Ingredient Of The Month

Great for meats and soups, buy a bottle for your kitchen: Sea salt

Monday, May 31, 2010

No Food Left Behind (Warning: Disturbing Images Included)

Have you ever wondered if food is happy with its lot in life?  Does it yearn to achieve greatness?  Well, of course food cares.  Do you really think that an egg would choose to be used in bread or dropped in the supermarket?  No, they want to be the star.  Egg drop soup, hard boiled eggs, egg foo young, or a Denver omelet probably top the list of ways an egg would choose to be eaten.  Becoming an Easter egg would be the equivalent getting drafted into the NBA for a young egg.  I think every food would desire to go out in a blaze of glory.

 These are just a few of those foods that society has ignored.  Once young and full of life, they now seem like a burden more than a blessing.

Unfortunately, many foods in our society never reach their full potential and fall between the cracks.  Many factors lead to food becoming a drain on society.  For some food it's all about where you live.  Food living in the opaque crisper at shin level will likely not be seen by those that can make a difference.  Perhaps the little yogurt in the back of the fridge just has a hard time living in the shadow of the gallon of milk that seems to dominate the limelight.  I once knew a young Parmesan cheese that, despite it's potential for flavor, was forgotten and ignored until it was too late simply because it was "difficult to work with."  Truly the saddest story is the bag of carrots that was only purchased because we felt like that is what responsible people have in their fridge.  Never really intending to care for the carrots, the owner subjects young vegetables to his or her own vanity that drives many shoppers.  Those carrots end up being tossed out and become a ward of the state.

 Here is just one example of a squallier unit that many foods live in.  Overpopulated, dirty, and the new food seems easily corrupted by the spoiled food that lurks in the shadows.

The reality of our society is that we give preferential treatment to certain privileged foods, while other foods seem abused, forgotten, and just become another statistic.  It would seem like a social injustice to not act to save a raw steak from going bad, yet we don't shed a tear when we throw out an expired salad dressing.  True, some salad dressings make a bad salad (thousand island), but there are many wasted dressings would be delicious if given a chance, yet when we look into the fridge, it is as though we don't see them because it's easier to ignore them than face the guilt of our own insensitivity.

I too am guilty of such treatment of foods.  It seems  despite my best intentions, I can never really get through to my sack of potatoes, and I ignore them until they start getting into trouble by sprouting in the seedy parts of the kitchen.  When I finally bother to find out how they are doing, it's as if I don't even recognize them anymore.  I know that potatoes are great, but for me, I just don't find the time to give them the proper attention they deserve.  They require cleaning, peeling, cutting, and long cook times.  My kitchen seems to have a revolving door for young underprivileged spuds. 

What can you do?  There are a few things we can do to avoid all the waste in the kitchen.
  1. Buy appropriate sizes:  Stop buying perishables on a $/per pound mentality.  Just because another $0.25 will double my sack of potatoes from 3 lbs to 6 lbs, doesn't mean I really need the extra potatoes.  It may seem like I'm being frugal with my money, but if I waste the food, I waste the money.
  2. Reduce Variety:  There is no need for a family of 2 adults and two small children to have 4 open salad dressings in the fridge. 
  3. Plan Ahead:  Shopping around planned meals is much better for a small family than stocking your kitchen like a 5-star restaurant.  No one is going to be ordering strange foods in your kitchen, quit keeping strange foods if you aren't going to use them soon.
  4. De-clutter the fridge:  Food seems to spoil fast when you can't see it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rice, Rice Baby

Most of the world eats rice.  It is a staple that sustains many developing nations.  Although not our favorite grain, it finds its way onto kitchen tables quite a bit.  Yet somehow rice has become a food that we eat with our family, but we seldom serve it to guests.  I too am guilty of treating rice like the ugly shirt in our closet, great for around the house but not when anyone is looking.  Perhaps this is because rice is unpredictable, bland, or considered cheap.  Undaunted, I have challenged myself to make better rice.  Over the past year I have had some major misses, but I've learned a couple of things along the way.  One thing I know for sure, "ricery" (my new word for the art of cooking rice) can be challenging, but it opens up the door for all types of ethnic cuisine.

