Foodie … Saturday

Yesterday I got engrossed in researching hospitals and specialists for this ongoing thing I have (no diagnosis yet), and pretty much everything else went by the wayside, including this post. Hey ho. So, what have we been cooking this past fortnight or so?

First, an aside about brining

Well, first up, there was that lovely turkey dinner I mentioned at the end of the last Foodie Friday entry. I’d said we were just putting the turkey in the brine. The brine makes such a difference; I highly recommend brining any bird you roast, and pork as well. It makes it far more moist. A brine is a saltwater solution; brining is putting something in a saltwater solution. Heat the water first so that the salt dissolves and floats about, or else it sits in an inert pile on the bottom of the container and the whole endeavor is useless. Of course, then you need to cool the brine before you add the meat so that it stays at a sub-40F temperature, which is useful for those who like to avoid food poisoning.

Many people I’ve come across think that the purpose of brining is to make the meat salty; it shouldn’t do that, provided the excess salt is rinsed off the surface when pulled out of the brine. What happens when you brine something? Fasten your seat belt: here’s the science of it:

Brining meat adds moisture to the meat through osmosis. Osmosis happens when water flows from a lower concentration of a solution to a higher concentration through a semipermeable membrane. In meat, this membrane is the plasma membrane that surrounds the individual cells. When meat is placed in a brine, the meat’s cell fluids are less concentrated than the salt water in the brining solution. Water flows out of the cells in the meat and salt flows in. The salt then dissolves some of the fiber proteins, and the meat’s cell fluids become more concentrated, thus drawing water back in. Brining adds salt and water to the cells so that when the meat is cooked and water is squeezed out, there is still water left in the cells because water was added before cooking. [Source]

The salt introduced into the cell also denatures its proteins. The proteins coagulate, forming a matrix that traps water molecules and holds them during cooking. This prevents the meat from dehydrating. [Source]

If your brine includes flavorful things (herbs, spices, etc), then that flavor gets sucked into the meat as well, just like in marinades.

Before I leave the subject of brining, there is this funny anecdote regarding brine (though of a different sort).

Right, your lesson for the day is over now – on with the recipes!

Tasty food!

First up, that roast turkey dinner:

  • Roast Turkey – We quite like Alton Brown’s recipe, though we’ve had to adjust it, of course, to suit our cooler & turkey sizes. We stick with the salt & water concentration and the time, but all the other ingredients are subject to change based on what we have on hand and what I remember to buy. A slice or two of lemon in the cavity goes quite nicely, I’ve found.
  • Green bean casserole – the bog standard one. We took my parents’ advice and added one cup of shredded cheddar cheese to it this time, and I liked it! Chris couldn’t tell a difference. We’ll keep doing it. 🙂
  • Smashed potatoes – always a favorite.

We had some plain vegetables with that meal, as well. It was all tasty. 🙂 Looking through the rest of the menu, some highlights are:

  • Ouefs Enterallies – The title is French, and I knew the first word meant eggs, but haven’t been able to figure out the second word. I thrust it at a friend who happened to be visiting the afternoon before we had this, because she loves to visit France, and she came up with some form of “whole” (y’know, “entire”) from it. You do start with whole boiled eggs, so I guess that’s it, but that’s very boring, so it shall continue to be known in our house by the amusing nickname it already had: Egg Entrails.
         Despite that unappetizing nickname, it’s actually very tasty, and pretty quick to put together, particularly if you’ve pre-boiled the eggs and keep bacon bits on hand in the freezer like we do. It’s a definite favorite here. It’s also almost a one-dish meal; we had some fruit on the side and it was fab. This would make a wonderful brunch, too.
  • Southwest Breakfast Scramble – I recently found this great blog, Budget Bytes; all the similar food blogs I’ve found before (trying to keep recipes as cheap as possible) have had recipes that really didn’t appeal, and of course the prices all vary by location so that bit’s no use anyway. But this one has recipes that appeal, so I’ve been trying them, and so far they’ve all been keepers – usually we decide we’ll tweak it a bit, but that’s fine.
         With some modification, this one’s quite tasty – and definitely gets an upvote for being very quick and easy!
  • Pot Roast – Everyone has a different way to make pot roast; we like this one.
  • Brown butter pasta – Always a favorite. As written, it’s vegetarian, but we like to add some beef to it. We had this the night after the pot roast and threw some of that in with it.
  • Taco pork bowls – We started with this recipe (another from Budget Bytes), but didn’t have the chicken on hand that I thought we did, so used pulled pork instead. Since it was already cooked, we didn’t do the slow cooking; we just heated it all through while the rice cooked. Tasty, so we’ll try it again as a slow cook meal – and probably have it again as a quick & easy meal this way, as well.
  • Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies – Finally got around to trying these, and they’re pretty good! They certainly won’t replace our usual oatmeal raisin cookies, but they make a nice change.

