Monday, December 31, 2012

Baked Ham, Sweet Potatoes, and Squash for Christmas

Baked Ham with Honey Whiskey Glaze

I was never really like other kids I knew growing up when it comes to the holidays. For me, the perfect Christmas was never actually about the presents (or at least it wasn't unless there was something I really, really hoped I would get that year). It was about the food -- especially once I grew older and learned my lessons in regards to things like cholesterol levels and expanding waistlines.

The holidays eventually became the best possible excuse to do things like load your plate up with seconds, indulge in dessert, and take whole days off so you could spend all day cooking. As an adult who was free to create her own traditions instead of always following other people's, this only became more the case.

That's not really the type of Christmas I grew up with though. There are people in my family who love to eat for sure, but Christmas was never really a big "cooking holiday" in my home the way it is for some people. Relatives never flew in from out of town or stayed for a while. There was never a big turkey or ham on the table or anything. Nobody baked or had a special Christmas cocktail that they wanted everyone to try. Dating a string of picky eaters before winding up married to a picky eater who was also a vegetarian didn't exactly help matters either. My holidays really never looked like the ones you see in the movies and -- while the ones I had were certainly nice enough -- I always longed to spend Christmas with another foodie like myself.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Then my marriage hit the skids and I met Seth. Thankfully he not only likes the holidays, but he likes to eat... and not only does he like to eat, but he likes to eat meat, and cheese, and carbs, and rich gravy, and all those good things that no holiday is complete without. As a result, I've been able to create the Christmases I've always wanted to have with him by my side.

This year, we started out wanting to roast a duck again like last year, but we wanted to do more of a Peking-style duck with Asian side dishes to kind of mix things up. Unfortunately though, the store was all out of the damn things by the time we got around to getting down there to buy supplies. We bought a roast to have instead (in the event nothing better presented itself before Christmas arrived). Then my mom brought us a ham to bake if we wanted, so we eventually decided on that.

This year's ham probably turned out to be one of the tastiest ones I've baked so far. Instead of cooking the ham on it's side the way I normally do, I baked it cut side down the entire time. I also properly scored the fat as usual and added a glaze that contained the last bits of this wonderful Tennessee honey whiskey from Jack Daniels that we had on hand. I thoroughly recommend this baking method, as it produced a tasty and very juicy ham with a wonderfully complex flavor. In fact, I'll be baking my hams this way from this day forward. The honey whiskey certainly didn't hurt matters either.

Baked Yellow Squash
The sides were oven baked sweet potatoes with ground garlic, parsley, and basil paired with roasted, seasoned yellow squash. Really pretty tasty... and easy, too! When I was younger, I didn't think there would ever be a proper substitute for regular potatoes in my heart of hearts, but I really do love the way sweet potatoes compliment so many dishes so much better while actually being healthier and lower in calories, especially if baked.

Yellow squash was something I started making as a Thanksgiving side way back when I was married to my ex and I got hooked on the organic produce from Whole Foods. Everyone liked them so much at the time, they've sort of stayed on as part of the regular rotation when it comes to holiday meals. Add some crusty rolls and plenty of butter and you've got a feast that really hit the spot.

We've been thoroughly enjoying all of the leftovers the ham created. It's made plenty of platters, sandwiches, and snacks. I may or may not make some sort of chowder or chili with the leftover bone. We'll just see! There's just so much you can do with ham and so many ways you can use it to dress up all of your existing favorites.

We eventually decided the roast we originally bought would make a great New Year's dinner. Normally I do some sort of pork dish paired with greens and a black-eyed pea option like Hoppin' John. I'm sort of sick of the idea of cooking the same old thing this year though, so I'm not sure if I'll actually be doing that or not. I'm more on board with a nice roast, au jus sauce, and some sort of baked macaroni and cheese side dish at this point.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Semi-Homemade Spaghetti and Meatballs

Spaghetti and Meatballs
I don't know how the time flew by so quickly, but we're right in the middle of one of my favorite times of year now -- winter time. For those of you who do not know about my sick, sick hatrid of heat and summer time, let it be known that I look forward to the cooler months all year round. In just over a week or so, it will be the winter solstice again, so it will all be official. Naturally, that means I've been finding it within myself to really indulge in my favorite comfort foods again.

Case in point, spaghetti and meatballs. Lately, we've been buying a lot of ready-made stuff that is easy to heat up because I've been slammed at work for the last few months. However, I actually have a little bit of a lull going on right now thanks to the fact that I just got rid of a pretty demanding client, so we've been able to cook a little bit more. That's been nice to say the least! 

Last night, we kind of did the semi-homemade thing (yes, I believe in Sandra Lee -- deal with it) with some spaghetti and meatballs. It was definitely the best spaghetti and meatballs I've ever personally made or served. I'll have to think about it, but I may just have preferred this to even the restaurant versions I've had. I will definitely be doing this again in the future. It was easy, fast, and convenient... but so flavorful and tasty we just couldn't believe our taste buds.

