I’ve been getting a decent harvest this year and am putting all kinds of tasty treasures away for winter.  This week I’ve frozen a second batch of blanched zucchini, a whole pile of roasted eggplant for pizza and pasta, and I also harvested the carrot patch and put that in the freezer.  I meant to can the beets this week, but closer inspection of the patch showed me that Peter Rabbit found the beets to his liking, and once he’d sampled a beet, the slugs moved in.  The whole patch went into the compost pile.  So that was a little discouraging, but since there are plenty of other treasures to be had yet, I continue harvesting and preserving what I can.

Today’s treasure came from the pepper patch.  I’ve lost a great deal of peppers this year to rodents- could be mice, could be rabbit, could be mole… I’ve yet to actually see the critter, but I definitely see the debris left behind, and unless a pepper is high in the air, it’s not safe from the rodent, regardless of heat level.  That’s a bit of a bummer overall, as I’d been looking forward to roasting green chilies for the freezer, pickling more pepperoncini, and making some cowboy candy.  Alas, I’ve had enough peppers for salsa making, and today I thought that if I harvested everything that was ripe I would have enough for a batch of Basic Aged Pepper Sauce.  I was right on the money, I had exactly two pounds of hot peppers on my plants that were ripe and ready.  Some were blazing superhots, like the Red Fatalii, Yellow Fatalii, Madame Jeanette and Bahamian Goat, some were much more mild, like the Mild Habanero, Aji Fantasy, Barro Do Ribeiro, Aleppo, and Cherry Bomb.  Then there were the medium-hots, the ones that I left the seeds in, hoping their seeds would contribute some heat, but not so much to make the end sauce overwhelming.  I would place my Serrano, Hanoi Market Peppers and Bulgarian Carrot peppers into that category.

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All together, these peppers smelled amazing!  This hot sauce really couldn’t be easier.  I went through the peppers one by one, cutting off the tops, removing seeds and spongy placenta, and then tossed them in the food processor.  Once the peppers were pulverized into small bits, they went into a stockpot with a bit of vinegar and salt, and boiled for just a few minutes.  I poured that all into a jar, added a lid, and now we wait until Christmas to taste.  It really is that easy.  When the sauce is finished, there is the optional step of straining, but I like my hot sauces chunky, so we usually use it just as it is.

One word of caution about making hot sauce.  There’s the obvious precaution of wearing gloves when handling hot peppers that a lot of people use (I don’t), but the first time I made this sauce several years ago, I gassed my family.  The kids literally had to leave the house from the fumes while the hot peppers and vinegar boiled.  So this time, when I cooked the hot sauce, I did it while the kids were at dance and Andy was gone.  The windows were also wide open.  Since this sauce cooks for a very short amount of time, it clears out quickly, but for those with breathing issues, please make sure you make this (or any) hot sauce with proper ventilation in place.

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Basic Aged Hot Sauce

2 pounds hot peppers, de-seeded and chopped
3 cups white vinegar
2 teaspoons salt

Finely chop the hot peppers in a food processor, then add to a non-reactive saucepot.  Add the vinegar and salt, and bring to a boil.  Boil gently for ten minutes.

Pour into a mason jar and allow to cool so that you can touch the jar without scalding. Add two piece lid.  Set in a cool, dark space and allow to rest, undisturbed for three months.

After three months the sauce is ready!  If you prefer a smoother sauce, you can strain the solids out and discard.  Store in the refrigerator.

If you’d like to can this, you need to bring it back to a boil after aging and pour into 4-ounce or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace.  Process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes.

Ham & Chard Stuffed Shells from Eating Well

This dish was a HUGE winner for the Waz household.  Everyone enjoyed it immensely, and Zander even cleaned his plate- swiss chard and all.  I really expected that he would sit with his stuffed shells and pick as many green bits out that he could.  But he didn’t, and he devoured every bit of stuffed shell from his plate.

Earning this recipe a top spot in the instant repeater category.

The only thing I didn’t love about this recipe was the shells themselves.  I always have terrible luck boiling up the large shells- so many end up shredded or in pieces, so I have to boil up so many more than I actually need, with the hopes that I will have enough in the end.  Since this dinner was so tasty, it’s worth the trouble.

I did use more chard than suggested, but I have plenty of it growing in the backyard.  The result of that change was that I thought the filling was just a touch on the bitter side from all the greens, so next time I will probably stick with the recommended amount.  I think I probably ended up with about 3 cups of cooked chard- it’s so hard to gauge what a pound is when you are harvesting chard fresh from the garden.

For the ham, I purchased ham already cooked and diced for me.  Next time I hope to have some leftover ham floating around, as the ham flavor will be more pronounced that way.  It really was a great addition to stuffed shells and made everyone happy.

