Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chayote Saute

You may remember that our family food revolution was designed, in part, to encourage more adventurous eating.  Like a lot of people, I tend to buy the same things each week, even if I’m planning to put them together in different ways–but I’m always delighted when I find something new to like in the produce section.  So today I took a careful stroll through its aisles when I went to the grocery store, in search of a new discovery.  What caught my eye was the guy at left: lumpy, pear-shaped (but much larger than a regular pear), the color of a Granny Smith apple, nestled between the butternut and zucchini.  I was intrigued, and the the price was right, so I purchased my first chayote (chai-oh-tee) squash.

When I came home and started doing some research, I felt a little silly.  Though it looked and sounded pretty exotic to me, the chayote is a fairly common type of squash used in Mexico, the Caribbean, and throughout the south.  I found dozens of recipes for chayote soup, chayote rellenos, stuffed chayote,  baked chayote, chayote chili . . . the list went on and on.  Chayote was still new to us, though, and that was the point. Ultimately, I settled on a very simple preparation: sliced chayote sauteed with a little bit of thinly sliced onion.  I wanted the flavor of our new discovery to be the centerpiece of whatever we were eating.

I did, however, take the liberty of slicing up the chayote before the Foodie children came home from school.  Given that it’s a member of the squash family (which the younger Foodies have decided they don’t enjoy, barring the occasional piece of chocolate zucchini cake), and given that it’s rather, well, odd looking, I decided it might be best for all involved if chayote made its first appearance in their lives on their dinner plates.  I worried that the skin would be hard to slice through, as it is with butternut and spaghetti squash, but the chayote’s skin is actually fairly thin and easy to cut.  My largest knife took care of the job with minimal elbow grease.  Rather than seeds and strings at the chayote’s center, there’s something more like a soft avocado pit.   Once I’d removed the pit, I simply sliced the chayote into half-inch thick pieces, then cut half a yellow onion into thin slices as well.

Some of the recipes I looked at suggested adding vinegar and sugar to the chayote while it sautes; others suggested lime juice.  I went with the latter (about a tablespoon), plus sea salt, a little bit of sugar (very little–maybe half a teaspoon), and a sprinkle of black pepper.  I put the onions in the pan first, with a little olive oil; after two or three minutes, I added the chayote, lime juice, and seasonings, then mixed everybody together and let the mixture saute for about five minutes.  Since this is a common side dish in Mexico, I served it up alongside chicken enchiladas for dinner.

The verdict?  Sadly, the Foodie children were not impressed.  “It’s not the worst thing you’ve made me eat,” The Boy said, “but I don’t really like the flavor.”  The combination of salt and lime juice was new to both kids, and because the flavor of chayote itself is very mild, lime was mostly all they could taste.  The Hubs and I found the texture appealing, somewhere between raw zucchini and raw potato–crisp, even though the chayote had been cooked through until it was hot.  The flavor, though, was rather bland.  I tasted the onions, salt, and lime juice more than anything specific in the chayote.

I have the feeling the chayote is meant to be more of a texture than a primary flavor, so if I try it again I think it will be in a soup or stew–in any case, some dish that makes use of multiple flavors.   Still, for less than two dollars I was able to demonstrate to the Foodie children that trying new things won’t kill you.  Here’s hoping we’ll have better luck with next week’s discovery!

 

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Monday, January 2, 2012

More Questions, More Answers

Photo credit: Move At Light Speed

Now that I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half, I’ve come to be known among my friends and colleagues as a person who knows a little something about food.  This may or may not be true, depending on your definition of “a little something.”  I don’t know the difference between a gastrique and a coulis, for instance.  But I do know why it’s important to remove your cream sauce from a hot burner before you stir in the grated cheese, and I do understand the compromise you’re making in flavor when you place chunks of beef in a slow cooker without browning them first.  Like I said, how much you know really depends on who’s doing the questioning.