All it was was a jar of spaghetti sauce with one of those McCormick spaghetti sauce seasoning packets mixed in for extra kick. I also doctored it up with about 3/4 of a cup of Burgundy (nothing fancy, just some boxed wine we had on hand) and some things from out of the herb cabinet (basil, thyme, parsley, red pepper flakes, and ground garlic). I simmered it in a big pan until it started to bubble, adding water as needed to keep it from getting thicker than I wanted. Then I just dumped in a bag of "homestyle" Safeway meatballs and let the whole thing cook until the meatballs were hot.

Delicious Garlic Bread
I don't know why it never occurred to me to actually simmer the meatballs in the sauce like that, but it hadn't until I saw this ancient episode of Kitchen Nightmares on Netflix a little while back. Gordon Ramsay was telling some dude that owned an Italian restaurant that if he absolutely had to use meatballs that had been frozen, that that was a good way to make sure they were as delicious as possible. I decided to try it with the frozen Safeway meatballs as a sort of experiment and was really pleased with the results. 

The sauce made the meatballs really tender and flavorful. The meatballs made the sauce really rich and amazing. You'd never know this was just a bunch of prepared foods and dried herbs from the spice cabinet that were on hand. The whole thing was out-of-this-world delicious, especially when served alongside some garlic bread that consisted of my famous garlic butter on a loaf of "everything bread" that my mom brought home the other day. 

Seriously, I don't know why so many people bag on techniques like the ones Sandra Lee uses to make semi-homemade meals. Yeah, meals made from scratch are pretty damned awesome... but they're not really realistic for most of us really busy people to put together at the end of a long day. We literally don't have time and when we have time, we probably don't have the energy. That said, it's sometimes a necessity to turn to convenience food in order to keep bellies full. It's so much nicer to simply use them as ingredients in creations of your own though. 

I'd take this over a can of Chef Boyardee or a frozen TV dinner any day of the week. It was certainly just as convenient and probably 50 times tastier and more cost-effective. This made enough to not only feed us last night, but definitely for at least two more meals going forward as well. Can't beat that! It was fast and easy, too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Politics of Ketchup

The Ever-Present Ketchup Cups
The lay of the land as far as ketchup politics go is funny in our house as Seth and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the stuff. Seth eats it all the time and more or less with every meal. It's rare that there isn't at least a small pool of it on his plate and being out of ketchup is kind of a big deal for him. This is especially the case when we're eating something for dinner that is traditionally served with ketchup, like burgers and fries.

It's not like he won't eat something without ketchup, but he does strongly, strongly prefer to eat it with -- enough that whether or not there's a bottle of it at least offered at a restaurant will at least somewhat affect whether or not he wants to eat there in the first place. Those "no ketchup" places -- like that Louie's Lunch place in Connecticut -- irritate him, as he doesn't like to be told what he can and can't have on his burger... and he wants at least the option of adding ketchup pretty much all the time.

I'm the exact opposite as far as my personal feelings go. I don't have an issue with other people liking ketchup, but I strongly dislike it myself (along with most commonly used condiments). In fact, I will not eat something that has ketchup on it. Not a burger and not fries. I just really, really don't like it and it actually irritates me that so many burgers -- especially at fast food joints and whatnot -- will come ready-made with the ketchup already on the bun and everything.

I hate it when food places simply assume that it's so insane and uncommon not to want condiments like ketchup on your food that they just go ahead and squirt the shit on there for you without even being asked to. I have to insist twice that the ketchup be left off my shit and even so -- at least 50% of the time it winds up on there anyway, basically rendering the whole burger inedible to me and ruining my whole day. Really, when I check my bun to make sure no rogue condiments were added without my say-so and I see some? It's like I want to crack skulls or something.

The funny thing is that Seth and I aren't ketchup Nazis or complete weirdos. A lot of people feel like one or the other of us when it comes to ketchup and the use of common condiments in general. But why do they feel so strongly about something that seems so inconsequential? It's something I've been thinking (and reading) a lot about lately.

Why Ketchup Lovers Can't Live Without It

As far as why some people are so in love with ketchup, it seems to be for a couple of reasons. To begin with, many people who love ketchup are the sort of folks who appreciate a common thread of familiarity to be there with most, if not all, of the food they eat. This is especially the case for items like burgers or fries. No matter where you're eating or how special-snowflake a particular burger option may be, ketchup is always there for you, taking the edge off the foreignness of the experience and allowing you to ease yourself into it a little more easily. It's kind of a like the foodie version of your favorite wingman in a way.

The sort of person who can't imagine life without ketchup also tends to have favorite ingredients, seasonings, and flavors that show up in many of the foods they cook at home. Once they find a taste they like, they tend to want to stick with it and add it to almost everything. This isn't to say that they don't also like trying new things. However, they will probably try those things in conjunction with one or several old standbys as part of the mix as well, including but not limited to ketchup.

Burger and Fries with Ketchup
It also seems that for some, eating ketchup (or any favorite condiment) with the majority of suitable foods is a bit of a habit that developed at some point in the past. Many people I know who swear by ketchup grew up used to eating food that wasn't very good at least sometimes, either because their parents were terrible cooks or because they ate a ton of fast food. Ketchup was a way to add flavor and edibility that wasn't otherwise there in regards to certain items, making a meal that was actually pretty gross potentially a lot better by comparison.

