Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Roasted Pumpkin seeds, AKA Pepitas, are a great treat, and as is the case with many seeds, pretty good for you, too.

My Cousin Sally writes,
OK, Eben – Halloween is upon us, which means it’s time to nom on delicious toasted pumpkin seeds! Yay! But here’s the dilemma… Recipes on the Internet vary from 250 degrees to 400 degrees and 7 minutes to 50 minutes. And some recipes boil the little suckers before toasting! What the heck. Thoughts??
P.S. I used to go with the soy sauce and seasoned salt route, but now I’m a fan of the olive oil and sea salt mix. But I’m perplexed by the temp and time…

Sugar Pumpkins - Many good things inside!
Sugar Pumpkins – Many good things inside!

Great question! Here’s the drill for making great roasted pumpkin seeds every time.

Remove seeds from sugar pumpkins, and by golly, save or use that flesh for wonderful things, like Pumpkin Flan. Roasted seeds make a great garnish for squash bisque, and make a fabulous garnish on Oaxacan style chiles rellenos.

Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.
Boiling pumpkin seeds before roasting makes for crunchy skins.

Simmering the seeds in salted water is a must-do – It helps make the seed covers less chewy, more crunchy, and also gets seasoning deeper into the seeds. It also helps remove any residual stringy stuff.

Use 4 Cups of water with 2 teaspoons salt for every Cup of seeds.

Bring salted water to a boil, then add seeds, stir, and reduce temp to maintain a steady simmer.
Cook for 10 minutes, then drain through a single mesh strainer.
Pat dry with paper toweling.

Preheat oven to 400° F – High temp roasting will give the crunchiest, most consistent results.
Note that Avocado oil is especially good for this – it’s got the highest smoke point.

Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.
Savory, like sea salt and cracked pepper, works great on pumpkin seeds.

Season each cup of seeds with,
1 Tablespoon Avocado Oil, (Olive or vegetable oil is OK)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
Optional –
1/2 teaspoon chile flake or powder

Savory seasonings work better than sweet, as the sugars tend to make seeds prone to burning in a high temp roast. Any combo you like is worth trying – Soy-Lime-Garlic, Lemon Thyme & Sea Salt, Smoked Salt and cracked Pepper, etc. Our Go To Seasoned Salt is fantastic here.

If you really want a sweet version, roast seeds with just the oil, then add sweet seasoning after the roast – The oil will help it stick, and you won’t burn your goodies.

Roast, evenly spread on a baking sheet, for 18 to 20 minutes, until nicely toasted.

Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake
Pumpkin Seeds roasted with Sea Salt, Avocado Oil, and Chile Flake

Remove from oven and baking sheet, allow to cool before decimating.

And as my Sis, Ann Lovejoy notes over in her wonderful blog, “Store pepitos in a tightly sealed jar out of direct light for up to 2 months or freeze them for longer storage.”

And Happy Halloween!

Slow Cookers

The slow food movement took hold in Italy, back in 1989, and it’s been chugging along ever since. The initial focus was, “food that’s good for us, good for our environment and good for the people who grow, pick and prepare it. In other words, food that is good, clean and fair,” all inarguably good stuff. The movement has branched out somewhat in the intervening twenty seven years, and as such, it was inevitable that cookware would also become a part of the deal, and indeed it has – In recent years, what we cook in and how we cook it has garnered every bit as much attention as the food itself.

In the late ’90’s, cookware began one of its greatest evolutions to date. Home cooks found themselves able to buy stuff far superior to the schlock that had ruled the roost previously. One of the very early deal makers in this regard was All Clad‘s Emerilware, a full 11 piece set of which M and It bought in 2002 for less than what a single top of the line All Clad stock pot was going for. Why so cheap? Well, made in China rather than the U.S., frankly, and some minor metallurgical tweaks. That said, they’re still multi-layer steel, aluminum and copper bottoms bonded to stainless bodies – Fourteen years later, they show obvious signs of heavy use, but they’re in perfect working order with years left on them.

Then, as the slow food movement penetrated other parts of the world, this trend toward high-end cookware took an interesting turn as well – a one hundred and eighty degree U turn, to be exact. Suddenly, cast iron was back in vogue, both raw, from venerable makers like Lodge, (who’ve been casting cookware since 1896), and in the considerably pricier enameled iteration, and the most famous version thereof, made by French manufacturer Le Creuset – They’ve been around since 1925, and are still going strong. The fact is, you can’t go wrong with cast iron – The only crime you can commit in this regard is to not have any in your kitchen. For my mind, a cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven are not optional, and that’s sage advice, if I do say so myself.

Straw Box - The original slow cooker.
Straw Box – The original slow cooker.

Then the venerable crock pot got a make over, and the electric slow cooker caught fire as well. While the name brand crock pot is a child of the 1970s, the roots of the cooking method go back way further yet, to what was, and is still called a straw box. As you can see from the picture, this is nothing more than some form of box big enough to fit a slow cooker like a Dutch oven, with room enough to allow a nice, thick layer of straw to be piled all around the cooker. Foods heated in the Dutch oven are stuffed into the straw box and left alone for the day – The latent heat of the food in the well insulated box finishes the cooking in a nice, slow manner – Its great for cassoulets and such.

The Römertopf - Almost too pretty to cook in.
The Römertopf – Almost too pretty to cook in.

And lately, the clay cooker has made a resurgence as well, with venerable makers like Römertopf from Germany offering a wide range of fired clay cookware that’s not only fun to use, but quite lovely, (When I climbed aboard the clay cooker train for the writing of this piece, M noted that “it’s too pretty to cook in,” and it darn near is!) Cooking in clay might just signify the farthest back that we can practically go in pursuit of the good old days – It’s been done for thousands of years, and by cultures from literally all around the globe.

Thus we come to the Big Question at hand – How much, if any of this stuff do you actually need?

Let me answer that with a story. A friend of mine used to own a music store. I was there one day buying an amplifier, and he mentioned that he had some really nice Fender Stratocasters that I, “needed to take a look at.”
As we admired the guitars, I noted, “Well, they’re pretty, but I already got two Strats and a Tele – I don’t really need another one.” He looked at me as if I was the dumbest human he’d ever layer eyes on, sneered slightly and retorted, “What the hell does ‘need’ have to do with another Strat?!” And there you have it, in a nutshell.