I answered some of the questions I’m asked most often in this post, but since then I’ve been asked new questions–some by friends, some by family members, some by blog readers, and some by random strangers at the grocery store.  (I guess I exude a knowledgeable Foodie mystique, because this happens on a fairly regular basis, which amuses The Hubs to no end.  “That never happens to me,” he says.)   Here’s just a sampling:

How many times a week do you go to the grocery store?  That completely depends on the time of year.  During the school year, when I’m teaching, I try to make one big trip to the grocery store each week.  If I have to make a small trip for perishables at mid-week, I will–but I try to work with what I have at home, so that won’t be necessary.  (I love grocery shopping, but not when I’m in a rush, as I often am during the week.)  During the summer, when I’m not teaching and the extreme heat of south Texas makes everything highly perishable, I tend to buy only what I’ll need for the next few days.

How do you come up with so many different ideas?  I read the food section of my local newspaper every Sunday.  I subscribe to three different food magazines:  Cooking Light, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit.  (Those last two subscriptions were free “rewards” I received as part of a customer loyalty program, and I probably won’t re-subscribe when they lapse–I don’t find them particularly useful.)  I look at the free magazine produced by my local grocery retailer, HEB.  I read other food blogs.  I watch Food Network once in awhile.  I think about things I like to eat, and I think about different ways to put them together.  (There’s no end of things you can stuff into a tortilla.)  Basically, I’m obsessed with food.  Coming up with new ideas is never a problem; deciding what to make is.

What do you do when your family doesn’t like what you’ve made?  I ask questions.  Is it too spicy?  Too bland?  Too squishy?  Too crunchy?  Is there a particular ingredient or flavor you don’t care for?  The Hubs is very easy to please, but turning dinnertime into an opportunity for critique gives the Foodie children some control over what they’re eating.  As a result, they’re more willing to try new things.  If they don’t like it, they know it’s unlikely they’ll see the same dish again.  And they know their feedback helps me with this blog, which makes them proud.

Do people tell you when they try your recipes?  Sometimes.  And I love it when they do.  Making people feel competent in the kitchen is one of my main goals with this blog–so the knowledge that one of my recipes inspired someone to get in the kitchen and cook makes me very, very happy.

How do you thicken up a runny sauce?  If it’s a savory sauce or gravy, use a beurre manie.  Sounds fancy, I know, but it’s just equal parts of butter and flour.  Use a fork to cut them together, and make sure every speck of flour is stuck to a piece of butter, no matter how small.  Then just stir it into your sauce until it thickens up.  If it’s a sweet sauce, boiling is almost always the solution.  Even if your sauce is cold, put it back on the stove (or in the microwave) and see if letting it boil for a few minutes makes a difference.   If not, let it cool again, fold it into whipped cream and call it mousse.

What’s the difference between all the kinds of apples?  This question came to me via an older gentleman at the grocery store–I’m pretty certain he hadn’t set food in a grocery store for a very long time, because he seemed completely baffled by the selection.  And I can understand this, because when I was a kid I’m pretty sure the apple choices were limited to Red and Green.  But, generally speaking, apples differ in terms of moisture content and degree of tartness: firmer apples (like Granny Smiths) are at the tart end of the spectrum; softer apples (like Red Delicious) are on the sweeter end.  Firm apples are better for baking because they hold up against heat.   I told my fellow shopper that his best bet was to try a few different kinds and see what he liked, but I pointed him toward the mid-spectrum Gala and Fuji apples.

Is organic produce really worth the extra money?  It’s awfully expensive.  This question came to me via a woman with a shopping cart full of small children.  I told her that I worry less about produce that’s going to be peeled (like bananas or squash) or produce that’s easily washed (like apples or pears.)  I worry more about produce with a permeable skin or exposed surface: berries, greens, leafy herbs, etc.  The truth of the matter is, organics are more expensive because it’s more difficult to raise produce that looks marketable if you can’t rely on chemical pesticides–those products have given us very high standards, when it comes to the visual appeal of our produce–and because farmers who use organic practices tend to grow smaller crops, due to their labor-intensive nature.  So, really, you’re voting for farming methods with your grocery dollars: if more people vote organic, prices will go down and organic produce will become more accessible to everyone.  Because I can afford to buy organic once in awhile, I think it’s my responsibility to vote for those who can’t.