That said, ketchup lovers eventually grow to view their favorite condiment as something that always enhances a meal. It doesn't overpower the flavor of the burger or the steak for them, but compliments it. Even if a given meal like a burger is damn good by itself, the ketchup connoisseur probably feels it has the potential to be even better with ketchup on the side. When asked to chime in for this on behalf of ketchup lovers everywhere, Seth even said that ketchup on the side for dipping can bring flavors and nuances out in his food for him in much the same way a beer or a wine can.

Why Ketchup Haters Can't Stand the Stuff

The most common reason why people who dislike ketchup and other common condiments feel that way seems to be that they view the red stuff as a third wheel -- the guy no one invited to the party, but who always seems to be there, even when it's really not his scene. I can kind of be this way, actually... especially when ordering burgers at a fast food place or a diner.

Seriously, it doesn't seem to matter what the actual flavor profile of a specialty burger will be. Ketchup (or his ugly brother, mustard... or his whore sister, mayo) always seems to be there, too and I don't get it. How or why ketchup, mustard, and mayo are necessary on something like a mushroom Swiss burger or a bacon chili burger is beyond my capacity to understand. The chili or the mushroom gravy does a perfectly adequate job of making the sandwich moist and delicious, so it can't just be that people don't like dry burgers. The extra condiments really are there for no particular reason other than the fact that they're "what you put" on burgers... all burgers.

This condiment-hater isn't fooled for a minute though. These unnecessary entities are just party crashing as far as I'm concerned and they need to GTFO until they're invited like proper guests. They can go to other people's parties all they want, but they don't get invites to mine because I like my food pretty simple without a lot of extras that don't need to be there. Love it or hate it, most people can usually at least agree that ketchup is an extra.

Many people also dislike ketchup for one of the same reasons others consider it a staple -- it adds an element to each food you put it on that's always, always the same whether it compliments the dish in question or not. As much as some people like familiarity, others like variety and even total departure as far as flavors go from dish to dish.

It's not uncommon for this sort of person to have vast spice collections that they're constantly adding to or to like to read up on very exotic cuisines just for shits and giggles on a Sunday afternoon. When this type cooks a burger at home and feels the need to add a condiment, they're more likely to create their own special sauce from base ingredients (possibly even including ketchup as one of them) specifically for that particular burger, as opposed to grabbing a bottle of something prepared. They may even be the sort who never likes to make things the same way twice, because they're easily bored with familiar things and familiar ways. Unless something's just unusually amazing, I have the attention span and staying power of a flea, so... yeah. I probably fit this profile to at least some extent.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I have no effing clue what's going on here.
Trying to talk to other people about ketchup sometimes feels a lot like trying to talk to them about abortion, or parenting, or whether God exists. Everyone has a strong opinion on the matter, everyone thinks they're right, and everyone thinks the guy on the other side of the fence might as well be from Neptune for how well he "gets it". In reality though, there is no right and wrong. There is only opinion.

How a given person feels about ketchup has nothing to do with whether or not ketchup is actually appropriate to use or not. It does, however, have everything to do with how different people approach food and go about enjoying a meal. The guy who likes ketchup isn't automatically an uncultured heathen who doesn't understand good food any more than the guy who doesn't like it is automatically a food snob with a steel rod up their butt. There's nothing wrong with liking ketchup on all your shit and there's nothing wrong with wanting it far, far away from your edibles at all times either.

What I have never understood is why people care so danged much how other people eat their food and why they think they should be making choices about extras like condiments for others. Seriously, can't we all just get along? In my version of a perfect world, ketchup lovers would be able to ask for a bottle of Heinz in just about any good restaurant and at least be offered a homemade house ketchup for their troubles instead of a sneer of contempt. Also, condiment haters like me would never have to worry about getting a burger at a fast food joint that's been pre-defiled with crap they hate because condiments would always, always be right where they belong... on the side for people to use or not as they see fit.

It takes all types to make the world go 'round. Some of those types like ketchup and some of them don't. It's just that simple (and that complicated). So where do you fall on this issue? Ketchup for president? The official sauce of Satan's table? Something in between?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Trashy (But Good) Eats: Lazy Enchiladas

Lazy 'Ladas with Greens and Frozen Nacho Bites
If you're a food snob who thinks something has to be made from scratch or 100% perfectly healthful in order to be worth eating, then look away. This post is not for you. It's for the people out there who don't just love homemade mac and cheese, but still love to eat the crappy stuff out of the little blue Kraft box sometimes as well. It's for the people who are perfectly fine with eating frozen pizza on a Friday night and are unashamed of enjoying every delicious bit of it. Most of all, it's for the people who like taking their convenience food to the next level by adding a few creative touches to it. With that, I present you with one of my favorite doctored up ways to enjoy frozen convenience food -- our "recipe" for lazy enchiladas.