How many knives do you really need? Two or three really will do. How many pots and pans? Well, that’s more complicated, and it depends on how much cooking you do and want to do – Realistically, I think anything less than a couple of sauce pans, a couple of sauté pans, and at least one big stock pot just won’t cut the mustard. How many and what kind of slow cooker you need is also complicated. If you have a good, cast iron Dutch oven, truth be told you probably don’t need anything else, but you may want more, and rightly so.

That single Dutch oven is versatile as all get out. From stove top, to oven, to camp fire, it can and will do it all, and a good quality oven will be something that you pass on to your kids and their kids after them – There’s much to be said for those qualities, and that’s why I’ll stand by the assertion above – If you only have one, I’d choose a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven and be most content, indeed.

What then, about enameled cast iron versus plain? My answer will be blasphemous to some, but I’ll stick by it – I’ve owned more than one piece of Le Creuset, and two Lodge Dutch ovens. I don’t own any Le Creuset currently, because all of the pieces we have went through the process of enamel chipping from the bottom, and were eventually retired – With regret, I’ll add, because Le Creuset is beautiful stuff. Now, let me interject that, were you to buy Le Creuset stuff new, you’ll find that it comes with a limited lifetime warranty, and while there are caveats and requirements, I know more than a few folks who have either gotten a brand new replacement for free, or a significant discount on same – In other words, Le Creuset not only makes a kick ass pot, they’re still a most honorable company.

Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips...
Enameled cast iron with a case of the chips…

That said, the enamel is pretty, and will cut down on some preventive maintenance on your part, but you’ll pay for those premiums – Le Creuset is fabulously expensive, just like those top end All Clad stock pots – A lodge Dutch oven like ours will set you back around $40, and their enameled version will run you about $60 – That same size of Le Creuset costs $300 – Get the picture? Me, I’m OK with the maintenance – It’s why I have my knives made with high carbon blades instead of stainless – It’s about feel, and performance, and frankly, I’m OK with maintaining my stuff – That’s how I know how it’s doing in general. Oh, and for the record, I still own my Lodge Dutch oven, and the second one was gifted to my Sis, who was without and therefore in need.

And electric slow cookers, what about ’em? Well, the need factor is kinda like those Strats… Slow cookers are handy as all get out, and they’ve come a long way. Programmability, multiple cooking temps and profiles, and much higher quality cooking vessels and insulating materials have made these toys, errr – tools, a very attractive option. If you’re of a mind to make a soup or stew, cassoulet or roast, and want it to go all day low and slow, you’ll spend less energy doing so, and likely be much safer in using a slow cooker, as opposed to leaving an unattended oven or range in all day. Our Frigidaire Professional series 7 quart cooker cost about $60, and I highly recommend it.

The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker
The Frigidaire Professional Slow Cooker

And what about those clay cookers? While most of the world has been cooking in clay for millennia, many people in this country got their introduction back in the ’70s, when a British firm called Habitat introduced The Chicken Brick to America. On sale in Britain since 1964, the brick is a vaguely chicken shaped, unglazed terra-cotta cooker made in England by Weston Mills Pottery. The brick worked, and worked well, but it was kinda gimmicky, so a lot of folks got one as a wedding or Christmas gift, and then never actually used the silly thing. All that aside, the recent resurgence in interest regarding cooking in clay has spurred a revival – While Habitat discontinued sales of the Chicken Brick back in 2008, they’ve recently come to their senses and are again offering this iconic cooker.

The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta
The Chicken Brick is made of unglazed terra cotta

While the brick as made of unglazed terra-cotta, the stuff offered by Römertopf and a few other German makers is glazed clay. In either iteration, there are some things you must and must not do when cooking in these vessels, and that frankly is what caused a whole bunch of folks to never even try to use that wedding gift. Clay cookers cook in large part by steam heat, and that means you need to soak the whole cooker in water for 15 to 20 minutes before you load food into it.

Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.
Clay cookers must be soaked for 15 to 20 minutes prior to cooking.

Next, it’s best not to load cold foods into a clay cooker, so you’ll also have to get your bird or roast or whatever out of the fridge for long enough to allow it to get fairly close to room temperature. And clay cookers don’t do well in preheated ovens – That can lead to cracks, and cracks are bad – So you need to load that bird into that cooker and into a cold oven. This means that you actually will cook at a higher temperature than you normally roast at – With our Römertopf, we cook chicken at 450° F for about an hour, whereas regular roasting gets done at 350° F or thereabouts. Next caveat – You can’t take a clay cookers out of a hot oven and set it directly on a cold countertop – Doing so risks cracks, and again, they’re bad… Finally, you can’t clean a clay cookers with soap, and for the same reasons, (its porous, yeah?), you don’t really want to cook fish in one unless you’re not going to cook anything but fish in thereafter, because it’s got a memory like an elephant.

The Römertopf cooker - Made from glazed clay
The Römertopf cooker – Made from glazed clay

Right about now, a fair chunk of you are thinking, “OK, Eben – What you’ve just done is convinced me that this clay cookers thing is a major pain in the ass, so why in hell would I put myself through all that just to cook a damn chicken?!

The answer is that the chicken you cook in that pain in the ass clay cooker will be the juiciest, tenderest, moistest chicken you’ve ever cooked. M said so, the very first time I used the Römertopf, and she was right. A clay cooker becomes a small, very efficient, very moist cooking environment, and without any other adjuncts whatsoever, it passes that moisture on to what you’re cooking. Römertopf makes cookers from quite small to large enough for a full sized turkey – we bought a medium size, which has a stated size of slightly over 3 quarts, and cost fifty bucks – Not cheap, but as you can see, this is a well made and truly beautiful thing – Almost too pretty to cook in, as M noted. What it fits is pretty much the fattest local chicken you can find, but not much else – I quickly found that our cooker truly wouldn’t hold anything else, which initially made me nervous, because I come from the mire poix in the bottom of a Dutch oven with some chicken stock school of roasting. What I found out is exactly what all the makers of clay cookers tell you – You don’t need anything in that cooker to make an incredible, notable chicken – The cooker will do the magic – And indeed, it does. I stuffed that bird with apple, fennel, onion, and some fresh herbs. Cooked it at 450° F for an hour, then popped the top off for about 10 minutes to let the bird brown. Pulled it out, put it in a towel on the counter top, gave it a 10 minute rest, and dug in.

Clay cooked chicken - 'nuff said.
Clay cooked chicken – ’nuff said.