My wife just had surgery and she sent me out to do the shopping.  She put “diet ice cream” on this shopping list.  Do you know what that means?  Maybe low-fat ice cream.  Maybe fat-free.  Maybe frozen yogurt.  Maybe sugar-free ice cream, but probably not.  (The gentleman who asked this question wound up buying one carton of low-fat and one of sugar-free, just to make sure he could demonstrate that he’d made an effort to get it right.)

What do you make for dinner when you feel like you’re just too tired to cook?  Usually, pasta in some variation.  Top that with a basic marinara sauce, or a pesto sauce with spinach (and chicken, if you like) or a cheese sauce with broccoli.  Baked, especially with some cheese or bread crumbs on top–or which cheese between layers–or both–pasta is the basis of a really simple dinner.

If you have food-related questions of your own, feel free to leave them in the comments.  I’m happy to take a shot at putting my Foodie knowledge to use for you.

 

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Food Revolutions for 2012

Photo credit: Chris Chapman

Yes, yes, I know.  The word is resolutions.  But when I was in college, I had a roommate who used to confuse those words on a regular basis, and I always kind of liked the idea of creating a little revolution in my own life at the beginning of each new year.  One of the reasons I stopped making resolutions several years ago is that I noticed most people (myself included) tend to make the same ones every year–lose weight, save money, whatever–which seems to suggest that resolution-making isn’t really the best approach to revolutionary change.  Either that, or they make resolutions over which they have little or no control, when it comes to making them happen:  this will be the year I find my dream job, this will be the year I find my life partner.   Focusing your energies on things over which you have no control is, in my opinion, a recipe for disaster.

So, this year, I’m going to create a small food revolution in the Foodie household that is entirely focused on things I can control.

1.  Better breakfasts for The Girl.  To say she is not a morning person would be putting it mildly–over this Christmas break, she mostly stayed up until the wee hours of the morning and slept through the rest of it.  So, during the school year, it’s a challenge to get her out of bed in time to get dressed, much less in time to eat breakfast.  This year I’m committing myself to finding healthy, portable breakfasts that she can take with her as she flies out the door in the morning–things that don’t include peanut butter or raisins, two of her least favorite foods.  My hope is that this will encourage her to eat less junk food later in the day.  (Once your kids have friends with driving privileges and money of their own, it’s hard to regulate their junk food consumption.)

2.  Better snacks for The Boy.  Like all teenagers of the male persuasion, The Boy eats constantly.  I rarely keep junk food in the house,so he isn’t snacking on chips or soda (because, thank heaven, he  isn’t driving yet,)  but I’ve started to think that I might as well use his eating energy to its full potential.   An apple is a good snack, but is it the best we can do?  That’s what I’m going to find out this year.

3.  More meatless meals.  We actually like a good number of meals that don’t include any kind of meat, but I haven’t really made an effort to include them in our menu on a regular basis.  Rather than aiming for Meatless Mondays, I’m going to make a more general commitment to putting a meatless dinner entree on the table once a week.

4.  Try new things.  I used to receive a weekly box of goodies from a local company that delivers organic produce from local farms.  That’s how I discovered that I like escarole, and purple hull peas, and dragon tongue beans.  Unfortunately, that delivery just isn’t within our budget anymore.  And, left to my own devices, I don’t try as many new things as I might–mostly because I’m afraid I won’t like them, or I won’t know how to prepare them.  But, as I’m always telling the Foodie children, you’ll miss out on a lot of good stuff if you aren’t brave enough to take some chances.  This year, I intend to take more chances on new produce.