It happens to the best of us! Sometimes we're really hungry for something really, really tasty. However, we're really tired from a long day... or maybe we just give zero fucks and are feeling pretty lazy for no particular reason. We want something easy and convenient -- like frozen food. However, we also want something that tastes better and is more satisfying. A solution like this is great for when you find yourself in such a pickle, but don't necessarily feel like putting your pants on so you can answer the door for the pizza dude.

Finished "Lazy  Enchiladas"
We're big enchilada lovers around here. However, we don't always have all the fixings (or all the patience) required to actually whip up a batch properly. What we did happen to have a lot of at the time we originally came up with this idea was a whole freezer full of frozen burritos that we were getting tired of actually eating exactly as they come. We also happened to have a large can or two of enchilada sauce on hand.

My brain was apparently semi-working that day, because I started wondering what would happen if you just used the burritos instead of the homemade fillings and tortillas you usually use. I assumed that they'd actually behave the same way the homemade wraps do by soaking up the sauce and becoming awesome in the process. It turns out I was right.

What I didn't expect though was for these to be as delicious as they actually were. Frozen burritos are already nice and rich inside by virtue of basically being frozen convenience food. Also, their tortilla shells do soak up the enchilada sauce extremely well, making them soft, and warm, and delicious instead of merely burrito-like the way they'd normally be. Add cheese, creative toppings, or something to enjoy on the side like a salad or some nachos and you actually have a pretty great meal that didn't require a whole lot of effort. Kids will eat this, as will frozen food-loving dudes, so this is a great trick for ladies to learn when they want to please a household full of such beings without the usual hassle.

Lazy Enchiladas Topped with Pepperoni and Cilantro

  • One package of 8 frozen burritos or chimichangas (any flavor will do)
  • One large can of enchilada sauce (La Victoria mild is our fave)
  • Shredded cheese of your choice
The ingredients listed above will make enough lazy enchiladas to feed four hungry people (2 burritos per person). Or else you can do what we do -- make a half-batch, and save the rest of your fixings so you can make more over the weekend or something. This is easy enough that it's really not worth making extra ahead or anything.

To make the enchiladas, grab a baking dish big enough to accommodate the number of burritos you plan on cooking. Coat the bottom of the pan with a layer of enchilada sauce, add the burritos, and cover them with more sauce. Cover the baking dish with tin foil and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for about 45 minutes. (I like to turn the burritos over once halfway through the baking process to make sure you achieve optimal sauce absorption, but you don't have to.) 

Once your 45 minutes are up, remove your enchiladas and top them liberally with your shredded cheese. Pop them back into the oven uncovered for an additional 8 minutes or so until the cheese gets nice and bubbly and you're done.You don't have to stop at cheese as far as your toppings go, of course. Sometimes we add minced garlic or onion, jalapeño peppers, or cilantro. We've even added things like pepperoni because we felt like it. Pretty much anything goes, so we  usually just scrounge around the fridge to see what's left that still needs to be used up. Serve alongside chips, salads, other frozen Mexican snacks, or whatever suits your fancy!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

More Adventures in Japanese Cuisine

Yummy Homemade Sushi with Miso
I've been on a little bit of a Japanese kick since last weekend. I don't remember how I wound up off on that tangent in the first place, but I do seem to recall whiling away the better part of an afternoon watching videos on YouTube all about just... life in Japan. I found some really interesting videos about Japanese vending machines and grocery stores, for instance, and even a wonderful channel maintained by this adorable American girl living in Japan whose videos are basically just her trying different snacks and telling her viewers what they are like. (One of these days, I'd like to do a write-up on her and maybe on some of the other YouTubers I discovered and want to share with you, so cross you fingers and hope I don't forget.)

I've been interested in other cultures ever since I was a kid, but for some reason, I've never been the sort of person who's all about the big landmarks and the things most outsiders are probably interested in. I like to hear about minutiae like what people eat for an everyday breakfast, what the fashion trends are like, what people like to do with their free time, and whether or not they like to dip their fries in gravy or ketchup. Food-related minutiae is always my favorite and absorbing a lot of it eventually makes me want to consume more of it in real life.

Homemade Maki-Sushi
I hadn't made sushi in a really long time and I knew I still had some nori wrappers and sushi rice hanging around from the last time I made some, so I whipped up a batch yesterday. I still wouldn't say I make the most beautiful sushi rolls in existence, but I'm getting much better at rolling them securely at least. The fillings are always just odds and ends that I happened to have around. I've been keeping a lot of tuna around lately, as I've been all about tuna and baby green wraps for lunch, so there was some yellowfin to use. There was also a leftover barbecued chicken breast, some shredded carrot, and some scallions, so I combined all those to make different rolls.

Seaweed and Green Onion Miso
Seth was at the store earlier in the week and he stumbled across some Japanese miso, which neither of us have had, so we thought that might make a nice accompaniment to the sushi. Holy crap, this stuff was a surprise! Really... it was so, so good. Crazy good! It was low in calories as well, which is something I am trying to keep track of with summer coming up and all. It's also apparently super nutritious. Miso itself is supposed to be very high in good quality protein, antioxidants, and nutrients. Plus it's full of probiotics similar to the ones found in yogurt to help with your digestion.