It was, as noted, an incredible chicken, but let’s face it – I bought this cooker to write this post, and as good as that chicken was, it could have been a fluke, so I did the scientific thing – I bought another chicken a week later, did all the proper prep, but this time, I did nothing other than to throw that bird into the Römertopf with a tiny bit of olive oil rubbed on the skin, followed by our signature seasoned salt blend and fresh ground pepper – Didn’t stuff it, didn’t tie it, nothin’ – Just cooked the bugger, and…

Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!
Look at all the moisture that cooker produces!

It was the best damn chicken I ever made, hands down, bar none, no bullshit.

So, now – What do you need?

PLEASE NOTE!

Have now had quite a few of you ask if I was biased/bought for the purposes of this piece. Those who’ve asked are quite new here, so it’s a fair question. Here’s our answer –

We have never accepted any ingredient or article for free or any kind of reduced price in exchange for a favorable review, and we never will.

We have far more than enough followers and readers to warrant the ability to run ads on this blog, and to receive deals such as I just described – Again, we’ve never done any of that, and never will.

This is a completely independent blog, and everything you see here is bought by us at full retail price from the same places you can get yours. We’re about helping folks discover new things, becoming more food independent, and making from scratch everything that you can, period.

Building Great Salads

When the garden churns into production mode, I get a serious salad Jones on a regular basis. There’s something about watering becoming an exercise in dinner recon and going outside to prep for dinner that seems very right to me. This seems like a good time to talk about building great salads, and what to dress them with.

Even homegrown greens gotta be cleaned

When fresh veggies are abundant, they deserve some extra care, especially lettuces. If you’ve ever been served a salad that really popped for you, it’s a guarantee that the level of prep and presentation went well beyond what usually happens at home, even if things looked really simple. Recreating that at home is not difficult, and well worth the effort.

Homegrown bounty

The first thing that really needs to get done is a gentle but thorough washing of anything and everything you’ve harvested. We don’t use any chemicals on our garden, but regardless, there’s dirt and maybe a critter or two that needs to be found and removed. This is also the time to inspect and remove any wilted or damaged parts. Have a big bowl of icy cold water ready beside your station, and drop stuff into it as you’re done with it. Even freshly picked greens start to lose water and crispness quite quickly when it’s hot out – The cold water will keep them in top form. After everything has had a good soak, change the water and let them have a second cold bath. These steps should be done right before assembly and service of the salad.

Enfrijoladas Toppings - Whatever ya got.

 

As you prep additional goodies for the salad, place them into sealable airtight containers, (preferably glass). A lot of us at home make too much, and mix it all together in one big ol’ bowl – Ask yourself how often you have that green salad again, until it’s gone? The jumbled mix invites things to go bad, and other ingredients to get thrown out – Like when your tomatoes or cukes go first, but they’re mixed with everything else, and… With everything prepped, offered, and stored individually, folks can build their own mix, and leftovers lend themselves readily to new dishes.

Specialized lettuce containers are absolutely worth it

Invest in a container or two specifically designed for storage of lettuce and veggies. We have two that both have a drain tile over the bottom, snug fitting kids, and ventilation options. These things genuinely will store lettuce and veggies for longer and better than any other option we’ve tried – It’s actually pretty amazing – Lettuce and cabbage stays crisp and other stuff, from carrots and celery to chiles and green onions, last far longer.

Urb’s Herby Vinaigrette

Make dressings fresh, just as you do your salad. Building even relatively complicated dressings take no time at all, and is a delightful exercise. Dressings in big ass plastic squeeze jars isn’t how we should want things to be – That’s done for the benefit of the seller – not for us. Whip up what you need, plus some extra to go to lunch with you tomorrow. Building in smaller, fresher batches yields far superior results, and furthers exploration of what you really like – Maybe even your own signature thing – And that’s very cool indeed.

Home grown herbs

Fresh herbs rock in salads, within bounds of reason. When they’re fresh, herbs are at the pinnacle of their potency – Keep That in mind, along that with the fact that a whole sage leaf may be enough to season a whole batch of stew, and you get my drift. Use them sparingly – incorporated into dressings may be your best bet for balanced flavors that don’t overwhelm.

A basic lettuce blend is great as a base. If you’re of a mind to add more stuff like cabbage, kale, arugula, frisée, or chicory, keep in mind that not everyone may share the love – Allowing your crew to decide for themselves if they want to add them will often make for happier campers, and again, it gives you greater leftover flexibility.

Emeril Lagasse used to have a shtick on one of his shows, wherein he’d say something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know about where your lettuces come from, but mine don’t come seasoned.’ There’s wisdom there – Good greens certainly have flavor and texture, but a wee sprinkle of salt and a twist of pepper will make those different tastes pop all the more.

Finally, here are three dressings I’m really liking this summer.

 

Urban Dijon Vinaigrette

1 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/3 Cup Aged Sherry Vinegar

1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard

1 teaspoon Agave Nectar

1 sprig fresh Thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 clove fresh Garlic

Pinch of Salt

A few twists fresh ground Pepper

 

Trim, smash, and mince garlic.

Pull leaves from thyme stalk and mince.

Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and cover, then shake vigorously to combine.

Allow to marry for a few minutes, and shake again prior to serving.

 

Urb’s Herby Vinaigrette 

This is a very vibrant dressing – Makes a great marinade for chicken or pork too. 

Fresh herbs are best when you have them.

1/2 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1/2 Cup Avocado Oil

1/2 Cup Cider Vinegar

2 Tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice

1 Tablespoon minced fresh Garlic

2 teaspoons minced fresh Sweet Onion

3 teaspoons Oregano

2 teaspoons Tarragon

2 teaspoons Parsley

2 teaspoons ground Black Pepper

2 teaspoons ground Mustard

1 teaspoon Rosemary

1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme

1/2 teaspoon Salt

2 whole Bay Leaves

 

Combine all ingredients in a mason jar and cover, then shake vigorously to combine.

Allow to marry for a few minutes, and shake again prior to serving.

 

Urb’s Teriyaki Joint Dressing

If you’ve ever had teriyaki in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve had a variant of this dressing. 

I love the stuff, and I bet you will too. If you go all out and make fresh mayo at home for this, it’s stunningly delicious.

1 Cup Mayonnaise

1/4 Cup Toasted Sesame Oil

1/2 Cup Rice Vinegar

2 Tablespoons Agave Nectar 

2 Tablespoons Dark Soy Sauce

1/2 teaspoon Granulated Garlic 

Combine all ingredients in a non reactive mixing bowl and whisk vigorously to combine.