Know Your Rice

When I was a kid there were only four types of rice that I was aware of: (1) white rice, (2) brown rice, (3) Uncle Ben's, and (4) fried rice.  Not to say that my mother didn't use multiple varieties, but for a teenager this is basically all the mental capacity we have rationed off for rice knowledge.  The rest of our brain is reserved for more pressing teenage matters.  Sadly I took this limited knowledge into married life for a few years until I started cooking.  Then I discovered there was more to rice than color or speed.  Check out this simple rice guide that mentions some of the big hitters.  By-the-way, if you haven't guessed by now, the internet is my source for cooking basics.  I use websites like the previous link any time I'm cooking.  Here are a couple that are not mentioned on that guide:
  1. Jasmine Rice: I like this rice for any dish where you are likely to actually taste the flavor of the rice and the rice isn't simply a vehicle to deliver some other sauce or flavoring.  This means I don't use this for soups or anything like that.  I do this because Jasmine Rice is very aromatic and has more flavor than American long white rice.  It is more expensive than regular white rice, but I will pull out the jasmine if I'm going to serve stir fry or some type of curried dish.
  2. Wild Rice:  One of my favorite dishes that my wife makes is a chicken and wild rice soup.  Although wild rice is actually a grass, it traditionally falls into the rice category.  Try mixed with other varieties as a side with chicken or fish.
Know How to Cook Rice

This one is simple.  Every type of rice is different.  Some need to be rinsed, others soaked.  Look up the type of rice you are using and follow the directions found on the interwebs.  You may find that the old 2-1 (two parts water, one rice) recipe for rice may leave you less than satisfied if that is the only thing you do.  If you need sticky rice, make sure you have the right rice and prepare it the right way or you'll just have mushy rice.

Blake's Tips Learned from the Ricery Trenches
  1. Fried Rice?  Don't plan on making good fried rice with a freshly cooked batch of rice.  Cook it in the morning, chill it, and then use it for fried rice that night.  The rice will have a much more appealing texture like you would find at your local take out place.
  2. Cooking with Vegetables?  If you are going to cook other foods in with your rice, like meats and vegetables, make sure that you decrease your water or just plan on eating mush.  Meats and veggies (and I guess fruits too) will release water throw off your 2-1 ratio.  For some reason this is the lesson that took me too long to figure out.  My wife endured plenty terrible all-in-one rice dishes before I started to get the hint.
  3. Mix it:  I am not particularly fond of brown rice, but I have learned to like it when mixed with white rice.  We keep a container of premixed rice in the cabinet to use at home.  Try it if you know brown rice is better for you, but prefer white.  It certainly has helped me adjust.
  4. Leave it alone.  Checking on the rice will not help.  Stirring it certainly wont help.  Follow the recipe and you will be fine.  Rice is like a zit, playing with it will usually make things worse.
  5. Try Chinese Black Rice (Forbidden Rice):  I hear it cooks up purple with the consistency of brown rice.  It is the final frontier of ricery.  Once illegal to have unless you were the emperor, it is now available in specialty stores.  Sadly, black rice is too powerful for me to wield without more training.  I fear I would become corrupt like Frodo Baggins when he wore the ring.  One day I will be man enough, but that day has yet to come.

Finally, while growing up I had a tendency to eat leftover white rice like cereal in a bowl with milk and a little sugar.  It seems to disgust my wife, but it tastes really good to me.  Try it and see if you taste some of the nostalgia with me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Roasted Pennywise with Rosemary

Remember this guy?  Little old Pennywise from the Stephen King thriller "IT."  He was a killer that would appear in the form of your greatest fear.  To defeat him you had to face your fear.  Tonight I faced my fear in the kitchen with a Rib Eye Roast.

There are some things that are pretty forgiving in the kitchen.  Soups and stews often give someone like me a lot of room to screw up and they still turn out pretty good.  Meat, however, is not the same.  Whether it's turkey, steaks, roasts, or chicken; one mistake and your meat will turn as dry as Arizona.  (Don't worry, you'll never know as long as you have nice friends.)  Because of this, I have been a little hesitant to venture too deep into the realm of large meat cooking.  Every time I have tried beef in the past, it has not been pretty.  However, there is a time when everybody needs to man up and just cook a large piece of cow.

First, a primer on roast beef.  There are a number of ways to cook beef.  My childhood memories are filled with Sunday pot roasts with carrots and onions.  I particularly like pot roast because the meat pulls apart and requires no more than a fork.  I have also had roast beef tenderloins that were rolled in salt and oven roasted until it reached a similar result with a crispy crust.  What I have never had much of is the type of roast beef that comes in slices and contains a nice pink center. 