I loathe yogurt and I swear I was just telling Seth the other day that I wished I didn't so I could take advantage of the health benefits. Well, I guess the universe provided and introduced me to miso. I can eat this instead! Really, it's wonderful and I could easily see enjoying a small cup of this several times a week with my sandwiches or wraps for sure. The more I expand my very limited knowledge of Japanese cuisine, the more I discover to love about it. I think this is something I'd for sure like to continue to do into the future, especially considering how healthful a lot of it is.

Next I'm actually interested in trying some of the traditional Japanese snacks like I've seen on Emmy's YouTube though. I've noticed that a lot of the stuff I was interested in is available through Amazon and... well... I love snack food every so often as a treat. Especially if it's something new and unusual. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Better Food Photos, Here We Come

DiGiorno Honey BBQ Wings

I am not really the sort of person who tends to spend money on a lot of unnecessary "things". Most people who  read this blog realize I work as a freelancer in the arts, so I don't exactly have a lot of disposable income burning a hole in my pocket. Even, if there's something really useful that I'm fantasizing about splurging on, I probably won't in favor of saving my money for a rainy day. Being someone who was raised to see treating myself as kind of a silly thing to do doesn't help either.

I've actually been wanting a really good digital camera for a long time, but I've always been able to come up with an excuse not to spring for one. The fact that most cell phones come with one built in that is certainly good enough for everyday purposes was always a huge reason why. Now I'm kind of glad that I never dropped the cash on that camera, because I was disgustingly surprised by the built-in camera my new Android phone has. (I guess the days of posting a cell phone picture and feeling like you have to apologize to your friends for the quality are truly over with.)

Up to this point, I've been using the camera in my aging BlackBerry Curve to take my food photos and really, I thought that that one was better than average on the whole. However, it wasn't that terrific at taking close-up macro-style shots of items like food that really preserve the color and the detail the way a good food blogger would hope. As a result, I rarely feel like my photography does proper justice to the food I cook. It does the job, but... you know. I've never quite been able to achieve the same "wow factor" other food bloggers have been able to achieve largely because of their pictures. This isn't entirely a recipe blog so much as it's just a place where I talk about food, so that only mattered marginally to me, but still. 

DiGiorno Meat Lovers Pizza

I'm still not someone who considers themselves to be a very good photographer. I'm a fine artist, so I'm used to making things exactly the way I want them using the powers of my imagination. Photography requires working within the confines of reality, so I've never really thought about it as a means of artistic expression or anything. However, having a pretty decent camera fall into my lap pretty much by accident has at least made me curious about photography enough to consider exploring it more. 

Yesterday, I played around with some of the alternate settings on my phone, including the macro setting. We didn't make anything that wild or exciting for dinner last night -- just a frozen Digiorno "Pizza and Wyngz", one of our favorite calorie splurges -- but I wanted to try shooting some food anyway. My photographic skills still are far from fantastic and I definitely need to find some better places than my stove top to set food up for proper shots. However, I can already see enough of a difference in the photo quality to be kind of excited. 

This makes me actually want to share more recipes or eat out more, just so I can have an excuse to take more food pictures. Anything that makes me want to get out more or do more in general is a good thing anyway, but things that inspire me to be more creative and proactive about being expressive are even better.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Kurt Cobain, Mac and Cheese, and Me: A Personal Lesson in Simplicity

RIP Kurt Cobain (2/20/67 - 4/5/94) 
As some of you who actually know me as a person no doubt realize, I'm a huge music fan. If you follow my Facebook, my personal journal, or any of my music-related profiles on the web, then you also know I'm a long-time fan of Kurt Cobain from Nirvana.

Yesterday was the 18th anniversary of Kurt's death. Nirvana was one of my favorite bands when I was in high school. I was also one of millions of angsty American teenagers who felt about a billion times less alone when I listened to his music. I'm also an angsty adult who still feels about a billion times less alone when I listen to music I can identify with, so naturally I had a lot of feelings yesterday, especially since -- as most people know -- he was a suicide.

When I told Seth what day it was going to be a couple of days ago, he immediately suggested we do what we always do to celebrate special occasions -- make up some kind of special meal that's appropriate to the occasion and listen to old Nirvana albums or something. It seemed like a no-brainer to harness the power of Google to find out what Kurt Cobain's favorite foods were, choose one, cook it up, and eat the shit out of it in his honor.

Well... problem! Kurt Cobain apparently wasn't much of a foodie. He suffered from severe chronic stomach pain and digestive ailments, so most of the foods he liked were disturbingly simple and bland. He was actually asked point blank in an interview once what his favorite food was. He said "rice and water". (OK, dude.) I also found some evidence that he liked "pizza and Coke", as well as a few other similar things. Despite being a drug addict, he really didn't even drink very much, preferring stomach-soothing tea to beer, wine, or cocktails. Then I found the following quote:

"I hate having people feed me fine French meals when all I want is macaroni and cheese!"
I also found a story online about this time he ordered mac and cheese at some hotel somewhere and the kitchen sent up macaroni shells with Monterey Jack cheese and jalapeños in it. Kurt took one look at that shit and threw it right in the garbage. "Macaroni and cheese" to him meant plain, ordinary Kraft Macaroni and Cheese without any extras in it. It used to really irritate him that people simply did not get that even though he was a rock star and could eat anything he wanted, he had extremely simple tastes and preferences.