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

With all that to consider, it aughta be a pretty swell salad season, don’t ya think?

Blanching & Freezing Fresh Peas

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Three years ago almost to the day, I posted this, and here we are full circle. Enjoy!

Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.

‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’

Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!

Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.

Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.
Snap, Snow, and Shell peas, respectively.

For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.

Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taste or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.

With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.

Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup
Fresh pea stock is great for split pea soup

Snap Pea Stock

10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf

Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.

As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.

Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.

Allow to cool to room temperature.

Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.

Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant and lovely stuff to boot
Pea stock is surprisingly fragrant, flavorful, and lovely stuff to boot

To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.

Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.

The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.

The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.

Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.

Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.

OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.

Everything set up to blanch
Everything set up to blanch

Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.

A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate
A little butter in salted blanching water helps frozen veggies seperate

Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.

Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Blanched peas drained and ready for the ice water bath
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Plunge blanched peas into ice water immediately
Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas blanched and ready for the freezer

Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.

Fresh peas ready for the freezer
Fresh peas ready for the freezer

So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.

Spring Cleaning Your Freezer

For 25 points, identify the following protein:

Didn’t think so…

Spring is the perfect time for deep cleaning. Shaking off the dust and cold and mold of winter, letting fresh air in – We do it to our homes, (hopefully), and we need to do it to our freezers as well.

Whether you’ve got just a small one attached to your fridge, or a stand alone unit, it’s time to thoroughly clean that beast, inventory what’s there with a critical eye, toss what needs to be tossed and cook what must be cooked before that too goes to the great beyond.

This line of reasoning naturally brooks the question, “Can food go bad in the freezer?” The answer to which is a definite ‘Yup!’

Keep in mind that freezing does not kill bacteria, yeast, mold, etc –  it just pretty much keeps them from multiplying. If there was something funky present prior to freezing, it could indeed reappear when thawed. Additionally, freezing does not do any favors for food quality or taste – over time, great stuff will become good and good stuff becomes that image up yonder.

Before we abandon the ‘how long’ question for the stuff in the freezer, let’s review – When does quality starts to degrade? That depends on what it is, and how well it was packaged, frankly. For answers to this and other freezer questions, hop on over to the USDA’s Food Safety site and read for yourself. You’ll also find the National Center For Home Food Preservation a wealth of good info, so scope that out too.

In general terms, anything that looks like the image above – an obvious victims of freezer burn due to poor packaging, needs to go. If flesh looks substantially different than it usually does when thawed, (Darker, off color, dried out, etc), then you should give it the heave ho. Trust me when I say if it looks funky, it’ll taste funky, and it could well be dangerous.

When you package for freezing, head back to the NCHFP site and read up on best practices.

The time to clear out your freezer is also the time to clean the bugger; this should be done at least annually, (and twice is better yet.) The best time do the deed is when stocks are low – AKA, the end of winter.

Pull everything out and put it into a fridge or cooler(s) while you clean.

Turn off, unplug, and thoroughly defrost your unit.

Once it’s to room temp, clean the insides thoroughly; I like Clorox cleanup for the job, but dish soap and water works fine too. Remove and clean all the shelves, racks, drawers, etc as well.

Do a rinse wipe with a solution of 2 Tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, then wipe that down with a clean, dry cloth.

Don’t forget the unseen parts! Pull the freezer from it’s normal locale and clean underneath. Inspect the back and clean that as well, (And the top), and dust the coils if your unit has exposed ones.

If you don’t already have one, buy a decent but cheap inside-the-unit thermometer and place in an easy to see spot. Our commercial units have thermometers on them, usually digital, but we don’t trust those; every unit, reach in or walk in, has a stand alone thermometer inside it.

Optimal freezer temp for food storage is -15ºF to -5ºF; it should never go above 15ºF for any extended length of time.

Fire ‘er back up, let it get fully cold and then put your bounty back in. And don’t forget to mark your calendar for the same time next year.

OK, that about covers it – now go have a celebratory beer or two, you deserve it.

It’s Time to Talk About Kitchen Waste

One of the greatest challenges we face in the world is food waste. Yeah, we hear about it most when it’s colossal, like from countries, or major grocery and restaurant chains, but fact is, it’s every bit as pervasive and problematic right here at home, in our own kitchens. It’s time to talk about kitchen food waste, and act on that.

Dive into food waste numbers just for the USA, and prepare to be seriously bummed out. Overall percentage of what’s produced – 40%. 20% of what goes into landfills. According to a NRDC study in 2015, American households tossed $165 billion worth – That’s billion with a B – or roughly $2,200 per household. Worldwide, the figure is around 1.3 billions tons and $990 billion annually. Sobering figures to say the least. When you hear that the biggest problem with feeding the world isn’t the ability to grow it, it’s pretty much true.

What’s to be done then? Obviously those figures are completely unsustainable. While it might seem like little ol’ us are such a drop in the bucket that we couldn’t possibly alter those numbers, I beg to differ – Understanding the nature and magnitude of the problem is the first step. Every little bit helps, and frankly, we can fairly easily do more than just a little bit at home – That’s important not just to help stop wasting food, but to buoy our pocket books and consciences too.

Battling food waste is huge in the restaurant business, (is if you want to stay in business in any event). We track it closely, in order to construct a viable and effective plan to keep the numbers down. Recording waste lets us study things a bit and decide where the problem lies – That might be how much we order or prep, or a mistaken assumption about how much of what we’ll sell. Waste can also stem from over-portioning, or improper storage – There’s a lot to think about, but once you get a good system in place, it becomes a lot easier to manage.

Considering those figures on average waste are in tons and thousands of dollars per American household, I don’t think there’s any question about the importance of having a plan and system in place at home, is there? Same answer comes to mind for the question of whether or not the additional effort is worthwhile – If you didn’t cook at home a lot and care about that, you wouldn’t be here. What then is a viable and effective plan to help reduce food waste for the home cook?

Always shop with a list, and review it before you go.

First thing that comes to mind is how much perishable food we buy, and how often. For the former, we really need to plan our shopping, and not do any significant part of that willy nilly. Having a realistic shopping list, one based on what your household will actually in all likelihood eat in the period you’re shopping for, is key. Secondly, sticking to that list, (and never shopping when you’re hungry), is equally important – Impulse buying does no one any good.

