Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Beef Stew, Sans Recipe

I know the saying is, “As easy as pie,” but I've never found pie to be that simple. Especially if you make the crust from scratch, a skill I’m still trying to master.

On the other hand, stew is so easy to put together, no recipe is required. Just look in your pantry, freezer and fridge. I bet all of the ingredients are there for a yummy stew, be it chicken or beef.

So, you want to make a stew but are unsure where to start? Take a moment and close your eyes. Imagine the stew you desire. How does it taste? What vegetables do you see floating in the broth? What flavors do you taste? Now, go!

It's hard to mess up stew—or soup, for that matter—because the flavors can be adjusted along the way so the finished dish tastes the way you like. Just remember the rule of “less is more.” Start with small amounts of salt, pepper, herbs, spices, etc. You can always add more if needed, but it is difficult to fix if you use too much.

The one skill required for stew making is knowing how to thicken the broth, which is done a short while before serving. I make a slurry of water and flour, shaken in a jar. (Two to three parts water to one part flour—it should be a thick liquid.) Then I pour part of the mixture into the stew, let it come to a simmer to see if it thickens enough, and add more if necessary.

For this beef stew, I threw everything into my slow cooker—one-inch chunks of chuck roast, carrots, potatoes, celery, and onion. (I considered adding tomatoes, peas or green beans, but decided not to this time.) I poured in some low-sodium beef broth and, thinking of Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon, added half a glass of red wine. For seasoning, I used dried thyme, bay leaves, salt and pepper. On went the slow cooker. I used my flour slurry to thicken it about an hour before serving. By the end of the day, I had a rich, hearty stew to enjoy for a mid-winter supper.

The next time you are in the mood for stew—or soup—be brave and skip the recipe. Let your own tastes shine through. Oh, and be sure to tell me what you tried and how it turned out! 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Orleans-Style Barbecue Shrimp

Sometimes I dream about this dish. Seriously! I’ll be going through life as normal when, all of the sudden, the craving strikes and won’t go away until it’s satisfied.

I've never been to New Orleans, but I enjoy the food inspired by that jubilant city. Jambalaya, gumbo, beignets…I love them all. Someday I’ll make a pilgrimage there.

(City's images are courtesy of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.) 

New Orleans food writer Tom Fitzmorris once told me, “Two hundred New Orleans cooks make gumbo with two hundred different recipes, but they will all taste like gumbo. Outside of New Orleans, it doesn't taste like gumbo, even if you use the exact same ingredients. I don’t know why.”

I want to find out if this phenomenon is true.

I got this Barbecue Shrimp recipe from Chef Sean Burt of Tooky Mills Pub in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. He puts a lot of New Orleans-inspired dishes on his menu due to his many trips to the city’s annual jazz festival.

The name Barbecue Shrimp is misleading since the recipe does not use a smoker, grill or barbecue sauce. (No, I don’t know where the name came from, but an internet search shows it’s because of the sauce’s color.)

Trust me; the sauce for this dish is so amazing you will want to swim in it, which explains why bread is served alongside for dipping purposes. I mix up a batch of Emeril Lagasse’s Creole seasoning mix for the recipe, but with less cayenne pepper.

The huge amount of butter is what makes this sauce so amazing. The key to keeping the sauce smooth is to cut the butter into chunks, and then swirl a few chunks at a time into the sauce until blended. However, don’t worry if the sauce breaks. (Happens to me from time to time.) It will still taste delicious.

New Orleans-Style Barbecue Shrimp
Serves 4

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
32 extra-large (16-20) shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 1/3 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup of your favorite Creole spice mix, or more to taste
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and chilled
A loaf of French bread
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat until hot. Add olive oil. When oil is hot, add the shrimp and cook until almost done, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side.
Add the chicken stock and lemon juice to the pan. Turn off the heat. Add the spice mix (more or less depending on your taste.) Let pan sit while stirring for about 30 seconds.
Once pan cools slightly, add the cold butter, a few pieces at a time. (If the pan is too hot, the butter will break and not make a smooth sauce.) Swirl the pan until the butter melts, then add a few more butter pieces, and repeat until all the butter combines to create a creamy, spicy lemon sauce.
Place the shrimp in individual bowls and pour the sauce on top. Serve with French bread to sop-up any leftover sauce.  