It's the cheesiest!
Now... that is pretty much the polar opposite of who I am as a food lover. Although I didn't like it as a child and discovered its golden goodness relatively late in life, I actually love Kraft Macaroni and Cheese as an easy, tasty meal solution once in a while and so does Seth. However, we like to doctor ours up a lot. We like to add things like onion, peppers, or sausage, as well as experiment with spices and different cheeses. We cook it different ways. Really, it's more of a component in the making of other dishes than anything else.

I honestly couldn't remember the last time I'd ever eaten the stuff plain. Actually, to be honest, I'm not even sure if I'd ever eaten it plain. Like I said -- I discovered mac and cheese as an adult, so I already had an adult's palate that preferred different flavor dimensions to bare-bones simplicity. I've always "put shit" in my mac and the idea of not doing it felt really backward. 

The more I thought about it, the more I found myself sort of thinking Kurt Cobain was insane for not at least trying the fancy version with the Jack and the 'peños, because I would have torn that mess up and loved every minute of the experience. I judged him for missing out on the veritable rainbow of different things mac and cheese can be if you just step out a little and I shook my head at him for not being worldlier. 

Then I kind of realized that that was the type of attitude Kurt couldn't stand and wouldn't like. After all, how did I know I don't like plain mac and cheese? I've never had it before... so eventually I decided that would actually be the perfect way to honor Kurt. He was a simple guy who liked simple things, so a Kurt Cobain "memorial meal" should be simple like he was. 

So... we had a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in the house. I cooked it up last night and we ate it plain without so much as a dash of pepper or a sprinkle of extra cheese in it... and it was actually plenty tasty! I think Kurt would have approved. Don't get me wrong. I'm going to right back to "putting shit" in my mac and cheese... but I also learned that "simple" isn't anywhere near as intolerable as I always assumed it would be. 

I'm sure I could turn this into a full-on metaphor for life or something, but I'll spare you my Piscean ramblings on the subject. Mac, cheese, harmony, and music to you, Kurt... wherever you are!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Habañero-Garlic Meatloaf

Meatloaf, brown gravy, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes.
It seems like I always hear one of two things from people when they talk about meatloaf. Some people list it way, way close to the top of the list when it comes to their favorite foods. They talk about meatloaf and mashed potatoes being what they'd want for their last meal if they were on Death Row. Others practically gag at the thought of it and refuse to touch any variant of it with a ten-foot pole despite the fact that they like hamburgers, meatballs, and a lot of similar things.

I have a theory about what actually separates the two groups from one another. I think the first group knows what it is to have eaten really good meatloaf and the second group doesn't. For some reason, meatloaf isn't really one of those foods that's so hard to ruin, it's still pretty good even when it's bad... like pizza, a hamburger, or spaghetti. When meatloaf isn't made well, it can be absolutely disgusting. 

I've had meatloaf like that and it wasn't always at some gross cafeteria or something either. A lot of the worst meatloaves I've ever had were made by home cooks that don't understand a lot of cooking fundamentals like the importance of seasoning food (especially meat) and the seemingly simple understanding that intentionally overcooking food does not make it taste better. 

I personally fucking love meatloaf. The only reason I don't eat meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy even more often than I do is because I don't really want to weight 600 pounds or deal with perpetual indigestion. However, it remains one of my favorite comfort foods ever and other people seem to like the way I make it as well. It's a great dish, after all! It's delicious, it's comforting, it's inexpensive, and it's easy to make when you know what you're doing. 

Red onion, habañero, garlic cloves, scallion.
Recently, we finally bit the bullet and ate our first habañero pepper. We had it in chili not that long ago and we both really like it. It's technically hotter than a jalapeño or something else along those lines, but the heat actually doesn't slam you in the face the same way which made it interesting. Seth likes spicy food and loves different kinds of peppers. He also loves the meatloaves I make, so we decided we'd see what happens when you throw a habañero in a meatloaf. He said this was the best meatloaf he ever had in his whole life, so... yeah. I guess I decided it was probably worth sharing.

In addition to the habañero, we also chopped up some other veggie-like things we had around the kitchen that we knew would taste good, as you can see from the photo above -- red onion, garlic, and scallion in addition to the pepper. Really, that's the beauty of meatloaf. It's a lot like burgers are in that you can throw lots of things into the meat mixture to achieve different flavors and I recommend that you experiment for sure. Just use whatever you have around the house at a given time. 

