Monday, December 11, 2017

Ramen is Noodles

Until last night, I had never had ramen. I'm not talking about the ramen they serve in noodle restaurants, with the clear bone broth, green onions, seaweed, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts and a rasher of braised pork. Not that I've ever had that, either. No, I mean Top Ramen, the little orange package with a brick of dry noodles and a "flavor packet."

I have had the noodles cooked with a can of Swanson chicken broth, or occasionally, beef broth, but I've never known the joy of tossing the noodles and flavoring into two cups of water and cooking just below boiling until the noodles are tender. The package directions are a little different, but I've never seen anyone follow the package directions.

Back in the Sixties, I discovered I was extremely sensitive to MSG (monosodium glutamate). I don't get an allergic reaction or anything like that: no hives, wheezing or tongue swelling up; I just feel really fatigued for several days and have mild flu-like symptoms. I first discovered this after eating barbeque potato chips.

MSG is a naturally-occurring non-essential amino acid (according to Wikipedia. I do, by the way, donate $15.00 a year to help keep Wikipedia going. They don't pay me for the plug, I pay them for the research resource). MSG has been used for over a hundred years as a flavor enhancer in various foods, especially to stretch the flavor of chicken in canned and dried soups. Those who tell you that the Chinese have used MSG for thousands of years never looked it up on Wikipedia.

All of the ramen brands and flavors have used MSG in their little flavor packets for as long as I have been aware of the stuff. While a billion or so college students have been living on the cheap, quick-to-fix noodles, I have looked on with envy from the sidelines. Recently, Kathy asked me to make her a bowl of ramen. I, being the chief chef around here, complied. As I was about to tear open the package (the last one in the cabinet, by the way), I noticed the words "No Added MSG." They specified "Added" because monosodium glutamate occurs natural in many foods, including tomatoes. More and more products have been removing MSG from their products, but I never expected it of Top Ramen. The next time we went to the store, I bought half a dozen packages.

Last night, for the first time, I made some for me. I checked the directions so I would know how much water to use, but then tossed everything in the pot together as is the traditional way for lazy people to do it. Soon, the noodles were tender (I don't crush up the noodles like some people because of the Japanese superstition about shortening the noodles shortening ones life).

After pouring the pot into a large bowl I sat down and tried it. To my happy surprise, I liked it. I liked it so much, I will likely have it again. The broth was light and not terribly salty, like I had expected, and had a nice chicken-y flavor. I look forward to my next bowl.

The best part is, now I have a 33 cent meal alternative, just like generations of college students. Oh, and by the way, "ramen" is the Japanese word for "noodles."

Ramen is noodles.

Stephen P.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Breaking Taboos--The Betty Crocker Cookbook

In Successful Husbanding School, in Survival Skills class, they teach us to never give our wives small appliances or anything kitchen-related for birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas. Or they would, if there was a training school for husbands. Which, there should be.

This week I broke that rule and I think I got away with it. Monday was Kathy's birthday and I bought her a cookbook. Fortunately, this is a very special cookbook. A Betty Crocker cookbook.

Kathy and I both grew up with Betty Crocker cookbooks. In the time when our mothers learned to cook, Betty Crocker was the gold standard of cookbooks. We kids grew up eating meals from Betty Crocker recipes. Most of my bread recipes originally came from a Betty Crocker cookbook. Kathy still has her Betty Crocker cookbook, her first cookbook. It is in three-ring binder format and has unfortunately lost many pages over many years and many moves. I've tried the Betty Crocker cookbook app for my phone, but the recipes are too modern and use too many costly ingredients.

This new cookbook is a hardbound reprint of the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker's cookbook published by Rodale and General Mills. Things were a little different in 1950.

There is a section on how to cook game, including pheasant, quail and squirrel. There is a recipe for Welsh Rarebit with Kidney Beans that was a favorite of Joan Crawford and her dinner guests. Some of the soup recipes begin with opening a can of Campbell's condensed soup, such as Mock Turtle Soup Deluxe which calls for two cans of Campbell's Mock Turtle Soup.

The book includes many classic recipes such as Hollandaise sauce, white sauce and brown sauce.

The egg recipes are great and include how to make soft-boiled eggs and coddled eggs. I'm not really sure what coddled eggs are, but you can make them soft-coddled or hard-coddled. By the way, the English say that a soft-boiled egg should be eaten with a bone or ivory spoon. Press yolks and whites of hard-boiled eggs separately through a fine sieve or strainer for use as a garnish. One of my favorite childhood dinners was eggs baked on corned beef hash. That recipe is found on page 256 of the cookbook.

Desserts in this cookbook are amazing: Bavarian Cream, Baked Alaska, Cherry Tree Log, Norwegian Charlotte and Baked Prune Whip. I've never seen half of these names, let alone the recipes.