A shopping list is a living thing, usually composed over several days. When it comes time to head to the store, a review is in order, to determine not just if you missed something, but also if there are things there you don’t really need – Especially when the items in question are perishable. If you love to cook and are always looking for new things to try, it’s easy to think you’ll make that crying tiger beef this weekend and then buy a bunch of stuff to do just that – If life then intrudes, you may well be left with things that end up getting tossed.

When you shop, you absolutely must pay attention and be picky, picky, picky. When I go, I see maybe a couple people other than me who are really and truly checking things out – Squeezing, inspecting, sniffing, and rejecting anything that doesn’t look spot on – checking packaging and expirations dates, (and that pickiness includes not buying something you wanted if there just aren’t any good ones that day.) Fact is, very few shoppers do that – Most folks grab whatever and take it home, and frankly, whatever usually goes bad really quickly. You get what you pay for, and if you’re assuming all produce, proteins, dairy, and other perishables are on equal footing, you’re being a pretty clueless shopper.

Same goes for meal planning. Avoiding waste means not buying for, or cooking far too much, for your household to reasonably use before it spoils. Yes, leftovers can and should be refrigerated or frozen whenever possible, but far too many fridges and freezers are filled with things that sit there until they are eventually thrown out – Be realistic about what you can, like to, and really will eat. As we advocate around here, plan meals around judicious and inspired use of leftovers – A single chicken used wisely is two or three great meals for a small family.

How many folks are you really cooking for?

The concepts from that last paragraph are especially important for us empty nesters – We had kids and grandkids over for dinner last night, and prepared what was easily two to three times the normal amount of food we’d do up for a Sunday night as a result – That’s fine if it’s going to get eaten and/or sent home with the kids – but not so much if it’s happening several nights a week because we’ve forgotten that, these days, it’s just the two of us. Always keep in mind who you’re cooking for on a day to day basis.

Specialized produce containers really do a good job

How we store perishables, especially fruits, veggies, and proteins, is potentially a huge contributor to excessive food waste. Bags, plastic or natural, and most crisper drawers, do a fairly shitty job of maintaining fruits and veggies. Of course the first line of defense is knowing what should be in a fridge and what shouldn’t, (potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, shallot, bananas and most citrus fruit don’t go in the fridge.)

We’ve researched a bunch of storage options, especially for veggies since they tend to go bad so quickly, and found that glass or rigid plastic containers with tight fitting lids do a great job for most things, while specialized containers for lettuce, cabbage and the like do an amazing job – We’ve extended the shelf life of a lot of things from 2 or 3 days to 10+ just by using the right container, as you can see from some of the images here in. Yes, they’re plastic in some cases, but they’re not even close to single use.

Specialized lettuce containers really do a good job

Realistic consideration of what you will cook in the next few days should dictate what gets refrigerated and what gets frozen. A lot of food gets wasted because we violate that rule. Expensive proteins, from beef to firm tofu, need to be scheduled for cooking, and that schedule stuck to – If you can’t or don’t, wrap them properly and freeze them well before they go bad, (and mark the packages for date and content.)

The Freezer - Know what’s in there, and when it arrived

Yes, clearly marking what something is and when it got stored is critical. Everything in a restaurant gets FIFOd, (First In, First Out rotation), and our home fridges and freezers shouldn’t be any different. As for marking what they are, if you’re seriously thinking about trying to tell me that you don’t have, right now, containers in both appliances that you have no clear idea of the contents or age of, I’ll call bullshit on y’all. freezers need to be emptied, inventoried, and thoroughly cleaned at least twice a year, too – See our post on that.

Look this essay over and you’ll realize there’s really not that much here, and certainly not much that’s genuinely revelatory – Tackling a food waste reduction program at home is no more difficult than reading about it, frankly. That said, common sense goes a long way in the kitchen, just as it does in life, right?

The Magic of Pot Beans

‘Wait,’ you think, ‘is he writing about beans again? This cat has a serious case of OCD.’ For the record, I do not – I have CDO, as I prefer my maladies in alphabetical order – and yes, I am writing about beans again. Why? Because alert follower Mia, who hails from Charlotte, North Carolina wrote, ‘Love the blog, and especially the bean posts, as I’m trying to eat less meat and go easier on the planet a little. But I’m not finding a post that really explains the basic cooking process you use.’ I waded through 10 posts with beans in the title and discovered that she’s absolutely correct. Time to fix that, and delve into the magic of pot beans.

Mia’s also right about the fact that we here in America need to dilute our animal flesh eating habits to some degree. I’ve said it before and will again – great beans are every bit as good as meat, when they’re prepared with love and imagination. Of course doing any of that requires the goods to be available fairly quickly, if we want to compete with a chub of kick ass local ground beef. That’s where Frijoles de la Olla, Mexico’s version of pot beans come in to play.

flageolets might be French, but they’ll swing whatever you want to do

Fact is, great beans aren’t gonna come from a can. The reason canned beans get used far more than dried beans is obvious – The former is ready to eat far faster than the latter – But it needn’t be that way. If you’ve poked around here, you know we advocate cooking major proteins in large batches at the start of the week, so that you can enjoy good meals quickly throughout your busy week. Pot beans are just the ticket for many days worth of delicious stuff.

I chose the Mexican iteration of pot beans because they’re simple, tasty, and can easily be morphed into a myriad of other cuisines at your whim. That said, every bean eating country has a version and they’re all, more or less, designed to do the same thing – provide a big batch of cooked beans to work with for the next few days. In France, they might be flageolates with herbs de Provence. In Italy, it’s a white bean with garlic, olive oil, and maybe a little chile. In Spain, it might be fabada beans with tomato, cumin, and onion. Truth be told, any of those deserve further exploration.

How you cook them really is up to you, (although diehards of the various options will naturally insist that their way is best.) Take all that with a grain of salt and do what you like, but again, save some future time for exploration too. Stove top is relatively quick, does a great job, and is easy to keep an eye on – You can always do low and slow in the oven for other stuff down the line.

Boston baked beans made with flageolets? Yup.

Which beans to use? I say try them all, and don’t be shy. Our last two excursion were Mexican enfrijoladas and a glorious clay pot of Boston baked, both of which were made with French beans – Mogette de Vendée and flageolates, respectively. Both were spectacular, my point being that you needn’t be too tied up with using the ‘proper’ variety – Explore and enjoy, because there are a bunch of heirloom bean varieties out there, and you really, truly owe it to yourself to go find them.