5.  Less waste.  I admit that I’m terrible at meal planning.  I tend to go the grocery store and see what looks good, planning meals on the fly as I shop.  But then I get home, and either the meals I’d planned lose their appeal, or they’re interrupted by new plans that make use of only half the ingredients I purchased–or, as is often the case, I forget what I’d planned (and what I put in the vegetable crisper.)  I know myself well enough to realize that committing to writing out a meal plan just isn’t realistic.  It won’t happen.  I can, however, commit to emptying out the vegetable crisper each week (except for longer-term keepers, like onions and garlic and potatoes), and to using the meat I purchase, rather than throwing it in the freezer where it’s certain to wind up freezer burned and, eventually, discarded.  Those two things, by themselves, will take care of a vast majority of the waste in the Foodie household.

And now, while we’re on the subject of resolutions, may I suggest two very small things for you, Foodie faithful?

1.  Grate your own cheese.  That white stuff you see on pre-grated cheese at the grocery store is sometimes corn starch, but it’s sometimes food-grade silicone.  Either way, the cheese you purchase in bags is dried out–that’s what keeps the shredded pieces from sticking together–and it won’t melt as smoothly in whatever you’re making.  Do yourself a favor and grate your own cheese this year.  It take less than three minutes.  I’m not estimating here, I’ve actually timed myself.  Grating an eight-ounce block of cheese has never taken me longer than that.  And freshly grated cheese really does taste better.  I promise.

2.  Chop your own veggies.  My grocery store offers chopped versions of many vegetables.  Carrots?  They’re already in sticks.  Onions?  They’re already diced.  Celery?  Diced or in sticks, whichever you prefer.  Etc., etc.  But these chopped versions are always much more expensive, never organic, and–let’s face it–they’re the reject vegetables.  No one is chopping up the veggies that look marketable to consumers.  And while there’s nothing wrong with them, in the sense that they’ll cause you bodily harm, I’m a big believer that buying the chopped versions of vegetables changes our relationship with our food: they make us forget that what we’re eating are plants that someone took the time and effort to grow, and someone else took the time to harvest–often for very little pay, but always so you and I could have them for dinner.  Use the little bit of time you spend chopping your veggies to say thank you to the farmers who nurture them from seed, and to the farm workers who make our lives so very simple.   These are the invisible parties in our food lives, without whom none of us would be having dinner tonight.

Happy 2012 to all.  Let’s start a small, peaceful, but noteworthy food revolution.

 

 

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Skillet Pork Chops with Apple and Onion Saute

We in the Foodie family are not pork people, as a general rule.  I’ve made a pork loin on Christmas Eve several times, but we favor turkey bacon and sausage over their pork counterparts, and we rarely ever eat ham.  But, while I was doing the grocery shopping this week, I saw a package of pork chops and noted that the price was right.  Plus, I was just in the mood to try something different.  Surely, I thought, it’s possible to create a pork chop recipe that everyone will enjoy.  I am, after all, The Family Foodie.

One of the Foodie children’s objections to pork chops is that they’re tough and hard to chew.  I decided to start off by marinating the pork chops in buttermilk for about four hours, to soften them up.  Then I did some research to find a combination of seasonings that might work for the chops.  The Boy really doesn’t like sage, but it kept coming up in every recipe I consulted.  In the end, I compromised by including it, but scaling it way back, so it wasn’t the most prominent flavor.  A number of recipes called for allspice, which I didn’t have on hand; normally I’d substitute ground cloves, but I was out of those too.  (Winter baking tends to deplete those warm spices.)  So, I used a touch of cinnamon, assuming it would work well in this savory dish since it has served me well in Moroccan dinner dishes in the past.

I also used water, rather than apple juice, for the apple and onion saute sauce.  A number of recipes called for the latter, but I thought that sounded like it would be awfully sweet and probably mask the flavor of the onion altogether.   You might also use chicken stock, or even white wine, though I thought water worked just fine; it picked up some of the flavor from both the apples and onions, as well as the spices from the flour, while the sauce was thickening.

If you try this recipe, be sure to wipe the pork chops dry after you’ve taken them from the marinade.  You can do this by covering a plate with a double thickness of paper towels, shaking the chops free of as much buttermilk as possible, laying the chops on the towel-lined plate, then covering them with another double thickness of paper towels and pressing down gently, to absorb any remaining buttermilk.  If you skip this step, the seasoned flour mixture won’t stick to your chops–it will stick to the buttermilk, and then it will fall off in the frying pan when you’re browning the meat.  Save yourself that feeling of despair and just dry off the pork chops.