I started with a nice 7 lb. bone-in Rib eye roast.  This particular roast was really good because it had good fat content (marbling).  The fat running through the meat is really important for flavor and texture.
My seasoning was a simple, yet generous, coating of olive oil, fresh garlic, coarse sea salt, ground pepper and freshly minced rosemary.  I choose not to marinade in any sort of sauce because quality beef has really good flavor without the help of overpowering marinades.  You may want a marinade for tougher cuts of beef because they will break down the connective tissues.

After a quick sear at 450 degrees, I dropped the temperature down to 300 degrees for a couple hours.  Once it got to an internal temperature of 148 degrees, I pulled it out to rest.  I would have taken it out once it hit 135 degrees, but my wife likes her meat a little more done than me.  Below is the end result.  It sliced very easy into 1/4 inch"steaks" and it was pretty juicy and tender.  I would have preferred it to be less done because it would have been even more tender.  In the end, it was a success.  Salty, fatty, moist beef.

Here is the lesson to take away:
  1. When it comes to meat, you get what you pay for.  You are not smarter than the cow.  Don't trick yourself into thinking you are going to turn a bottom round roast into a culinary masterpiece.  For dry oven roasting use a tenderloin or rib cut.  For slow cooking in a crock pot you can use a more lean cut like the round roast.  I have tried to violate this rule a number of times and each time I get beef that makes my jaw tired from chewing.  Hint:  The internet is full of good info about cooking meat.  Find the best cooking method for whatever cut you buy.
  2. Using a meat thermometer takes the mystery out of beef.  Know what temp you want and just wait for the meat to arrive.  Do not rely on "cook times" because you don't want to overcook an oven roast.
  3. Wait 15 minutes before cutting (or piercing your roast).  If you get anxious and slice early you will lose all your juices.  Tonight I merely put my carving fork in one side to transfer it right after cooking and I lost a good amount of juice. 
  4. Get out and try it.  There is something about roasting a large section of heifer that really makes a man feel cool.  If roasting is too much work, go to Arby's for a Beef 'n Cheddar.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Food Haters Unite

There are many constant truths that will never fail us.  Babies will cry in restaurants, my cars will always make questionable sounds, and machine guns in action movies always jam at inopportune moments.  Among these truths is the simple fact that no person wants to be a picky eater.  Not liking certain foods can often be a big hassle.  Take for example President George Bush Sr. when he stated:

"I do not like broccoli and I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I’m President of the United States and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli. Now look, this is the last statement I’m going to have on broccoli. There are truckloads of broccoli at this very minute descending on Washington. My family is divided. For the broccoli vote out there: Barbara loves broccoli. She has tried to make me eat it. She eats it all the time herself. So she can go out and meet the caravan of broccoli that’s coming in."

It can also be socially awkward when eating as a guest in someone else's home.  This post is dedicated to rehabilitating yourself and expanding your diet.  This may be useful for those that find themselves living with a Ninja Chef.

Tip #1:  Cook, cook, cook.

I think that much of what prevents us from eating food is the mystery of what food is made of and where it came from.  Actually putting food items into your own pot will usually help somebody overcome the fear that comes with mystery food.  My whole life I had been told that brussels sprouts are gross and disgusting.  I don't think my mom ever served them in our home.  Earlier this year I decided to see what all the criticism is about.  I was surprised to find that I actually like them.  I don't think I would have been so willing if I saw them on the menu at a restaurant.  *Note: Brussels sprouts get a stinky-sulfur smell when they are overcooked.  I sauteed mine with butter and water, delicious.

Tip #2:  Take advantage of your hunger

I often find myself more willing to eat new foods when I'm really hungry.  The fact that hunger dispels anxiety over food has led cultures to eat interesting foods like the McRib,  and subsequently it provided Andrew Zimmern with a career to die for.  Don't those grubs look tasty?

Many of the foods that I didn't like as a kid have made their way into my diet when I was on a religious mission for my church.  I spent two years in Haiti learning the principle that I will eat most anything if I'm hungry enough.  Onions, mushrooms, cabbage, and grits fall into the category of foods I learned to like while hungry. 

Tip #3: Experiment While Traveling

There is something about being on vacation that allows people to eat foods they normally wouldn't.  I began enjoying seafood while visiting Seattle a few years back.  I think that people feel like they need to get their money's worth by really experiencing the location they are in.  Next time you find yourself looking at a menu in some strange location, try something new.  Unfortunately, it does not always work.  I recently enjoyed watching my brother Kelly throw down a halibut sandwich while visiting the Oregon coast.  Even though he despises sea food , this was his attempt at giving something new a try.  He never did finish the sandwich and he fought hard to keep it all down.  Good try Kelly. *NOTE: Kelly did actually finish the sandwich and I didn't pay attention.* My father follows the strict rule of eating local cuisine in any place he travels.  A wise practice.