I love the bread recipes. There are Kolache recipes, Kulich, French Coffee Lace, Jule Kage and Bohemian Rye Bread.

The best part of this cookbook--okay, I could make a list of best parts. The book includes basic instructions like how to store foods, how to reduce or increase recipes, substitutions, how long to age meats to make them more tender and best recipes for various occasions.

I wish I was making money endorsing this book because I can't say enough about it.

Oh, and Kathy loves the cookbook. It's fun to just sit and read, and it has many of our lost childhood recipes. I'm such a rule breaker.

Stephen P.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pioneers Are a Diverse Bunch

I'm not really a fan of Ree Drummond, "The Pioneer Woman." By that, I mean I've never seen her TV show, read her blog or owned her cookbooks. I have read a few of her recipes on Google, but I don't think I've tried any of them. I do, however, admire Ree Drummond.

I'm always surprised by how much people hate success. I was a fan of Martha Stewart some years back. Her's was hardly a rags to riches story. She was a fashion model and celebrity who found a way to start a new phase in her life. Her shows were enjoyable and she introduced the masses to things like cucumber infused water. Simple things to make little luxuries accessible to common folk. People seemed to tire of her, but I think it was because she became such a heavily marketed brand. I remember people crowing when she messed up and broke SEC regulations. They loved joking about her while she was in prison. Frankly, I felt bad about the way things had turned out for her. She lost most of her empire.

Since Martha has been out of prison, she has scaled things back, limiting her exposure, but still doing what she does best--share cooking tips. Oh, and hang out with Snoop Dogg. They are a hoot together.

Paula Deen is another fallen celebrity. I don't know what her back story is, but I know doughnut hamburgers and chocolate bacon brought her fame and fortune. It wasn't long before I heard friends and co-workers talking about how much they hated her. They liked her just fine before she became a household word. It seemed like a lot of people were thrilled when a racist remark on her part wiped out much of the success she had built. Understandably. Racism is simply not acceptable.

I'm not pleased by the fall of either of these chefs. I've used their recipes before. They tend to be simple, straightforward and traditional. I don't condone what they did, I just wish they hadn't.

Ree Drummond went to California to be an actress, but things were tough. When she came home to Oklahoma for a visit, she met a cowboy, a third or fourth, maybe fifth, generation cattle rancher. They fell in love, got married and set up housekeeping on the ranch. That could have been the end of the story, but Ree felt some strange need to be productive, so she started blogging about homesteading in eastern Oklahoma. Her blog led to a store in town, a restaurant, a television show, books and a Pioneer Woman product line.

I've been needing a good spatula to use with my cast iron skillets for some time. I've been replacing the darned things every six months because they have a weak point where they break. And I don't mistreat them. I went shopping and compared a number of spatulas. The one with the best shape, quality, durability and mid-range price was the Pioneer Woman brand. Score one for Ree Drummond.

I believe that Ree represents what so many of us are trying to do. Sure, her husband was already established as a rancher and he and his family are the first or second largest landholders in Oklahoma, but they choose this country life. No matter how long you've been doing it, raising cattle is a high-stakes gamble. I don't think we have to worry about the Drummonds going broke, but they choose and celebrate a way of living that is rare and likely endangered. Pay no attention to the television cameras in Ree's kitchen.

It's only been a year or two since I first heard of The Pioneer Woman. Our local news stations occasionally run stories about what she's been up to and she is one of Oklahoma's native-born celebrities.

But it has already begun. About once a week I see some story on the internet that tries to expose Ree Drummond or somehow taint her success. So far they've found an uncle who was treated for depression and a recipe that Ree failed to credit to it's proper source. They'll keep trying, of course, and eventually they will drag some poor skeleton out of a closet somewhere Ree has been. It will probably be true, but unimportant in the grand scheme of what Drummond does for a living.

And people will crow. Because we can't let these uppity women get too big for their britches.

Stephen P.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

May You Live in Interesting Times

That old curse comes to mind fairly often. May you live in interesting times.

The world situation is so surreal that I can't take it seriously, let alone worry about it. I mean including impending super volcanoes, perfect storms, sea levels rising, and contamination of the food and water supply. I'm only even half-assed prepping. Who's got the energy to dig a bunker?

Two of our grandsons have come to live with us. One nineteen, one sixteen. Right here at the holidays. We can't begin establishing any kind of routine while we're getting the smoker ready, thawing the turkey, buying all of the groceries and setting up a schedule chart for using the oven over the next two days.

The smoker is electric. I got it on a seasonal clearance last year and I'm just now setting it up. In my opinion, an electric smoker is essential for smoking a turkey. I do most of my outdoor cooking over an open fire, but I still use my smoker/grill for anything that needs to slow cook. Ribs, turkey legs, pork loins. Turkeys have to cook slowly because they take so long to cook all the way through.