Almost Emeril Lagasse’s Creole Spice Mix

Makes 2/3 cup

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste

Place all of the ingredients into a bowl and stir to combine will. Store in an air-tight container.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year Mac and Cheese

Happy 2015! I was so ready to see the old year go, and I have high hopes for this new one.

To celebrate, how about a warm dish of comfort—homemade macaroni and cheese! I know for those of you with weight-loss resolutions this might not be the recipe to start off the year. For me, when the cold January winds are blowing and the glow of the holidays starts to fade, I want comfort food to warm my winter meals.

The great thing about mac and cheese is the flexibility of the recipe. Pretty much any melting cheese and seasonings will work. Just follow your taste buds. I made this one with Gruyere and extra-sharp cheddar, but in the past I've used Fontina, provolone, and Monterey jack. This one also has dried English mustard and a touch of cayenne pepper, but sometimes I add a little nutmeg, too. I recently saw a TV chef add cooked kale to a mac and cheese, and I plan to try adding some cooked spinach to my next one. Ham, bacon, and grilled chicken also make great additions. Once you have the basic recipe, you can play around with it however you like.

Mac and cheese is also a great make-ahead dish. Just pop it into the refrigerator or freezer, and then bake it when you’re ready.

New Year Mac and Cheese
Serves 6 to 8 people

1 pound elbow macaroni
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup flour
1 quart whole milk
3 cups grated Gruyere cheese
3 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar
1 to 2 teaspoons ground English mustard, to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or a 3-quart casserole with non-stick cooking spray and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add some salt to the water (enough so it tastes like the sea), add the macaroni, and cook until just done—tender but still a bit firm. Drain and set aside.

Using the same pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk. Once the flour-butter mixture is combined with the milk, switch to a spoon and stir until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Remove from the heat and stir in the cheeses until melted and combined. Stir in the flavorings and then the cooked macaroni. Mix until well combined.

Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until bubbly and browned on top.

To make ahead, cover the dish of macaroni and cheese before baking and place into the refrigerator of freezer. When ready to bake, remove the dish and place it into the preheated oven. Bake for 40 to 60 minutes, or until browned and bubbly. (If the mixture is frozen, cover with foil for the first 30 minutes of baking, and then remove to brown.)


Monday, December 15, 2014

Fudgey Brownies in a Jar

I begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m not a craft person, which I’m sure is evident by this photo. Cooking I can do. Dressing up gifts? Not so much.

Trust me, anyone who receives this gift of Fudgey Brownies in a Jar won’t care how the packaging looks once they taste the results. These brownies are wonderfully chewy and chocolaty—just what brownies are meant to be!

When assembling the jar, I put the chips and walnuts in an attached bag since they are added after the batter is mixed. If you’re not sure the gift recipient is a fan of nuts in brownies, just omit the walnuts and add more chocolate chips. You can also give a mixture of dark and white chocolate chip with the jar. Be sure to include the baking instructions, either on the gift tag or an attached recipe card.

Whether you give the jar as a gift or keep it in your pantry, this brownie mix is great to have around whenever the chocolate craving strikes.  

Fudgey Brownies in a Jar
Makes 24 brownies

For the jar:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder 

For attached bag:
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Additional ingredients:
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 cup water
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
To make the jar: Into a 1 quart jar, place the flour, baking soda and salt. Whisk together to combine. Add the brown sugar, granulated sugar, and cocoa powder. Place the lid on top. In a plastic bag to go with the jar, place the chocolate chips and walnuts.
To make the brownies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 13 x 9-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.
Pour the ingredients from the jar into a large mixing bowl. Whisk together to combine. Add the additional ingredients and stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips and walnuts.
Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the brownies start to pull away from the side of the pan. Cool in the pan on a wire rack. Cut into 24 squares before serving. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Spiced Tea Mix from the Family Recipe Box

Recently, I was looking in my Mamaw’s recipe box for a favorite Christmas recipe when I came across this one for her Spiced Tea Mix. I thought, “What a great, old-fashioned Christmas gift alternative to hot chocolate mix.”

According to the note Mamaw made on the card, she got this recipe from a friend in 1969.  The mixture is reminiscent of a time when instant tea and Tang orange drink were in style. I remember enjoying warm cups of this fragrant drink at Christmas time, though she may have had it on hand all year round.

I love giving gifts that also have comforting memories to share.

Spiced Tea Mix
Makes enough to fill 1 pint-sided jar or 2 8-ounce jelly jars

1/4 cup instant tea
1 cup Tang powdered orange beverage
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

To make the jar: In a bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients until well combined. Pour into jar and cover with lid.