Meatloaf mixture (before bread crumbs and additional seasoning)
Meatloaf -- in my opinion -- is one of those things that isn't really something that needs a recipe so much as it needs an understanding of the texture you're going for. That said, you can try this recipe, but it's more meant as a jumping off point for you to use when creating your own killer meatloaves. The following is what went into our meatloaf mixture.
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 medium-sized red onion (diced)
  • A few cloves of garlic (chopped)
  • 1 habañero pepper (very finely minced)
  • 2 scallions (chopped)
  • 4 slices of whole grain bread (untoasted and torn into small, pea-sized pieces)
  • Several generous dashes of Worcestershire sauce
  • Several generous shakes of Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons of barbecue sauce
  • A couple pinches of salt
  • A couple pinches of pepper
You may well want to adjust this, because we made this to suit our own tastes. We like a lot of onion and garlic in things. A lot. We also like a lot of texture to our meatloaf, so we don't chop some of that up super finely. If you like less of that type of thing in your meatloaf (or none at all), then by all means make adjustments. If you don't like pork, don't use it. Substitute beef, turkey, or chicken... whatever.

Some people really don't like veggies and such added into their meatloaf, but I actually recommend it. Grated carrot or zucchini is also kick-ass in meatloaf, as are chopped sweet bell peppers. Vegetables add moisture to the meatloaf and keep it from turning into that dry, brick-like log your grandmother used to make you eat as a kid. They also add nutrition, flavor, and color. Chop them up as finely as you like. You can even semi-puree them, although you may need more bread if you do. Herbs are awesome chopped up and added to meatloaf as well, so don't be afraid to chop up any extras you have lying around and add them.

I didn't toast the bread this time before putting it in the meatloaf, mostly out of laziness, but if you want to, you sure can. Just reduce the amount of bread you add by maybe half to start with. This is also a great way to use up stale bread you have around. Break it down into pieces or crumbs (either works fine) and throw it in. Some people add an egg or two to their meatloaf to help it hold together. I don't because I find that it doesn't need it, but you can do what you want.

Meatloaf... ACTIVATE!
Once you've got all your ingredients in the bowl, start squishing it around until it's blended well. Don't bother with a fork or any of that nonsense though. The best tools you have for this are your own two hands, seriously, so stop being a wuss. Like I said above, what you're going for with this is the right texture. If it feels too wet and loose, add more bread crumbs to soak up the moisture. If it feels too dry, hit it with another dash of Worcestershire or even some milk if you have it. (Oh yeah... and have your oven preheating to about 375º while you're at it so it's all ready to go when you're done.)

When your meat mixture is good to go, it feels slightly looser than regular hamburger, but it should still hold together OK. At that point, press it into a loaf pan sprayed with cooking spray or rubbed lightly with olive oil. Some people mold it into a loaf-like shape and put it on a flat baking pan. I don't like that way though. I like the loaf pan. It makes for a nicer-shaped loaf, in my opinion, and it also seems to cook it better and keep things neater, so put it in there, cover it with tin foil, and pop it into the oven.

The loaf takes roughly 45-60 minutes to bake. However, you should check it about halfway through and (if necessary) pour off any of the grease that starts baking out of the meat during cooking so your loaf isn't all greasy. When it's done, it pulls away from the sides of the dish slightly and feels firm to the touch if you poke it, just like hamburger. 

Sliced Meatloaf

Once the loaf looks pretty done, you can take the foil off and glaze it with something to make it pretty and extra tasty. Some people use ketchup. I use a little of the same barbecue sauce that I put inside the loaf for flavor and texture. Pop it back in for maybe 10 minutes uncovered or until the glaze cooks a bit and forms a nice skin on top. Then let it cool a little, slice, add sides or gravy, and eat the crap out of it! 

This is a super-awesome, easy meal to make any time. You almost always will have the ingredients on hand, since most people can scrounge up a pound of ground meat and a couple slices of bread in a pinch, and your family will probably like it more than just plain old Hamburger Helper yet again. It goes well with lots of things, too. I like mashed potatoes best and Seth likes mac and cheese, so we often make both. The leftovers make killer sandwiches the next day. It's just a plain awesome thing to eat, so try it, experiment with it... make it your own!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Writing About Stupid Shit Makes People Like You

You want to know what's weird about the blogosphere? The discovery process as to what your very unique-to-you audience actually likes to read when it comes to your individual blog. That's what's weird. 

I'm in the habit of keeping track of my traffic at all my blogs, profiles, and websites -- wherever possible, that is. I just like to know who's reading my stuff and where they come from for a number of different reasons. When it comes to blogs that I keep more for public consumption, as opposed to just communication with friends and close acquaintances, I especially like to know what brought them into my territory in the first place. It's never the stuff I would think of as really useful or interesting. If you're a blogger as well and are fascinated by your own web traffic, then you are probably already nodding along in complete understanding.

My stats have actually told me repeatedly that most people who read or visit this blog couldn't honestly give a fuck about most of the recipes or cooking tips (with the possible exception of the 16-bean vegetarian chili recipe for some odd reason). They don't really care that much about how to roast the best Thanksgiving turkey they've ever had in their lives, nor do they care what goes into my personal version of stuffed zucchini.  They only care marginally about what I thought of the dishes I've eaten at restaurants and such. However, they apparently really like it when I just sit here and babble about food.