That’s about all of note, so I shall close here. Hope you’re inspired to go spend some time in the kitchen! 🙂

Foodie Friday: Adventures in Vegetarian Cooking

A group of three friends plus myself comprises what I call my Lunch Bunch: we take it in turns to host the others for lunch. We only manage to find a date that works for everyone every 6-8 weeks or thereabouts, so it’s been awhile since I hosted lunch for them. This week it was my turn – we’d settled on 7 Jan.

While contemplating what to serve them, I realized they’d be here on the first day of the carnival season of Mardi Gras. I only make king cake during the carnival season (which runs from the day after Twelfth Night, 5 or 6 Jan, to Mardi Gras itself, the day before Ash Wednesday), because I find things are more enjoyable when I observe their seasons. Whether it’s Christmassy food, eating fruit while it’s in season in my own hemisphere, etc, it all works so much better for me when I keep it to its season. Obviously, King Cake was in order. But what else?

Adventures in vegetarian cooking …

With our Mardi Gras decorations up and the king cake a definite, some Cajun, Creole, and/or Southern dishes would go nicely. But two of them are vegetarian, and I’ve never come across vegetarian Cajun food in my life. Hm. I called up several vegetarian Cajun recipes online, and found that they weren’t too different from my existing ones, actually. Simply leaving out the meat and substituting vegetarian ingredients doesn’t always work, as I’ve learned with gravy. (I’ve yet to make a decent vegetarian gravy.) But hey, here’s numerous sources telling me essentially to give that a go with these things. Okay, so I did. I broke my rule of always testing recipes before serving them, because it’s a very friendly group. In the end, I served:

  • Red beans and rice – I modified my own recipe slightly for this; it turned out beautifully.
  • Gumbo (with rice) – this uses carrots as the main thing instead of meat. I didn’t like it, because carrots go sweet when you cook them like that. I might try it with potatoes at some point in the future.
  • Hoppin John – in honor of being so near the new year, I introduced them to this traditional New Year’s Southern dish.
  • Cornbread – our recipe has always yielded sweet cornbread, and I wondered how it’d taste with less sugar, so I halved it. It came out far too salty; I’m not sure if I added too much salt by accident, or if less sugar means less salt is needed. It was also more crumbly than usual. I shall keep tinkering with this.
  • King Cake – always a favorite. This time I filled it with blueberry and black currant jams. The filling looks a bit lacking – I think it needs the even-spreading texture of something like that cream cheese filling. As luck would have it, I plan to make the next one with lemon curd, which will have that same property, so I can test this theory!

We usually have a starter, then a main course, then a dessert, like civilized people, but I really couldn’t come up with a starter I could do with the time, ingredient, and cuisine constraints, so instead I served all but the cake together, and told them to look at it sort of tapas style: take a little of each, and then take more of whatever they like.

It worked out pretty well! We all got full enough, I think, and enough praise was heaped on the dishes that I think they all found something they liked. Phew! I knew I was going out on a limb with Cajun food in general – we generally stick to much less ethnic food. But I made it all extra mild so the flavors would come through, and it seemed to go over okay. Hooray! So now I’ve given them some education into the ways of the Swamp People.

The rest of what we’ve been cooking …
  • General Tso’s Chicken – added some seasonings to this to get a great dish. Yum!
  • Egg drop soup – tested making it with vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, for future possibility of serving it to vegetarians. Worked well! They don’t do this soup here – the bog standard British Chinese soup is chicken and sweetcorn, which is good, but it’s not egg drop soup. I’m so glad I found a recipe that’s nice and easy.
  • Hashbrown casserole – This was hideous. I’m trying to clear out the cupboard, and found a can of cream of chicken soup (lord knows why I had that). Did a search on for recipes using this, and thought, hey, we love hash browns, can’t go wrong with this, right? Wrong. It felt like sacrilege in the kitchen to put perfectly lovely hash browns into a casserole, and at the table we confirmed it was. Ho hum. Live and learn!
  • Pasta bake – This was a decent start. I found this one because I was trying to use the can of tomato soup I found lurking in the back of the cupboard. Mission accomplished! We’ll keep this recipe, and improve it gradually.
  • Lemon curd – Chris finished the jar I made him for Christmas ages ago, so I made him another jar. He’s really liking this new cooking spree. 😉

That’s really all that’s worth sharing this week. We’ve just put the turkey in the brine so we’ll have roast turkey tomorrow night – no special occassion, just because they still had turkeys at the store (they’re seasonal here), so I decided we’d have another since we’ve finished most of what we cooked in November (we’d frozen it). On that note, good night!