To make the tea: Poor 1 cup boiling water into a mug. Add 2 heaping teaspoons of the tea mix and stir to combine. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Our Christmas Tree

I was in a quandary about how to decorate for Christmas this year. Specifically, what to do about the tree. I wanted to decorate for the holiday, but I just couldn't put up the Christmas tree.

There’s a story behind the tree. It is an artificial one The Picky Eater had when we met. He said he bought it in 1979 from a Topeka store that is no longer around. It is the type where you match the color-coded branches to the pegs in the center pole. He adored that tree.

I hate that tree! It is a pain to put up, looks straggly no matter how much adjusting I do, and it is covered in dust from decades of Christmases past. The base is cracked. One Christmas the tree kept falling over (once on top of my nephew!), so I had to tie the base together with kitchen twine to keep the tree upright.

I tried to convince The Picky Eater of the benefits offered by a modern, pre-lit tree, but he wouldn't hear of it. So each year, we put it up.

As my first Christmas without The Picky Eater approached, I knew I didn't want to put up that old, dusty tree. However, I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it either.

So, I compromised. I took the top section of the tree, which is all in one piece, and after some juggling and innovative adjustments, set it into the twine-supported base. Then I decorated it with our special ornaments.

In the early days of our relationship, The Picky Eater and I were shopping at Crown Center in Kansas City with his sister and family. There was a store full of Christmas decorations, and he said, “Let’s go in and pick out a special ornament just for us.”

Ever since, we bought an ornament every year just for us.

This is that first one from Christmas, 2010:

This second one was bought a couple of weeks before our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2011:

Then we bought this one on our honeymoon at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri:

The red heart was added in 2012. We picked it because we liked to watch reruns of the television series Hart to Hart, and The Picky Eater liked to think of us as business tycoon Jonathan and freelance writer Jennifer Hart, without the knack for finding dead bodies!

This was the one for 2013. The Picky Eater was a courier and was gone on his route from 6 p.m. to about 3 or 4 a.m. It was a comfort when he returned home each morning.

For this year, I bought this dove from Prairie Glass Studios in downtown Topeka as my way to honor and remember the love of my life:

Next year I may have a big, new, pre-lit tree for Christmas. Who knows?  For now, I get a lot of joy from looking at “our” Christmas tree.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

Have you bought sweet potatoes yet for your traditional casserole? Here’s an updated twist on a side dish tradition.

This Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes recipe is based on a casserole I've made every holiday for years. I saw a magazine article about making twice-baked sweet potatoes and thought, “Why can’t I do that with my recipe?” So, I did! However, if you prefer the casserole form, then by all means, go for it. This recipe works either way. Also, if feeding a large group, just double the recipe.

Twice-Baked Sweet Potatoes

Serves 6
4 small sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Pinch of salt
For topping:
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped pecans, to taste

Prick each sweet potato 3 times with a fork and place on a microwave-safe dish. Microwave on high for 9 to 12 minutes, turning the potatoes over every 3 minutes, until a wooden skewer pokes easily into the potato. (Some of the potatoes may bake faster than the others. Just removed the ones that are done and keep going with the rest, checking every 3 minutes.) Let the cooked potatoes sit for 10 minutes to cool slightly.

To make the topping: Place all of the topping ingredients, except the pecans, into a small bowl. Using your fingers, squish the ingredients together until crumbly. Add the pecans and mix to combine. Set aside.

To prepare the potatoes: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Cut each potato in half lengthwise and, using a spoon, scoop out the flesh from the center into a large bowl, making sure to leave about 1/4-inch of the flesh inside of the potato skin. Place each potato skin shell onto a baking sheet that was sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Bake the shells for 10 minutes, or until they are slightly dried and firm.

While the shells bake, add butter to the bowl of sweet potato flesh and mash with a potato masher. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir until combined and fluffy.

Remove the shells from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Discard 2 of the shells since you will not have enough filling for all of them. Spoon the filling into the remaining shells and cover with the toping mixture. Return the baking sheet to the oven and bake until the topping is golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the potatoes to rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.

To make a casserole: Scoop all of the flesh out of the potatoes into the bowl. Mix in the rest of the ingredients as described above, and then spread into a baking dish. Sprinkle the topping over the casserole and bake until golden brown.