My most popular post here by a landslide is the post I made where I was just talking about the time I had taco-in-a-bag at a fair once -- no joke. I mean, really people. Taco-in-a-bag is more than just the most ridiculous food I've ever eaten (and certainly the most ridiculous food I've ever been charged for). The post I made where I was talking about it is probably one of the dumbest things I've ever written in my life. I almost didn't write it at all, but I was really bored that day and felt like writing something. I didn't have anything better to write about on that particular day, so I set the bar so low Kate Moss couldn't fit under it... and there you go.

People also apparently enjoyed the post where I just  went off on how bacon has jumped the shark so badly, as well as the post I made about Frito pie and King of the Hill. In other words, people seem to prefer it when I'm ripping on stuff and just being sarcastic... even when it comes to food blogging which is typically more or less about recipes, restaurant experiences, and the like. 

I am not exactly sure what that says about me, my food, or most people's taste in their food-related reading material, but I am sure I feel less bad about just wanting to tell food stories and be an asshole now and again. I knew people were wrong when they claimed my smart-ass mouth wouldn't ever make me any friends! Let this be a lesson to you kids.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Adventures in Duck Roasting

I am painfully, painfully behind on my blogging like whoa. However, I really didn't want to miss the chance to post about some of the wonderful foods I made over the holidays despite having been really busy with work and other things since then. I good food story never really grows out of date, does it? Well... let's hope it doesn't, because I'm planning on timing a couple more things to post this week sometime. My blog, my rules!

This Christmas, we were determined to do something we hadn't yet done before and as the holiday approached, I was pretty sure I knew what it was going to be. The above picture is of the frozen bird case at the local Safeway where we wound up buying our Thanksgiving turkey. It was full of things I never really noticed that you could buy at Safeway before I started growing a really adventurous heart when it comes to cooking at home -- geese, capons, and duck. There may even have been more options than that.

When I showed Seth that picture, he immediately latched on to the idea of having one of the above for Christmas, since we did wind up doing the turkey for Thanksgiving. I was totally on board with that because... dude! I've never roasted anything like that before and I'm always up for some new culinary adventures. After a lot of hemming, hawing, price comparison, and discussion as to what would be the best option, Seth eventually bought us a duck.

That's the duck in the new roasting pan my mom gave me for Christmas, getting all ready to go into the oven and make the house smell good all day long. As I'd never cooked a duck before, I did some research on how to cook it so that it actually stood a chance of coming out edible. I even asked in a LiveJournal group I belong to, as I knew there were people in there who had experience cooking these guys. Some of the excellent advice I took and some of it I didn't. You know how I roll.

If memory serves, I stuffed the bird pretty simply. Ducks aren't massive or anything, so they don't have a huge cavity. However, I really do prefer to stuff birds -- even little game hens and whatnot. This one got his body cavity filled with orange wedges and white onion. I briefly considered some rosemary from the garden as well, since it's one of our big staples. I eventually decided to just keep things simple though.

Ducks are really fatty little birds, so the trick to getting them to cook well lies in making sure they're prepared for cooking in a way that makes the most of that. I wound up scoring the skin slightly with a sharp kitchen knife. I've also heard of people simply pricking the skin all over. Whatever you do, you really want to open up that skin a little bit before you pop your duck in to bake. This allows some of the thick fat layer underneath the skin to render and self baste the bird. 

I kept the seasoning simple as well, because I really did want to taste the duck. I think a light sprinkling of crushed black pepper went on there to start with, but not much else. Then into a pre-heated 350 degree oven it went! It took a couple of hours to roast thoroughly and it wasn't extra challenging or anything. I just followed the directions on the packaging, really. 

I started off the cooking with the top on the roasting dish, but took it off toward the end of the cooking process so the skin could get properly crispy. Toward the end, I added a sprinkling of chopped parsley I had leftover from making garlic butter for the rolls. That was really about it! We served our duck with stuffing, roasted root vegetables, and pan-fried ancho potatoes. I also made a brown gravy using some of the duck fat as a base. 

For something I really hadn't done before in any capacity, roasting this bird was really pretty easy. Honestly, because of the self-basting action that happens when you score the skin properly beforehand, it was easier even than cooking a turkey. It was also very good, very tender, and a refreshing change from turkey, chicken, or ham which we've had many, many times in the past.

If you have any leftovers, you're really in for a treat, because duck is apparently more flexible than I ever gave it credit for in the past. We got several meals off of this guy, actually. We used the leftover breast meat for cold duck sandwiches and wraps. What didn't get eaten of the leg and thigh meat on Christmas was later shredded and used as the basis of a chili at Seth's request. At first I wasn't sure using duck would actually add that much to the chili, but actually? It gave it a really deep, woody, rich flavor that added a lot. 

Also, you really want to make sure you save and use all of the fat that renders out of the duck, because it's awesome stuff. You can fry potatoes in it or use it as the basis of a roux to name just two possibilities. Use it pretty much any time you require some fat and want to be blown away by a blast of kick-ass duck flavor. Really, I was surprised at how useful and flexible this bird was and I'm irritated with myself for not trying it sooner!

Next Christmas? I'm thinking a goose would be fun to explore. Possibly a pheasant. You just never know!