Foodie Friday: What we’ve been cooking

Awhile back, I used to do regular Dinner Tonight posts, crossposted to a few places. Then I got bored of cooking and, by extension, of talking about food. After leaving it for some time, cooking is fun again, and I’d like to talk about what we make again.

In the interim, however, I’ve seen some of those old dinner tonight photos, and they really were quite dreadful; I’ll spare us all the photos, and instead just share the recipes and my thoughts on them. I’m also not doing this daily; weekly will suffice. I’m also not planning to talk about or necessarily share every recipe I’ve made in the week, since that gets repetitive. I’ll usually be linking to my own online recipe book (the one Chris made me); you are warned that that is very much a living thing, since I adjust recipes constantly. If you want a copy that’s not subject to change, print it (or print it to pdf). All those caveats in place, let’s get started!

First up, what was for dinner on Boxing Day?

We had a (mostly) English Roast Dinner on Boxing Day when the in-laws came over. Pulled pork isn’t a usual feature at an English Roast dinner – usually it’s a roast of some sort – but we decided to introduce the in-laws to it since:

  1. the timeline for cooking it was convenient for us (we could cook it in advance and then warm it up),
  2. we knew we’d have turkey at theirs on Christmas Day and we didn’t want it two days in a row,
  3. beef isn’t an option (mother-in-law doesn’t like it), and
  4. we have a rule against serving things we’ve never tried before, which limited our options for preparations of large hunks of meat. Clearly this is something I should address before next Boxing Day.

So, we had:

  • Pulled pork – always a favorite recipe for us (thanks, wraith!). Instead of mixing it with our usual barbecue sauce or making it into cochinita pibil, we just mixed it with regular gravy, and it was quite good – it was even a hit with the in-laws!
  • Roast potatoes – always a favorite.
  • Mashed potatoes – I do prefer these ones done with the ricer.
  • Carrots, peas, corn, gravy
  • Stuffing – this came out okay. I’m still struggling with it.
  • Yorkshire puddings – I love these things. On Boxing Day night, they deflated, but I think I’ve cracked it now: using bread flour gives more gluten, yielding a firmer structure that doesn’t deflate as much, and it has a better chew. Definitely doing that from now on. Some crazy people think Yorkshire puds should only be had with beef – I say we should have them all the time, with almost anything!
  • Chocolate cake – Hoooray, I have a keeper! I have searched high and low for a good chocolate cake recipe: moist, chocolately, not fudge: apparently it was a tall order. I finally found the cake! Hip hip hooray!
  • Red velvet cupcakes – we frosted these with green and white icing, just for the fun of it. Red & green aren’t really Christmas colors here – there’s even a rhyme that says “Red and green should not be seen”, but red and green still means Christmas in this house.
  • Mini golden syrup sponges – Yum! We’d tested this the week before and they were absolutely delicious – and reheated well, so we decided they would do nicely. Then when the day came, they took three times as long to bake and never did rise as much or get browned. I finally realized why – the next day. I’d (knowingly) substituted the plain flour for the self-raising, but forgotten to add in the baking powder and salt that you need to do for that substitution. Just too busy in the kitchen that day, and it slipped through the cracks! I’ve rewritten the recipe now to include those (I refuse to buy anymore self-raising flour, since it took me about three years to get through my last bag, and all it is, literally, is plain flour with baking powder and salt added). Amazingly, they were still pretty tasty.

What else we’ve been cooking …
  • Pizza – with this crust and this sauce (made without any of the meat), loads of lovely toppings, and a side of salad. I forgot how good pizza could be. That was delicious, and will make a regular appearance on our menu once again.
  • Turkey Enchiladas – with this sauce and Mexican rice on the side. I love that Mexican rice recipe. Not only is it tasty, but it freezes and reheats beautifully.
  • Alfredo Shrimp Tilapia, broccoli & cheese (the rest of the alfredo), carrots, peas, and rice. This is our traditional New Year’s Eve meal. It is tasty. 🙂
  • Hoppin John – it is traditional where I come from to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck in the coming year. We’ve finally adopted that tradition. I’m still tinkering with this recipe; first it was too bland, and now I think it’s too seasoned. I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

That’s really all the interesting stuff we’ve had lately, so I shall close this for now!