There’s a world of bean varieties to choose from out there

Then there’s the question of what to cook them in. A decent stock or soup pot will work just fine and give excellent results. I will say that it’s probably best to steer clear of pressure cookers and instant pots with beans, unless you really know the cooking characteristics of what you’re working with, and the vagaries of the appliance.

Depending on the bean, the cooking time can vary from an hour and change, to several hours. While the lion’s share of the process is pretty hands off, you do need to keep an eye on things, to make sure you don’t turn a pound of heirloom loveliness to mush, (And if you do, no sweat – that just means that you’ll be making bean dip, purée, or enfrijoladas instead of whatever you had in mind initially – and they’ll be delicious.)

Finally, to soak or not to soak? I very rarely do so, but if that’s what you’ve always done and are comfy with, then do it. Soaking will shorten the cooking time somewhat, and some folks believe it helps beans cook more evenly – In any event, it sure won’t hurt. Plan on soaking for at least an hour and up to 4 – Any more than that is likely too much for good quality, freshly dried beans.

Frijoles de la Olla – Basic Pot Beans

1 Pound of good quality dried Beans

1/2 medium Yellow Onion

2 cloves fresh Garlic

Pinch of Salt

A few twists of ground Pepper

Optional:

A few sprigs fresh Epazote or Cilantro

A couple of Bay Leaves, (I like Turkish)

Stem and peel onion and garlic. Both can just be quartered, (as in, quarter the half, so you’ve got a bunch of 1”+ pieces of onion, and quartered cloves of garlic.)

Spread your beans out on a clean baking sheet and check for rocks and other debris, (I’ve never found anything foreign in Rancho Gordo beans, but even they recommend you do this, so…)

Pour beans into a colander and rinse in cold water.

Add the beans to a cooking vessel big enough to allow for significant expansion as they absorb water – A 3 qt. sauce pan does great for a pound of beans.

Add the onion, garlic, three finger pinch of salt, and a few twists of pepper. If you’re using any or all the optional, they can go in now too, except epazote, which is a finishing herb added at the very end of the process.

Add enough clean, fresh water to cover the beans by about 3 inches.

Turn the burner on high and let ‘er rip.

Keep an eye on things, and when you get a vigorous boil, reduce the heat enough to maintain a boil but not get crazy, and set a timer for 15 minutes.

When your timer goes off, drop the heat to just maintain a bare simmer, and cover the pot.

Continue cooking until you’ve got the doneness you’re after. You will want to keep an eye on water level, and maintain 2” to 3” above the beans – Add hot water from a kettle when you top things off – Again, they’ll usually absorb more water as they cook.

What is done? Personally, I want mine fairly al dente, so that I’ve got room for further cooking in whatever dishes I’m going to make without getting mushy beans – Other folks want theirs soft at this initial cook – You do what you like.

Beans are a potential food safety hazard just like other proteins. They need to cool down from cooking temp to under 41° F in 4 hours or less. Employing an ice bath around your cooking pot is the quickest and easiest way to get there.

Bean broth is great stuff and shouldn’t be wasted. Use it in soups, stews, sauces and whatever bean dishes you’re making.

Beans can be stored in the fridge for 3 to 5 days safely, and can be frozen for up to 4 months with little degradation of flavor.

friEither way, put them in clean, airtight containers with most or all of the broth. We use glass storage containers with snap lids for both jobs – That lets you portion for about what you want for a meal easily, and allows for quick thawing and cooking when you need them. 

Weighing In on Great Cookies

T’is the season for cookies, right? If you’ve got favorites or old family recipes that you love, I say cherish them, and certainly don’t mess with them – share them, and pass them on to your kids. If, on the other hand, you’ve tried other recipes and been sorely vexed and/or disappointed by the results, there’s a good chance you’re not to blame. Why is that? Most likely, it’s then that ratio thing – The thing that’s so vital to cooking, and especially to baking. Done right, cookies are easy as 1, 2, 3 – But not everyone follows the rules – It’s time to weigh in on that.

Which means we’re talking about that ratio thing – it’s 1, 2, 3, as in one part sugar, to two parts fat, to three parts flour. Subscribe to that, and the cookies world’s your oyster. Violation of this ratio, on the other hand, will likely not yield good results, and therein lies the problem with a lot of the recipes you find online, or in poorly researched cookbooks.

It would be fair to ask, how do I know this to be true? Well, let me say this about that. I got an idea for a dried cherry/chocolate/almond cookie, but was short on time and not thinking very clearly. I grabbed something off the net that was kinda close, and subbed my stuff for theirs – equal amounts of dried fruit and nuts, (albeit theirs used cranberries and walnuts). What I got was a very tasty cookie out of the oven, although they were a bit wetter and flatter than I wanted. The next day, they fell apart. Just sitting in a storage box, they fell apart – a box of somewhat gooey cookie crumbs. I grabbed that original recipe and took a closer look. Their ratio was somewhere around 3-3-2, flour to fat to sugar, and that would explain my less than stellar results. My bad, and lesson reinforced. If you know the ratio, it’s easier to start from scratch than it is to trust a recipe from somewhere else.

The first bake - The absolutely wrong ratio The first bake – The absolutely wrong ratio

The other major contributor to epic baking fails is the use of volume measurements in recipes, instead of weight. Most professional bakers around the globe weigh rather than measure, for very sound reasons. Weighing ingredients is far, far more reliable, because you get much more accurate ratios. Fundamentally, a gram is a gram the world around, but a cup most definitely is not. ‘1 Cup’ can mean anything from .85 to 1.20 of a US Cup, and that’s a wide enough margin to cause issues. It all adds up to the fact that, if you want to learn to bake really well, you’re going to need to start weighing ingredients. 

That’ll require a decent digital kitchen scale, which are cheap and readily available. Get one that has a generous bowl for doing the deed, and portioning out ingredients for most home recipes is a breeze. Is it worth twenty bucks and a very simple learning curve to become a better home baker? Yeah, it is.

The very cool thing about all this is that it opens up the world of design-your-own recipes, rather than relying on someone else’s. The next thing you know, you’ll be using cookbooks for inspiration or reference, or for the love of what the author did, not because you need them to follow recipes.

Alright, so, if we’re committed, then let us examine ingredients a bit more, then a few thoughts on technique.