Tip #4:  Start With Vegetables

Trying new foods is like exercise.  You have to practice to be able to do it well.  I have found vegetables to be the easiest foods to like.  If you aren't quite ready to eat a muscle or prawn, try some eggplant Parmesan or grilled asparagus.  The thought of eating a weird  vegetable doesn't seem as bad as jumping right in with sauteed sheep testicles.  So when trying out tips 1-3, try vegetables first.  The next time you find yourself cruising the produce section, try to find a vegetable that you are not accustomed to.  You may discover chayote squash or asparagus.  I have found that radishes make a good midday snack.  I can eat about 10 at lunch if I'm not paying attention.  My next adventure will likely involve fennel. 

My final thought:

I will say it again, not all foods are created equal.  There is a lot of food that I will not eat.  I don't know who first ate fish eggs, but I'm pretty sure they didn't like it at first.  It is a gross food.  Blake's maxim:  If a food is commonly enjoyed by others in your culture, you may be acting too picky.  However, never feel guilty for not liking a type of food.  To each their own.

I'm interested in hearing about recent foods you have learned to like.  How did you do it?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tapioca and the Swamp of Sadness

Tapioca pudding is the premier pudding in my mind.  I like simple foods that allow you to taste the basic ingredients.  Tapioca pudding is as simple as they come with milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla.  To me tapioca is like hummus, a uncomplicated food canvas on which you can paint your own masterpiece with additions like fruit, cocoa, spices, etc.  (Note: I don't put fruit on my hummus).  I often put a dash of nutmeg in my recipe to give it a warm autumn flavor, but you can really do anything you want to tapioca.

My dad, who likes adventure in the kitchen, uses a mixture of tapioca and vanilla pudding for something he eloquently calls "Pimple Pudding."  A dollop of this heavy pudding goes down on the dish first.  Followed by a big spoonful of homemade raspberry pie filling.  He tops it of with a little whipped cream on top.  Cream, red, white.  Pimple Pudding.  You get the picture.  A culinary treat.  I don't have a picture of the pudding, and for the sake of my reader (yes, singular), I digress from posting pimple pictures.  Here is an illustration to at least give you something to think about.

So being a tapioca guy, I decided to make my own from scratch.  And from scratch, I mean large tapioca pearls that require soaking as opposed to Minute Tapioca which I usually make at home.  At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to follow through.  Here is a comparison of the directions for each method.

The Instant Stuff


  1. Mix sugar, tapioca, milk and egg in a saucepan, let set 5 minutes.
  2. Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly, til mixture comes to a full boil.
  3. Remove from heat, then stir in vanilla.
  4. Cool 20 minutes, then stir.
  5. Serve warm or cold.

The Not-So-Instant Stuff

Follow this link for directions, they are too long to type.

So all that being said, I wanted to do some "real" tapioca the way the founding fathers of tapioca wanted it to be.  I started out on my adventure soaking the pearls overnight, slow cooking them in a make-shift double boiler, and slowly combining the eggs with my hot mixture.  I was like Picasso the way I was gingerly mixing my masterpiece.  I was almost done.  I had fluffed my egg whites to rigid peaks and was ready to fold them into my hot pudding for the final touch.  This is a very important step because the hot pudding will cook the egg whites, so my timing and technique needed to be perfect.

Right when I placed the egg whites on top of the pudding I hear "KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK."  Instantly, I remembered that I had some visitors coming for an important meeting.  I had totally forgotten.  Furthermore, because it was a hot summer day,  I was not dressed adequately to receive company. To be frank, my appearance like this in public would probably violate city ordinances.  Kristin couldn't answer the door because she was in my same situation with the addition of a hungry baby in her arms.  I was caught between my pudding and my guests.  I could finish stirring, but it would take another 3-4 minutes and then I would have to get dressed.  Considering the importance of my meeting, I dropped the spoon and ran to find some pants and a shirt.  I'm pretty sure I felt like Atreyu in Never Ending Story when his horse Artax succumbed to the Swamp of Sadness. (For full dramatic effect, please watch the video.

To make a long story short, my great pudding also succumbed the Swamp of Sadness.  When I returned from my meeting, my pudding was a mess.  The egg whites were not mixed in, yet they had cooked into a sea of nastiness.  The whole apartment smelled like boiled egg for days.  I tried to eat some of it, but it was destroyed.  Goodbye Artax.

