the spice of life

If you love to cook at all, you really need to go to the Penzey’s web site and order something – or, at least, sign up for their mailing list. The recipes in their catalogs are worth signing up for.

Penzey’s is a Wisconsin-based mail order company which sells herbs and spices. They’ve now added some brick-and-mortar locations as well, but the closest one to me is in the Memphis area, so for me they’re still a mail-order house.

They have a variety of different products:

  • Individual spices: These range from the ordinary to the exotic, and are all of high quality. Ever seen a chef on the Food Network scrape out a vanilla bean, but you can’t find whole vanilla beans in your local supermarket? Penzey’s has you covered. Need some exotic spice for Indian or Thai cooking? Ditto.
  • Seasoning blends: They have a number of their own proprietary seasoning blends, including five or six different types of chili powder, salt-free blends, and on and on.
  • Gift boxes: This was how I first learned about Penzey’s; one of my sisters-in-law gave me a gift box. They have them in every price range, from stocking stuffers to big expensive housewarming or wedding gifts that let the happy couple set up shop with all new, fresh spices. Some of the gift boxes are packed in actual, usable bay leaves and whole nutmeg nuts. (Whole nutmeg, by the way, is the way to go. Grate it when you need it, and the taste is much, much better than the pre-ground stuff.)
  • Pepper mills: I’d love to have one of their pepper mills – I usually buy cheap ones from Walmart and then just replace them when they break or wear out. Of course, they have a variety of different peppercorns to go in the mills. They also sell matching salt shakers, with slightly larger holes than the normal shaker to accommodate coarse salt.

Seriously, this is a good company that makes good products. And, as I said, they have great recipes in their catalog, so it’s worth signing up for the mailing list (or just go ahead and order something, which I assume will put you on the list as well).

Laissez les bons temps rouler

At Kroger yesterday, I saw andouille. That’s unusual – I have seen a couple of national smoked sausage brands that tried to promote “andouille-style” or “Cajun-style” flavors in the past, but they weren’t true andouille, and you could see that as soon as you sliced into the link. Actual andouille, at least the kind with which I’m familiar, has a grain to it – speckled, with little bits of fat and meat. I’m sure there’s a term for it that I should be using. A cross-section of the “andouille-style” smoked sausage I’d seen in the past looked just like regular smoked sausage – a uniform pink color, with no bits of anything.

ragincajunBut this was labeled as andouille. It was from Georgia, not Louisiana, but I figured it was worth a try.

A few days earlier, I’d bought a slightly-punctured bag of brown rice, which I love, for only 99 cents out of the bargain bin at Kroger. I decided to try to make a jambalaya with brown rice. Traditional? Probably not. But I like brown rice, and it’s much better for me.

I sliced into the andouille and it looked pretty much like the actual Louisiana andouille I’d tried in the past.

This was a seat-of-my-pants preparation. I chopped up onion and bell pepper, sauteed them, then added a little minced garlic, the brown rice, water, some Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning, a little bit of extra cayenne pepper, and some beef base (Better Than Bouillon). Chicken base would probably have been better, but I’m running lower on my jar of chicken base than I am on my jar of beef base, so I decided to use the beef base. I brought it back up to a boil and then I added the andouille, sliced on the bias into little disks. It will take longer to cook than regular jambalaya because the brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice.

It’s simmering now. My friends who are Cajun food experts will probably find fault with some part of another of this, but I’m anxious to see how it turns out.

accidental chicken soup

I use a lot of chicken thighs. I buy them in a value pack, cook a couple, and then put the rest of them into freezer bags.

I had defrosted a couple of thighs earlier in the week and didn’t get to them as quickly as I thought. Friday night, even though I’d already eaten dinner, I decided I needed to go ahead and cook them before they went bad.

I decided to poach them, in water, Italian seasoning, onions , red pepper flake and a little salt. I pulled them out of the water when they were done – and then it occurred to me that I had some wing tips in my freezer. No, not shoes. The third, inedible segment of a chicken wing. I do occasionally buy chicken wings, and when I do I cut them up myself and I save the tips for making stock. They may not have meat, but they have some flavor, and they have lots of connective tissue (which helps give body to stock or broth). I tossed the tips into the water I’d used for poaching the chicken and let them cook until bedtime. I strained out the wing tips and the onions and put the broth in a jar to chill overnight

I tasted the stock the next day –  it was delicious. A wee bit too salty, but it had so much flavor that I knew I could add a little water to it.

So today, after getting home from church, I put the stock and a little bit of water to the boil and threw in some dried Amish noodles I bought at the Cheese Barn. When the noodles were almost cooked, I added the chicken meat from the other night, plus a little bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice just to perk up the flavor. I even grated the lemon zest and sprinkled it on top of the bowl.

Turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.

chili grind

I went into Walmart after work today, to pick up one or two things – and you know how that usually works out.

I was at the meat case and became unreasonably happy to see this:

chiligrind

Chili grind meat! Which I normally can’t find at all in Shelbyville, and not only did Walmart have it but it was on sale! I snatched it up. I could have made chili from scratch, but I wimped out and bought a Carroll Shelby’s kit, a can of tomato sauce, two cans of Ro-Tel and a little tub of sour cream for garnish. The chili is simmering even as we speak.

What you see in the photo above is two pounds of meat. As you can see, it’s ground much more coarsely – it doesn’t look like yarn but like rope. It’s intended for use in long-simmering chili recipes. It can survive long cooking and still give you nice-sized little chunks of meat in the finished product.

I first learned to make slow-simmered Texas-style chili, without beans, many years ago by using the Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit and the Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit. At the time, they were competitors – the Wick Fowler product came on a cellophane-wrapped cardboard tray, while the Carroll Shelby product came in a little brown paper bag. Now, they are both made by the same company and they come in identical cardboard boxes. They’re both good. The main difference between them is that the Wick Fowler product comes with the various ingredients broken down into separate little packets, so that you can monkey around with them if you like – a little less of this, a little more of that. The Carroll Shelby kit has all of the seasonings except salt and cayenne in one bag.

Since both kits have the cayenne in a separate packet, you can adjust the heat level to your family’s liking – add it all, or some of it, or leave it out.

Both kits come with a separate little packet of masa flour, to be added near the end of cooking as a thickener and for its wonderful corn flavor. I belive the Carroll Shelby kit has a little more masa than the Wick Fowler kit.

When I first started using the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby kits, the main package directions called for either coarse ground beef (like what  you see above) or, lacking that, beef cut into little chunks. They also had, as an afterthought, separate directions for a quick chili recipe using regular ground beef. But those directions were in smaller type and were not as prominent.

Now, the quick ground beef directions are the only directions appearing anywhere on either product. The original, long-cooking directions are nowhere to be found. Even so, they’re still good products, and you can still use them slowly with coarsely ground beef or little chunks. Since I can never find chili-grind beef in Shelbyville, I usually buy stew meat and then cut each big chunk into several smaller ones, using a pair of scissors. So I was delighted to see the genuine article in Walmart today, and hope they’ll keep carrying it, even if it’s not always on sale.

Most big supermarkets now carry both the Wick Fowler and Carroll Shelby products, side-by-side in their boxes, but Walmart, at least today, only had the Carroll Shelby product.

It feels like a wonderful night for a bowl of chili. I’m glad I happened to wander over to the meat case.

You scream, I scream, we all scream for bananas

I had to go to United Grocery Outlet for a couple of things, and they had bananas — labeled as “overripe” — on sale for 29 cents a pound. The ones I bought were actually perfectly ripe, with lots of brown specks and splotches, at the peak of sweetness without having turned mushy. I’d been meaning to make banana ice “cream” again, and this is the perfect opportunity.

If you’ve not tried this yet, it’s a must. It’s basically frozen bananas, pulverized into the creamy texture of soft-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt. There’s no added sugar, no cream or milk or dairy of any kind. The only ingredient is bananas. Of course, you can add fruit or chocolate chips or flavor extracts or anything else.

They now make a gadget, called “Yonanas,” especially for this purpose. One of my friends bought one and raved about it on Facebook, and I passed that recommendation along to another friend without trying it myself. Then I discovered that you can do the same thing just as easily with your food processor, and I felt guilty for having steered my friend wrong. (If she minded, she didn’t let on.) Here’s a web site with all the details: http://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/2014/07/banana-soft-serve/

The bunch of bananas I bought today will make two batches of soft-serve. If you haven’t tried this yet, do it while the temperature is still fairly warm – although I suspect that, like ice cream, it will be good any time of the year.

He who hesitates….

Why did the chicken cross the road?
why-did-the-chicken
The actual question should be why this chicken didn’t cross the road. When I walked out to my car to go to lunch, about 11:15, he was standing right as you see him here, motionless, as cars swerved around him. For my readers from out of town, we have a Tyson processing plant in Shelbyville, and a number of tractor-trailers filled with chickens drive past the T-G every day. This bird probably escaped from one of those somehow.

Just as I was taking this photo with my smartphone, a man in a pickup truck, no doubt thinking to himself “¡Pollo gratis!”, pulled over. He walked over and grabbed the chicken.

Someone, I suspect, will be eating well tonight.

It was easy being green

I had, in my cupboard, the second half of a two-batch box of instant cheesy mashed potatoes from UGO. As much as I love real mashed potatoes, and as much as I try to cook real food when I can, I actually don’t mind instant mashed potatoes – I think of them as something different, and enjoy them on their own terms. This particular product features a foil pouch of cheese sauce to stir into the potates after you make them.