Flour. What type we use matters – unbleached white pastry or all purpose are the preferred options for cookies. Pastry flour has less protein than AP, (but more than cake flour), so it strikes a great balance of flaky and tender. Bleached is a no no, as the bleaching process messes with proteins, leading to reduced gluten production, (AKA cookies that don’t hold together well). Combining flours may be a thing you’ll want to do, depending on what you’re after. The classic Scottish shortbread recipe calls for unbleached all purpose white and rice flour, for instance. Whole grain flours add a denser, nuttier end result. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 30% of those in your mix, (which doesn’t discount those who do a bunch more – to each their own.) Varied flour ratios lead to different results, of course. A higher proportion of flour versus the liquid contained in your chosen fat and eggs leads to a more tender crumb, (and a more delicate cookie.) A lower proportion generally produces a chewier texture. Note – if you do use a recipe that simply calls for flour, they mean unbleached white all purpose.

Sweeteners. Sugar isn’t the only thing you can or should use in a cookie recipe, but it’s far and away the most popular. In addition to its sweetening power, sugar helps cookies brown, (caramelization), and contributes to crispiness by sucking up some moisture from the dough. Sugar also helps cookies spread out as they bake, (and if the ratio’s off, as it was in my first go round, then oh boy, do they.) There are a bunch of sugars out there. Some folks think that pure cane tastes better than stuff made from sugar beets. There’s bakers sugar, which is a pure cane sugar that’s ground finer than the regular stuff – it does everything a bit more efficiently. Brown sugar adds a bit of moisture to the mix by virtue of added or retained molasses – That contributes to a softer, chewier texture.

Speaking of molasses, that and a bunch of other things, like corn syrup (uggh!), maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave nectar and good old honey can also be used. I recommend keeping maple syrup to the adjunct column, (it’s strongly flavored and expensive). Honey and agave nectar are popular substitutions these days, and for good reason – They add flavor notes plain old sugar can’t, and have far greater sweetening power. Due to the latter consideration, there are adjustments that must be made when using them – Honey is roughly twice as potent as sugar, and agave nectar around 3/4 more, so sweetener volume, and overall moisture, must be tweaked accordingly. Both are also somewhat acidic, so you’ll want baking soda in your recipe to balance that out. Both should be added and blended with fat prior to adding flour, just as you would with sugar. Finally, it’s a good rule of thumb to reduce your baking temperature by 25° F, because both agave and honey brown faster than sugar.

Fats. Butter is far and away the most common version used, although there are far more options out there – shortening, lard, ghee, cream cheese, heavy cream, various cooking oils, or combinations thereof can and are used in baking. Using any of those will give you differing results, of course – While most of what’s listed above won’t make a huge difference in color or texture, they will in terms of flavor, so be prepared to experiment. That said, fats don’t just add calories, they impact every aspect of a recipe, from overall consistency, to how they bake. For instance, butter has a notably lower melting point than many of the others noted herein, so if you see a recipe calling for half butter and half shortening or lard, what the maker was likely after was a cookie that wouldn’t end up as thin and crispy as a pure butter version would. When and if you use butter, use unsalted, because salted varies widely in how much salt is onboard.

Not all cookie recipes contain eggs, but most do, and for darn good reasons – they contribute significantly to the whole shebang. Eggs act as the largely unsung framework upon which everything else in a dough depends. They add moisture, lecithin (an emulsifier that helps disparate constituents get together), fat, and of course, protein. They help gluten do its thing, and contribute appreciably to flavor, texture, and mouth feel.

Leavening of some kind is present in the vast majority of cookie recipes. Baking soda helps cookies rise, and as mentioned, can neutralize acids like sugar and honey which, left unchecked, can mess with browning. Baking powder will also give a lift, and contribute to a lighter texture as well. Both add lift by generating CO2. Baking soda is pure bicarbonate of soda, while baking powder is that plus cream of tartar (an acidifier) and starch, used as a drying agent. If you’ve never noticed, there are single and double acting baking powders – Single means it needs moisture to activate and must be baked right away – Double means some gas gets generated right away, but most does not until baking begins, so it can hang for a time without negative effects.

Salt may be a minor ingredient, but it’s a critical one. Its unique ability to enhance flavor, separating molecules and making them available to our noses, is unmatched. It also helps strengthen the proteins within a dough, contributing to a nice chewy cookie. There’s a bunch of salts out there, and we’ve covered a lot about them here, (including our recent post on plastics in sea salts). In addition to a whole raft of varieties, these days you can also readily find different grinds. Used to be you’d need to find pickling or canning salt for a fine grind – now that’s widely available, and that’s what you want for baking – it disperses and blends much better than the coarser stuff.

Alright, let’s discuss technique. This may seem fussy, but in the end run, if you’re after making more than just a good cookie, it matters.

It is a best practice to have all your ingredients at room temperature when you’re ready to make a dough. One of the key things we need to accomplish when we do that, is to allow combined ingredients to form an emulsion that will trap and hold a fair amount of air – that’s what expands when we bake, yielding a light, fluffy cookie. Having your fat and eggs at room temperature lets a creamed mixture do exactly that – cold ingredients will impede that process.

Next, sift your dry ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter, run them through a ingle mesh strainer into a mixing bowl. Sifted flour, leavening, chocolate, what have you, is lighter, and incorporates better than non.

Creaming is what it’s called when we perform the most critical step in great cookie making – combing the fat and sugars and whisking them into a smooth, fluffy emulsion. This uniform, air injected blend is critical – Leavening agents produce CO2, yes, but they won’t do it well if they don’t have the trapped air, combined with a well mixed emulsion to hold it all in.

Once you’ve added the dry ingredients to the wet and have them uniformly mixed, stop messing with the dough – Excessive handling leads to tough cookies. 

Bake in the lower middle section of your oven, bake one sheet of cookies at a time, and spin the sheet 180° half way through the bake – All those little things add up to greater consistency and better goodies. If you really want to get after it, calibrate your oven with an external thermometer, so you know what yours really bakes at, (At work, we get right down to zone temps in our deck and rack ovens, so we know precisely where the hot and cold spots are.)

Here then is my correct recipe for chocolate, almond and cherry cookies. This will make 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you portion. And yeah, it’s in grams – That’s how the rest of the world works, so we might as well get with the program. And yeah, I did give you volume cheats, too, just in case you chicken out – using those will still make a pretty good cookie.

The second bake - The right ratio - Yes, please! The second bake – The right ratio – Yes, please!