The final verdict?  “Better than I was expecting,” The Girl said, “but I still don’t like pork chops.  They’re just too hard to chew.”   The Boy, for this part, pronounced it “Adequate.”  They both enjoyed the apples and onions, though, especially mixed with the rice I served on the side.  (I didn’t peel my apple, by the way, though you can certainly do so, if you prefer.)  Meanwhile, The Hubs and I both thought this was really, really tasty.

So the next time I make this dish–and there will be a next time, pork chops, just be forewarned–I’ll either marinate the chops starting the night before I plan to make them, or I’ll layer the apples and onions with the pork chops in my slow cooker and let it simmer away for about four hours.   That should help to tenderize the meat even further, thus pleasing the Foodie children.  Which is, of course, my goal in life.

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Skillet Pork Chops with Apple and Onion Saute

Ingredients:

4 boneless pork chops, 1/2 inch thick and tenderized
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. sage
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 T. brown sugar
1 medium yellow onion, cut in half, then in thin slices
1 medium red apple, cut in half, then in thin slices
1 cup water

Directions:

Place the pork chops in a large bag with a zip top. Pour the buttermilk over them, season with salt and pepper, and zip the bag closed. Put the bag in your refrigerator until you're ready to make dinner, flipping it over or giving a squeeze (to redistribute the buttermilk) whenever you think about it. Let the chops marinate for at least 4 hours; even longer is better.

When you're ready to cook the pork chops, combine the flour and seasonings in a large, shallow bowl. Reserve one tablespoon of this flour mixture for later use and stir it together, in a small dish, with the brown sugar. Set this mixture aside. Take the pork chops out of the buttermilk and dry them thoroughly, then dredge them lightly in the seasoned flour. Set them aside while you let a large skillet heat up.

Spray the hot skillet with cooking oil. Add the pork chops and brown them on both sides, but don't worry about cooking them through, at this point. About 3 minutes per side should do the trick. Remove the pork chops from the skillet and set them aside on a plate.

Add the onions to the skillet. Stir them around and let them soften for about 3 minutes. Add the apples and let them saute alongside the onions for about 2 minutes; stir this mixture around so the apples get down to the bottom of the skillet and start to give up a little of their juice. After a couple of minutes, push the apples and onions to the sides of the pan, leaving an empty spot in the middle. To this empty spot add the water and the reserved flour/brown sugar mixture. Whisk to make sure everything is combined, then move everyone back toward the middle of the pan. The liquid will distribute itself throughout, which is exactly what you want.

Return the chops to the pan, place them on top of the apple and onion mixture. Cover the saute pan with a lid and let it continue to cook, over medium-low heat, for about five minutes, until the pork chops and cooked through and the saute sauce has thickened. Serve with rice or mashed potatoes on the side.

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Morning Monkey Bread

We in the Foodie family have just a few traditions that we hold sacred–Jingo on Thanksgiving, for instance–but perhaps the most sacred of all is this Christmas Morning Monkey Bread.   No matter what we’re doing for the holiday, whether it’s hosting friends and family or staying home on our own, the Foodie children know all’s right with the world when this bubbly, sticky, sugary confection comes out of the oven.

If you do a Google search for “monkey bread”, you’ll come up with millions of recipes–my mom used to make a version that used a package of butterscotch pudding mix in the sauce.  I like this particular recipe, which I adapted from something I found on Cooks.com, for several reasons:

1.  It doesn’t require a packaged mix of any sort.

2.  The sauce is easily changed with any configuration of spices and extracts, depending on your tastes (and, in my case, your mood on any given day.)

3.  You can do half the work on Christmas Eve, put the pan in the refrigerator, and pick up where you left off on Christmas morning.