There are important advantages to an electric grill. First of all is temperature control--for cooking poultry, especially big poultry, maintaining a consistent temperature prevents under-cooking and prevents spoilage. Second is controlling the amount of smoke. Smoking with cord wood gives continuous smoke along with the heat and some things may seem over-smoked. Third is convenience. I don't have to stay up all night tending a smoker. With an electric, I can put it in a safe place where it won't blow over or set fire to anything. I can load it with chips, water and a turkey and go to bed.

I invested in a digital meat thermometer a couple of years ago and it has made life simpler. I don't have to over-cook in order not to under-cook. I still go five to ten degrees hotter internal temperature on meats and poultry, just to be safe. One less thing to worry about.

This isn't the first electric smoker I've had, just the first I've had in over a decade. Obviously I'm enthusiastic about it. I'm also enthusiastic about the grandson's living here. Things are interesting.

Stephen P.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Life Gets in the Way

This has been a busy week, and by week I mean the past seven days or so.

First of all, we've been cleaning out our back bedroom to get ready for two of our grandsons to move in. This task required sorting through hundreds of books, only keeping the few really important, nearly irreplaceable, or ones we haven't read yet and might realistically read one day.

For instance, I've been accumulating and reading novels by Phillip K. Dick since I was a teen. Once in a while I pick one up and read it, but that's not the whole story. Since Dick died and Hollywood started making movies and television shows based on his novels, the old copies have become impossible to find and the new reprints cost a minimum of fifteen bucks. Better to hang on to the ones I have.

On the other side, I got rid of gardening books I've purchased over the past forty years that don't have any real value as far as useful information. I don't need an encyclopedia of house plants that only has the Latin names and not the common names, and doesn't contain a single plant I'm interested in growing right now. I went from about fifty gardening books to five.

I also don't need The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, since it's so thick I will never even pick it up, let alone read it. Kudos to those who do.

All of the discard books had to be boxed up and taken to the library for the Friends of the Library sale. That's about eight forty pound boxes.

Next is my collection of amplifiers. The guitars and basses are hung on the walls and will just have to stay. No other room has that much available wall space. The amps snuggle neatly into corners here and there and aren't readily visible, therefore not eyesores.

I should have mentioned that this process had to begin with cleaning and organizing our storage building so that we could put away keepsakes and such, yet still be able to lay hands on our camping gear without emptying the building first.

In the process of all of this, we also moved my office out of the back bedroom and into ours. This involved emptying shelves, clearing off my desk and, again, sorting and deciding what not to keep and getting rid of the discards.

Kathy is a master of organization. She rearranged our bedroom so that we could move my desk, computer, file cabinet and supply shelves in. Not only does it all fit without crowding us, it looks very nice and organized. As a bonus, my new office is warm and bright, with a window I can look out and watch the chickens while I work.

Mind you, Kathy does the planning and most of the lifting and carrying. I just can't keep up.

In my defense, during this same time, I boiled and boned chicken legs and made chicken and dumplings, I made beef stew and I made catfish gumbo (I'll try to post that recipe next week) in addition to more ordinary dinners.

Life is good and my new space is the most inviting and welcoming office I've ever had. Now all I have to do is come up with ideas for blog posts.

Stephen P.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Cold Weather, Warm Food and Poultry Seasoning

It's that time of year. The temperature outside is 45 degrees and a slight breeze brings the windchill down to 38. My Carhartt coat keeps me warm when I'm outside. Cold weather foods help keep me warm on the inside.

We do eat chicken and dumplings and chili occasionally during the summer, but the warmth can add to the misery of 90+ degree weather. When it's cold outside, soups and stews are the perfect choice.

So far in the last couple of weeks we've had yellow squash soup, chicken and rice soup, and a pot of pinto bean chili. I'd love to offer a how to, but Patrick makes the squash soup and chili around here and he doesn't use written recipes. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and spices, when to use them and how much to use. I'm not allowed to use seasonings without adult supervision.

I make a lot of chicken soup. We eat a lot of chicken, and soup is one of our favorite ways to have it. Patrick prefers boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but white meat doesn't have much flavor so we need a good broth. I often make my own broths and stocks, but it's hard to keep up with demand. I don't know how people got by before there was Swanson's. Canned broth is a staple in our house.

Carrots, celery and onions are also staples in our house. They are the foundation for everything from stir fry to gumbo. We also need potatoes for beef stew.

Last week I made chicken and rice soup. I used one 32 ounce carton of chicken stock; an equal amount of water; one medium onion, diced; four carrots, cut into quarter inch pieces; two garlic cloves, minced; and one pound of boneless, skinless chicken, cut into half inch cubes (we were out of celery). I combined it all into a large pot, brought it to a boil, and reduced the heat to medium high. With the chicken at a high simmer, I added one tablespoon of poultry seasoning (Cajun seasoning is also good) and a sprinkle of sea salt.