Chocolate, Almond & Cherry Cookies (2-3 dozen)

380 grams All Purpose Flour (3 Cups)

230 grams Unsalted Butter (2 sticks)

100 grams Bakers Sugar (1/2 Cup)

80 grams Dark Brown Sugar (1/2 Cup)

115 grams dried Bing Cherries (1/2 Cup)

115 grams slivered Almonds (1/2 Cup)

340 grams semi-sweet Chocolate chunks (12 ounce bag)

2 large Eggs

10 grams Vanilla Bean paste, (extract is fine too – 2 teaspoons)

4 grams Baking Soda (1 teaspoon)

4 grams fine Salt (1/2 teaspoon)

Have your eggs and butter at room temperature before proceeding.

In a cast iron skillet over medium heat, toast the almonds, stirring regularly and keeping a close eye that they don’t scorch. Remove from heat when they’re golden brown and fragrant.

When the almonds have cooled sufficiently, chop them into roughly 1/4” pieces, and set aside.

Chop cherries into roughly pea sized pieces, and set aside.

Run flour and baking soda through a sifter or single mesh strainer, into a large mixing bowl.

For the lions share of the process, a stand mixer is preferred, but if you don’t have one, you can hand whisk – Just be forewarned, it’s going to be a bit of a workout.

In a stand mixer bowl set up with a paddle, add the butter and mix on low until it’s smooth and even – about 2 minutes. 

Stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the butter down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add the sugars and salt and mix on low until the blend is smooth, about 1-2 minutes.

Again, stop the mixer, and use a spatula to scrape the creamed mixture down from the bowl sides and paddle.

Add an egg and the vanilla paste to the creamed mixture and mix on low until fully incorporated – No more than 30 seconds. Repeat the process with the second egg, and again, 15 to 30 seconds tops – You don’t want to over-beat the eggs.

With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture, and mix until fully incorporated – Stop as soon as that’s achieved.

Remove the bowl from the mixer, and add chocolate, cherries, and almonds, and incorporate with a spatula, until evenly mixed.

Now that it’s mixed, you can chill your dough – for at least an hour, if you want a taller, lighter cookie. If you prefer things a bit flatter and crunchier, go ahead and bake. That said, if you’ve got a really warm kitchen, it’s a good idea to chill the dough for at least a half hour before baking, just to make sure things don’t get too loose.

If you don’t plan to bake right away, just transfer the dough onto parchment paper, and roll it into a log about 1 1/2” thick, then add a layer of aluminum foil. That’ll hold in the fridge for a week, no problem. It’ll also freeze well for up to a month – Just let the dough thaw for 15-30 minutes before cutting off 1/3” to 1/2” thick slices, and then bake away.

When you’re ready to bake, preheat oven to 350° F, and position a rack in the lower middle section.

Line a baking sheet with parchment, or use a silicone baking mat.

Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto the sheet, about 2” to 3” apart.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, spinning the sheet 180° at about 6 minutes in.

Remove the sheet from oven, and slide the parchment or silicone onto a cutting board, cooling rack, etc.

Let them cool for 10 minutes or so before you dig in, and for at least a half hour before you store them – an airtight glass container is best.

Makin’ Bacon

Love bacon? Love good bacon? Seen the prices lately? Us too! That little revelation led us to home made, courtesy of Michael Ruhlman.

I started our odyssey with a search for pork belly locally, which wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it’d be. Eventually, we found roughly 15 pound packs at Cash and Carry for $3.15 a pound. We took that home, divided it into 2 1/2 pound batches, and went to town.

 photo IMG_0931.jpg

Our first batch was made straight from Ruhlman’s recipe. It turned out great, but it wasn’t exactly what I want in my perfect bacon. Having no doubt that experimentation is almost always a good thing, we analyzed the results and decided that Ruhlman’s would be, for us, perfect lunch and dinner bacon, but not breakfast. We found Michael’s recipe a touch salty, even when we’d carefully weighed the pork belly and salt; further, we felt that while the bay leaf, nutmeg, garlic and thyme in that recipe added glorious floral notes perfect for lardons, and stellar for carbonara, it was a bit much for our breakfast palate, so we set out to build our perfect breakfast bacon.

While one needs to stick pretty closely to the 1.5:1 salt to curing salt ratio for proper bacon, you have relative freedom with the other ingredients, so we revamped with our chosen notes, less salt, more sugar, Grains of Paradise for that unique pepper note we love, brown mustard seed for the tang, and a little smoke.

The results were spot on, and we’re happy campers!

2.5 pounds Pork Belly
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar or real Maple Syrup
1 Ounces Flaked Salt
1.5 teaspoons Pink Curing Salt, (Sodium Nitrite)
2 Tablespoons Grains of Paradise, coarsely ground
2 teaspoons Brown Mustard seed, coarsely
1 teaspoon Smoke Powder

Mix all dry rub ingredients except the smoke powder together in a bowl.

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Set your belly on a baking dish or sheet tray.

Rub the cure onto and well into all surfaces of the belly. Take your time and work it right in there evenly and completely.

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Place your belly into 1 a gallon Ziplock bag, press the excess air out, and set it in the back of your fridge for 3 days.

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On day 4, pull out your belly and rub everything back into the flesh again. Set ‘er back into the fridge for another 3 days.

And on the 7th day, there be bacon…

Pull your belly outta the bag, rinse your sink well and then stick the belly under nice, cold running water and rinse all the cure off, giving it a good rub as you do.

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Preheat oven to 200 F.

Pat your belly dry with paper towels and set into a glass baking dish or a sheet pan.

Rub the smoke powder evenly and thoroughly into your belly.

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Roast for 90 minutes, or until your internal temp reaches 150 F.

Remove from oven, allow to cool, and then repackage in a ziplock in the fridge. It’ll last as long as store bought, or maybe a bit less, since it has less bullshit stuff in it; anyway, I’d bet that after you try it, lasting long won’t be an issue…

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You can freeze bacon, but not for more than about a month. If you do freeze it, you’ll want all the air you can out of the bag so, again, vacuum sealing is best.

You can also sub Honey or Agave Nectar for the sugar and get some pretty nice flavor variations. Our family also likes peppered bacon, and for that we’ll layer on a bit of olive oil and ground, black pepper for the roast.

Big thanks to Michael Ruhlman for a wonderful charcuterie book, and for encouraging experimentation. Now it’s your turn, and make sure you try his recipe, because it rocks and it just might be your all-around fave!

Enjoy!

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