Since it was the heart of tomato season when I made this, I simply used 4 cups of freshly diced tomatoes instead of the 2 cans of fire-roasted tomatoes called for.  I’m sure there was a bit of a flavor difference in the end because of that, but I’m sure the roasted tomatoes made it taste even better, so I look forward to using them when the fresh specimens are no longer available.   In a time pinch?  Eliminate the homemade sauce and use your favorite jarred sauce- I promise I won’t tell.

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Ham & Chard Stuffed Shells

from Eating Well magazine, Sept/Oct 2015

Tomato Sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 14-ounce cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1/2 cup slivered fresh basil

Stuffed Shells:

24 jumbo pasta shells
1 pound chard (about 1 large bunch)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup diced ham
1/2 cup minced shallots
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

To prepare sauce: Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Add tomatoes, water, 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Stir in basil. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

To prepare shells: Cook shells in boiling water until not quite tender, about 9 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Dry the pot.

Rinse chard well and thoroughly pat dry with a clean towel. Separate the leaves from the stems. Thinly slice the leaves and dice the stems; keep separate.

Heat oil in the pot over medium heat. Add the chard stems, ham and shallots; cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, 2 to 4 minutes. Add the chard leaves and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Stir in vinegar and pepper; let stand, stirring occasionally, until cooled slightly, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in ricotta and Parmesan.

Reserve 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce; spread the remaining sauce in a 9-by-13-inch pan (or similar-size 3-quart baking dish). Stuff each shell with about 2 tablespoons of filling; place in the pan. Spoon the reserved sauce over the shells. Coat a piece of foil with cooking spray and tightly cover the pan, sprayed-side down.

Bake until the filling is steaming and the sauce is bubbling, 35 to 40 minutes.

Onions For The Freezer

This is the first year that I have successfully grown regular onions in my garden.  I’ve tried in years past, but always from seed, and I never got nice bulbs at the end of the onion.  Green onions I can grow without thinking about, but bulbing onions eluded me for years.

This year I bought onion sets in the spring and planted a double row all around my community garden plot as a natural animal repellent.  I think the animal repellent part worked rather well.  I still had some critters doing damage, but not enough to really complain about.  When the salsa pot fired up at the beginning of August it was pure joy to harvest my own onions to put into my homemade salsa.  Those first few batches of salsa utilized only vegetables that I grew myself- something I am quite proud of.

But as I’ve harvested the larger onions over the last month for salsa, what remains are of a much smaller diameter.

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They are too small to pull and cure for long term storage just as they are, but with a quick run through the food processor, freezing these onions in ready-to-use packaging is the perfect solution.  After harvesting this morning I washed them, peeled them and cut them into chunks before letting the processor chop them into bits.

I packed the chopped onions into pint freezer bags in 1 cup amounts- so many recipes call for 1 cup of chopped onion, or one medium onion- which is about 1 cup or so.  Then I placed the pint freezer bags into a larger gallon sized freezer bag.  This is the vital step in freezing onions- the double bag in freezer bags.  Vacuum sealing will work also, but again, you must double bag.  The first year I froze onions I used one freezer bag and the entire freezer began smelling and tasting like onions!  Take the time to double bag.

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I harvested just one corner of the garden this morning, and my afternoon of work produced 11 cups of frozen, chopped onions.  That’s about 11 pots of soup, chili, curry or stew worth of onions!  I expect I’ll be able to do this two more times before using all the onions up.  Next I’ll package them in 1 1/2 cups per pint bag for those times I need just a few more onions.  A small bit of work now for big rewards in the months ahead.

 

Spanakopita Loaded Potatoes

It’s no secret that I am a foodie magazine junkie.  I love receiving them in the mail, and then sitting down during a quiet afternoon/evening with a cup of coffee or tea and going through them.  I’m always on the lookout for new meal inspiration that fits into a busy lifestyle.  This time of year, I’m also on the lookout for recipes that use some of my garden bounty in a new way.

A few weeks ago the new Eating Well hit my mailbox, and boy, was it a welcome site!  A feature on dark leafy greens caught my attention for immediate exploration, as did an article on beets, another one on butternut squash, and for the cooler days to come, a soup article and a noodle article promise very good things.

I turned my attention to the article on dark leafy greens, and a recipe for Spanakopita Loaded Potatoes.  It seemed so simple, and while the recipe called for spinach, I planned to use a couple handfuls of the Swiss Chard always on hand in the garden.   I did go lightly on the chard so that I didn’t overwhelm my kids who are still not entirely fond of greens.  The recipe calls for 1 pound of fresh spinach, or 4 cups cooked and frozen, and I would say I probably had two cups of chard once it was wilted.