I had enjoyed the first half of the box a few days ago, but today I got to thinking. I had some leftover fresh baby spinach in the fridge which I needed to do something with. So, here’s what I did. The directions for the potatoes called for 1 1/3 cups of hot water. I put water in a big glass measuring cup and then added the spinach to it. Then I heated the water and spinach in the microwave.

Once the water was hot and the spinach was wilted, I took a stick blender to it and pulverized the spinach. Then, I used that water-and-spinach mixture to make the potatoes using the normal directions. So I have cheesy spinach mashed potatoes. They look a little funny, but they taste great, and make a nice Saturday lunch.

not cucumber sandwiches

When I was a young boy, and company was coming over, Mom would sometimes make what she called Benedictine – a spread of cucumber, cream cheese and grated onion, sometimes left au naturel, sometimes colored with a drop of green food coloring. It was served on white bread in little crustless finger sandwiches.

Then, as now, I detested raw cucumber. But I had to admit the sandwiches were elegant and summery.

Originally, I wanted to make ice cream for the ice cream social tonight at church. But between chili cookoffs, auditions, and the like, I wasn’t able to. I did, however, make sandwiches.

On a whim, I put together a mixture sort of like Mom’s old Benedictine sandwiches but without the cucumber. I served it on pumpernickel bread, and I didn’t bother cutting the crusts off – they looked like gigantic Oreos. When I got to the church tonight and saw how many sandwiches had already been brought, much more attractively laid out on trays, I was afraid that my little square plastic tub of weird-looking sandwiches would go uneaten.

However, all of them were eaten – and I didn’t even take one myself, having sampled one at home earlier. I had several people ask me what was in them.

Here, then, is the recipe. This makes a large quantity – I saved some of the spread and will make sandwiches for lunch tomorrow.

John’s Not-Cucumber Sandwiches

1 medium onion

1 green bell pepper

2 bricks lower-fat cream cheese (sometimes called neufchatel cheese), softened

2 Tbsps. chopped pimento-stuffed olives

2 tsp. celery salt (I’m guessing — did not measure. Try 1 tsp. first and adjust as needed)

Peel onion, stem and core bell pepper, and cut each into large chunks. Place into food processor and chop finely. Add cream cheese, olives and celery salt to bowl of food processor and use food processor on low setting to form a spreadable paste. Transfer to airtight container and chill before spreading.

Serve as a spread on your favorite bread (I used thinly-sliced dark pumpernickel).

hot cha cha

I had to pick up a few groceries today, and I went somewhere I rarely go – Piggly Wiggly – because I wanted to see if they had the same Old Bay Seasoning-flavored sunflower seeds that I bought a week ago at Piggly Wiggly in Gruetli-Laager. They didn’t.

Anyway, in the produce department, they had a little plastic-wrapped foam tray of about 10 habanero peppers for $1. I picked it up – I’m a sucker for hot foods – but then, once I got home, I thought, What am I going to do with 10 habanero peppers?

Then, I remembered that I’d seen a recipe for homemade hot sauce a few weeks ago on the Food Network web site. I didn’t follow the recipe exactly – and it called for a different type of pepper in the first place – but I used it as a guide to technique. I sauteed the pepper and some onion, along with a few mustard seeds (my idea), then added water and cooked for about 20 minutes until the peppers were soft and the water nearly gone. The mixture was then pureed in the food processor.

At this point, the recipe called for white vinegar, and I added that, but I also dissolved in some brown sugar, thinking it would be a good counterpoint to the heat.

At that point, you strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Now, it’s supposed to age in the fridge for two weeks. Even before aging, the flavor isn’t bad – a little bit of the habanero fruitiness, but a little sweetness from the brown sugar.

I saved the pulp from the strainer, too; I may add a little to the marinade the next time I make beef jerky.

brown sugar cinnamon ice cream

I don’t normally keep milk around the house, but I bought a quart the other day for a couple of things I was cooking. I still had most of the quart left over, and I was afraid it was going to go bad if I didn’t do something with it.

So I threw together some ice cream tonight in my little Donvier countertop ice cream maker (the one I bought for $1 at the T-G yard sale). I had no cream, but I did have one last egg — something else I needed to use up. I used up some brown sugar, and added a little cinnamon and vanilla. I scalded the milk-and-egg mixture around 6 tonight and then put it into the Donvier a little before 10.

It’s now in the freezer hardening. The Donvier only brings things to soft-serve consistency, so you have to transfer them to a container and put them in the freezer to harden the rest of the way if you want scoopable ice cream. I won’t get to have a serving until tomorrow night. But what I licked off the dasher and the spatula was quite good, for something thrown together from leftovers.