Next I started a pot of rice. I added one and a half cups of white rice (the family prefers white or Basmati rice for most things) to three cups of cold water in a two quart pot. I brought the rice to a boil, turned it down to low, put a lid on the pot and left it for twenty minutes.

After forty to forty-five minutes, the soup was ready. I put about a cup of the cooked rice in the bottom of a large soup bowl and ladled a cup of soup over it. We always make extra soup so we have some for tomorrow's lunch. This is some serious comfort food.

Poultry Seasoning Recipe

Most people will tell you that sage is essential for cooking poultry or stuffing/dressing. I agree that it adds something important, but it is really easy to overdo it. I don't like to taste the sage. If I can identify it in a dish, there is probably too much. That's why I like poultry seasoning--it has the herbs in appropriate proportions and makes it easier to avoid over seasoning.

2 Tbsp ground sage
2 Tbsp ground thyme
1 Tbsp ground marjoram
1 Tbsp garlic powder
2 Tbsp rosemary
1/2 Tbsp black pepper
1 tsp turmeric

Mix all ingredients thoroughly, in a small bowl. Store in a small bottle. I save empty spice bottles and reuse them for my own dried herbs and seasoning mixes. This is a good starter recipe that can be adjusted according to taste. I like to throw a teaspoon of cayenne pepper into the mix, but then, I like to throw cayenne into everything.

I've got to go. I think I hear a pot of soup calling my name.

Stephen P.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Homemade Mayonnaise

Mayonnaise is my favorite condiment. I remember when I was a kid, slicing off two pieces of fresh homemade bread, slathering on a thick layer of Kraft mayo, adding a thick slab of ham, a slice of American cheese, lettuce leaves and some tomato. Best sandwich ever!

Now I've lost my taste for thick sliced ham and American cheese, preferring a thin piece of ham and a slice of sharp cheddar. The rest of the sandwich stays the same, except I don't use Kraft mayo anymore. Once I learned to make it myself, there was no looking back.

My recipe isn't complicated, but making it requires finesse and precision. I originally started with a recipe for Fail-proof Homemade Mayonnaise from www.inspiredtaste.net. After customizing a bit, I ended up with the recipe below. The Inspired Taste recipe has simplified the process compared to many other recipes, but I have managed to fail making this recipe, because I didn't adhere strictly to the instructions. As long as I am careful adding the oil, this recipe works. Once you get good at making mayo, you can start teaching others how to make healthy, delicious, money-saving homemade mayonnaise.

Many years ago I read about the invention of oleo. The story went that the French couldn't live without their mayo, so much so, that soldiers on the battlefield wouldn't go without it and food poisoning became rampant. Napoleon set about finding a replacement that wouldn't spoil. The solution was oleo margarine, a product made by a similar process, but without the egg. I don't know if this story is true or not, but it's a good story having absolutely nothing to do with making mayo. It does illustrate how important mayonnaise is to making other condiments and sauces, to cooking and to sandwich making. My brother won't eat a sandwich that doesn't have mayo, lettuce and tomato. He just won't. I can't blame him.

First, a couple of notes: I prefer garlic powder. I've tried fresh minced or squeezed, but I prefer the taste with powder.

Second, I use peanut oil. I've developed a preference. It's almost neutral in flavor, it has a high scorching point in frying and last time I checked it was considered healthy. I buy a gallon every month or two.

Third, I add a little bit of turmeric, as included in the ingredients list. The first time I tried making mayonnaise, it came out a touch too sweet. Kathy had me blend in turmeric and it was just right. I now use turmeric in a number of recipes. I've always heard it's good for memory and prevention of Alzheimer's. Bonus!

Here's the mayo recipe that I use at least once a week.

Not-So-Simple Mayonnaise

1 large egg--room temperature
1 Tbsp brown mustard
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. turmeric
1 Cup peanut oil

Using my blender or mini food processor, I add all ingredients except the oil and pulse until uniformly mixed. Then I add the oil, a few drops at a time and then pulse to whip. This is the most important part: if you add too much oil at a time, it will not emulsify and the whole batch will end up ruined. Inspired Taste has suggestions for fixing the mess, but they didn't work for me. I use an aluminum measuring spoon to dip small amounts of oil from the measuring cup so I don't accidentally spill too much into the blender. This part of the process requires a bit of patience, but the sense of satisfaction in the end is worth it. Once about a third of the oil is mixed in, it's okay to add it faster, say a tablespoonful at a time.

When all the oil has been added, you should have a nice thick batch of really exceptional mayonnaise. Using this in the Ranch dressing recipe I posted recently makes a really great dressing.

Since there are no preservatives or stabilizers in this, it doesn't have the shelve life of store bought, but it will keep for over a week. It never lasts longer than that around here. This makes about one pint.

Stephen P.