I don't know if I can ever return to that tapioca battle field.  I have decided that minute tapioca pudding is a superb pudding, and I have no need to face the humiliating defeat that comes when you put it all on the line for fame, fortune, or just a really good pudding.  Next time you're at my apartment, ask for some minute tapioca, I'm sure I can oblige.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Death by Canning

History Lesson:  Canning was developed in the 1800's as a way to keep high caloric foods at the front lines for armies.  This method was originally done in glass jars but tin cans were soon used for better transport.  Canned foods soon became somewhat of a novelty and became heavily used in WWI and WWII.  As with any war, innocent casualties resulted.  The death of great food.

Take for example leaf spinach.  It is despised by anyone under 18 years old and many adults. When I was a kid the word spinach immediately brought images of tin cans and a super strong sailor.  I think canned spinach was purposely given a bad flavor to keep hostile armies from eating American provisions.  Needless to say, war killed spinach for a long time.  Luckily, we have rediscovered fresh spinach and it has made it way into our kitchens once again.

This history lesson was triggered while dining at our friends house this week.  As part of a Texas themed dinner, our host had prepared "creamed corn."  What?  Who eats creamed corn?  Well, apparently lots of people from the south.  And I quickly learned that, like most canned foods, creamed corn in the can was inspired at one point by an actual food.  This homemade version of a food previously extinct from my adult diet was absolutely delicious.  Find a recipe, try it.  Thanks Lori.

Creamed Corn Side by side:  canned vs. real (hint: the real cream corn is yellow . . . like corn)

My Message:  Not all canned foods are created equal.  I have discovered a number of foods that I prefer to use fresh over canned.  There are also some that I don't mind using canned.  Here is my breakdown of canned foods that may or may not be served to guests in my home:
  1. spinach, creamed corn:  no
  2. corned beef: no (especially not to Irish friends)
  3. green beans: no (army green vs. vibrant green)
  4. carrots, potatoes, mushrooms:  never
  5. kernal corn: yes (but I prefer frozen)
  6. legume beans: yes, but slow cooking dry beans is easy too
  7. spaghetti sauce: maybe (once tried making my own, that deserves its own blog post)
  8. water chestnuts: certainly
  9. Tomatoes: yes
  10. chick peas: always
Moral of the Story:  Most canned foods will save time but you give up flavor and texture.  Some foods give up way too much flavor and texture to be used.  Try replacing them with fresh foods or even frozen.  Remember, many canned foods are in cans not because they take a long time to prepare, but because they are easy to store and transport.  Luckily we have refridgerators and we don't pack our food with us.

As for chick peas (garbanzo beans), I tried making hummus by cooking the dried variety.  It took a long time and it made our apartment smell like eggs for days.  Canned chick peas will be used for hummus in our home from now on.

Note:  I am not a food snob.  I enjoy eating lots of foods from cans.  I have a secret love affair with canned ravioli.  This is merely my perspective on how canning has killed wonderful foods.  Lets bring them back to life.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blake tries baking for a change

Two posts in one day.  Ya, I've been busy.  I don't bake very often, but tonight I tried to make a mixed berry pie.  Fortunatly, it didn't turn out too bad.  A short word about pies.  In my opinion the stress of pie making lies in the crust.  I suggest being kind to yourself and just buy frozen.  There are a few food items that are so well prepared by others that it isn't worth my time to do it my self.  Pie crust falls into that category. 

One the other hand, pie filling is a different beast.  Pie filling from a can is good, but it can often have an unnatural flavor from the metal can and the added preservatives.  If you are going to spend time making a pie, forget the crust, do your own filling.  A couple ingredients I suggest for fruit pies include small amounts of nutmeg, cinnamon, lemon juice, and butter.  There are plenty of recipes online, but you can also eyeball it if you want.  To thicken it I like to use a combination of corn starch and tapioca granules for texture.  Make sure you put an egg wash on top of the crust for the golden finish.  For this pie I even pressed the berries through a food mill to remove almost all the seeds. I would only suggest doing that if you don't mind the cleanup.  This pie was a surprise success.  I think I'll do another for the Boise State game party later this week.

The only mistake I made was forgetting to properly seal my crusts together.  During baking my top crust lifted off and floated on a sea of berry filling.  It fell back into place and then sealed again after  I took it out.  Like I said before, I don't bake very often.

Please feel free to comment about your own pie making tips.