The results were fabulous.  These potatoes were delicious, and practically a meal all by themselves.  Andy and Abigail both loved them, as did I.  I don’t think Zander ended up even giving them a taste.  Usually twice baked potatoes are a less-than-healthy affair, loaded with butter, cheeses, bacons, and all kinds of creamy goodness.  These potatoes were even better than those versions, and I’m looking forward to making them again soon.

Since twice baked potatoes freeze nicely, I suspect that these would also.  I would like to try that sometime.  I think I would prep them through stuffing the skins, and then freeze at that point.

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Spanakopita Loaded Potatoes

from Eating Well magazine

4 medium russet potatoes, scrubbed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup diced onion
1 pound fresh spinach, or 4 cups frozen chopped spinach (thawed)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1/3 cup reduced-fat cream cheese
3/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup crumbled feta, divided

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

Pierce potatoes in several places with a fork.  Bake directly on the center rack until tender, about 50 to 60 minutes.  Let stand until cool enough to handle.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 2 to 4 minutes. Add spinach, garlic and oregano; cook, stirring until hot, about 4 minutes.  Remove from heat.

Reduce oven temperature to 375ºF.

Cut the potatoes in half and scoop the insides into a bowl.  Place the skins on a baking sheet or 9×13 pan.  Add the cream cheese, salt and pepper to the bowl.  Beat with a hand mixer or mash with a potato masher until smooth.  Stir in the spinach mixture and 1/2 cup of the feta cheese.  Stuff each potato skin with about 3/4 cup of the potato mixture. Top each with 1 tablespoon of the remaining feta.

Bake until the filling is steaming and the feat is browned 25 to 35 minutes.

Oven Dried Cherry Tomatoes

For years I’ve been dreaming of the perfect cherry tomato garden.  YEARS!  I have long wanted cherry tomatoes in every color so that I can have bowls of a beautiful rainbow to have and to share.  Well, this is the year I succeeded on that front, and my tune has changed a bit from “Oh, look at the tomatoey rainbow” to “What the heck was I thinking!?”  I have so many more than we can consume, even if we ate tomatoes at every meal.  I keep giving them away, and still, the bowl is never-ending.  16 plants devoted to bite sized tomatoes may be a few too many.

I thought briefly about investing in a food dehydrator.  One of those kitchen tools that we bought but never used, so sold it in a rummage sale for two dollars many years ago. That was before I discovered vegetable gardening, of course.  But since the one I really want is rather pricey, and I’m still not completely convinced that I’ll use it all that much, I thought I’d try drying some cherry tomatoes in the oven.

Have you ever purchased sun-dried tomatoes?  While they aren’t the most expensive item in the grocery store, they are on the pricey side for a tiny little bottle of dried tomatoes.  But they add the most spectacular flavor to whatever you use them in.  Pasta, pizza, sandwiches, dips, you name it, you can add some dried tomato goodness to it.  The trick to drying them correctly is getting them at the right temperature, and then keeping an eye on them once they really start to dry.  I did one batch of tomatoes at 200 degrees, and that literally took all day to do.  The second batch I did at 220, and while that was faster, the dryness of the tomatoes was inconsistent. Some were getting to the crispy stage while some were still rather moist on the interior.  What I am looking for is more of a dry/chewy texture- like a raisin.  I have found that 210 degrees seems to be perfect.

So I start with the tomatoes.  Use ones that are roughly the same size, as they will dry the most evenly.  Cut them all in half, and spread them out on a baking sheet that has been lined with foil.  Spread them so the cut side is facing up/  Then give them a light sprinkle of salt and pepper.  You can also add some herbs if you want your tomatoes flavored, but I am choosing to avoid the herbs and just go for a pure tomato flavor.  I’ve seen some people add a drizzle of oil, but I don’t really think that is necessary if you’re drying them for storage purposes.

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Pop the pans into your pre-heated oven and let it do its thing.   This is still going to take a while.  I start checking the pans at the two hour mark, and since I have two pans in the oven, I rotate them then.  After that, check them every 30 minutes until they are the dryness you desire.  Mine are done around the 4 hour mark.

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For storage, I am storing mine in pint mason jars in the freezer.  Because I left some moisture in to get the chewy texture, I feel they are probably going to keep the longest in the freezer.  Then I can just scoop out what I need at the time and put the rest back in the freezer.  My long-term plan is to keep a small half-pint jar in the fridge, ready to use at all times.  That one I will put the tomatoes in and then cover with a good quality olive oil so the oil will also be flavored.

I am already thinking of the sun dried tomato pesto I will be making this winter.  It’s making me smile every time I bring in another massive bowl of cherry tomatoes.  This will be totally worth the effort.

However, next year, I will definitely be planting a few less cherry tomato plants.