This recipe does require some forethought, which is why I make it only once a year. (Well, that and the fact that it includes an entire year’s worth of sugar.)  The dough will need about three hours in your refrigerator to thaw; although I used Rhodes frozen dinner rolls, you can use any brand you like–or even a frozen loaf of bread dough chopped and rolled into small pieces.  I use a large Ziploc bag to shake the bread dough in the cinnamon-sugar mixture, but you could easily just measure the cinnamon and sugar into a bowl and roll the pieces of bread dough instead..  The only important thing is to make sure they’re completely covered in sugar before you spread them around in your tube pan.  (If you’re a fan of nuts, feels free to toss some walnuts or pecans into the tube pan before you add the pieces of bread dough.  Sadly, the Foodie children are not nut people, and since this is their Christmas treat, I don’t press the issue.)

Once you’ve taken care of coating the bread dough in cinnamon-sugar, cover your tube pan with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.  The dough will pouf up a little overnight, but not much. In the morning, when you take the pan out of the refrigerator, the dough will need about two hours to come to room temperature and rise.  That time is approximate and has more to do with the temperature of your kitchen than anything else, so keep an eye on the bread.  You don’t want to let it rise over the top of the tube pan, since it will continue to rise a little during the baking process.  When the bread is just below the top of the tube pan, start making the sauce.

And here’s the most important thing:  after baking, invert the monkey bread on a serving platter as soon as it comes out of the oven–but remember that it’s covered with scalding hot caramel sauce.  If you leave the monkey bread in the pan while it cools, the sauce will solidify and make it impossible to remove the bread, so it’s important to get it out while the sauce is still liquid.  Of course, that presents its own challenges–chief among them, the need to avoid a serious sugar burn on your hands and wrists.   We use a large, shallow serving bowl, about 1 inch deep, to keep the sauce from running off the sides.  The Hubs is kind enough to take care of the inversion process for me.  (He has it down to a science, at this point.)  Once you’ve inverted the monkey bread, let it cool for about ten minutes to prevent sugar burns on the inside of your mouth.  It’ll be hard to wait, but trust me–you’ll be glad you did.

This make enough monkey bread to feed a small army, but  it keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple days.  Just warm it in the microwave to reinstate the gooey quality of the caramel sauce.

(My apologies for the horrendous quality of the photos in his post.  The obviously unnatural light in my kitchen does no favors to the food.)

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Christmas Morning Monkey Bread

Ingredients:

1 bag (24-count) frozen dinner rolls
3/4 c. white sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar (approximate)
1 stick butter
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla

Directions:

Allow the bread dough to thaw in the refrigerator for about 3 hours, or until the rolls are soft enough to be cut in half. Spray a tube pan with cooking spray and set aside.

Mix the sugar and cinnamon in a large zip-top bag. Drop 5 or 6 pieces of bread dough into the bag and shake to coat them with the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Distribute the 48 pieces of dough around the bottom of the tube pan. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator overnight. Pour the remaining cinnamon-sugar mixture into a 1-cup measure and fill it to the top with packed brown sugar. Cover the measuring cup with plastic and set it aside until morning.

In the morning, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the pan from the refrigerator and take off the plastic wrap. Set the pan in a warm place to rise for about 1 1/2 hours. (Rising time may be longer or shorter, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.) When the bread dough has risen to just below the top of the tube pan, combine the sugar mixture, butter, and evaporated milk in a small sauce pan. Stir in the nutmeg and vanilla. (You can flavor the sauce to your liking with various spices and extracts; I've used orange zest and ground cloves in place of the nutmeg and vanilla. It's really up to you. If you add cinnamon, though, just remember that the bread dough is already coated in cinnamon sugar.) Bring the sauce to a boil, then let it continue boiling for 1 minute.

Pour the hot sauce over the rolls. (Pour slowly, so it has time to seep down into the spaces between the pieces of bread.) Bake immediately for 30-35 minutes, until the top is browned. Invert the monkey bread on a serving platter, being very careful of the hot caramel sauce. Allow the bread to cool and the sauce to stabilize for about 10 minutes before serving.

 

 

 

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