true confessions: I was not completely candid with my former dentist

I placed an order with Jet last weekend – the first in a while. One of the items I ordered, as I was trying to get to the $35 minimum for free shipping, was a Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit.

It was the Carroll Shelby and Wick Fowler chili kits – once competitors, now made by the same company – which introduced me to the pleasures of authentic, slow-cooked Texas-style chili. Ironically, neither includes the proper directions for that anymore; the products themselves haven’t changed, but they now only have directions for a quick-cooking chili made with regular ground meat. The kind of chili I’m talking about requires either coarse “chili grind” meat or meat cut up into little chunks.

One of the three packages in my order arrived today – it was the main one, the one actually being fulfilled by Jet itself, and it included the chili kit. On my way home, I stopped by United Grocery Outlet, and while I didn’t expect them to have chili grind meat I figured I’d see if they either had stew beef – which can easily be cut down into smaller chunks – or something that I could throw into the food processor and chop into something vaguely resembling chili grind meat.

What I found, on expiration-day sale, was blade steak. I’d seen these before; they’re weird little steaks with a little squiggle of connective tissue running down the middle. I knew I might wind up with some gristly pieces, but they were the cheapest thing there, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. So I bought both packages, which gave me the two pounds of beef I needed.

I had the blade steak in my cart when I happened to run into Buddy Koonce. Buddy was my dentist through childhood and for the first part of my adult years. He’d probably still be my dentist if not for a weird insurance thing back when the newspaper first offered us dental insurance. I am, of course, also delighted with my current dentist, Jay Davis, with whom I go to church at First United Methodist Church. Both are fine men, both professionally and personally, and I would be perfectly happy to entrust my teeth to either of them at any time.

I made some lame joke about “they’ll let anybody shop here,” and then Buddy asked me about the meat in my grocery cart. I mumbled something about how I was going to go home and make “something” with the blade steaks.

I didn’t want to admit I was making chili – because Buddy Koonce and his son-in-law Dicky Thorpe are both competitive chili cooks, who travel around the country to International Chili Society events. I one day want to get the resources together to enter the ICS cookoff in Shelbyville; I’ve been a judge there several times. I would also someday like to take the official ICS chili-judging course.

Anyway, I didn’t want to admit that I was making chili with the blade steaks because I thought Buddy might think that was weird. What does that say about me as a human being?

Anyway, the chili is now cooking. There are a couple of squiggle pieces that didn’t chop up completely in the food processor, but otherwise it looks fine. I’m not entertaining, so if I run into any gristle I can just spit it discreetly into a napkin. (Just kidding – it would be a paper towel.) I noticed when looking it up online just now that blade steak is basically the same thing as what you now see sold as flatiron steak –it’s just that flatiron steak is cut in a different direction to avoid the connective tissue. So it’s actually a better piece of meat than I was giving it credit for being.

Dippin’ time

I love creamy dips – ranch, onion, and so on – but they’re horrible for you, and I have lousy self-control when I start noshing and dip is available. Fortunately, I have had good success in recent years preparing dips using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. No, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s quite good on its own terms, and light years better for you.

Greek-Yogurt-DipsI’ve used various commercially-available dip mixes this way, just substituting yogurt for sour cream in the instructions, but today I bought something different. Hidden Valley Ranch now has a special version of its ranch dip mix specially-formulated for use with Greek yogurt.

Well, I’m assuming it’s specially-formulated. The cynic in me has long held that the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix and the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dip mix are the exact same product in a different wrapper. But I really do think in this case, they have adjusted the seasoning and consistency to work with nonfat Greek yogurt. It makes a tasty dip, and yet one I can indulge in without guilt.

The company also makes a salad dressing mix for use with Greek yogurt.

The one question I have – and I’ve never been able to get an answer for this – is whether the salt in savory dips kills the live yogurt culture.

two great tastes that taste great together

A few weeks ago, I did an interview with a nutritionist for the newspaper, and she brought along some recipes from a dairy promotion group, a few of which I included in the article.

One of them particularly caught my attention: Creamy avocado hummus, a sort of hybrid of guacamole and hummus bound together by Greek yogurt.

For the Times-Gazette’s annual National Newspaper Week coffee, employees sign up to bring homemade dishes, and I thought that avocado hummus, with pita chips to dip, would fit the bill just fine, and give me a chance to see if the recipe was as good as it sounded.

I think it turned out quite well. It has the grainy texture of hummus (and the fiber and nutrition from those garbanzo beans) but the bright flavor of avocado and citrus. I was a little worried because I did not seed the jalapenos as the recipe called for, and so the dish had a little kick – not too bad, but some of the people who come to this event might not be spicy food fans. So I made a little tag marking the dish as medium-hot.

Anyway, if you’d like the recipe I’ll include it below. This reflects a couple of little additions I made. It may not be exact; I actually made about 1 1/2 times this recipe, and a couple of ingredents were eyeballed rather than measured.

1 large avocado, about 9 ounces, with pit and peel removed, cut into chunks.

1 cup canned chickpeas a/k/a garbanzo beans, drained

1 cup fat-free Greek yogurt

1/3 cup cilantro leaves

1/4 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice

zest from the lime (I always hate to let citrus zest go to waste)

1/2 t. minced garlic (I had some on hand and thought it would go well)

1 large (1 oz) jalapeno, roughly chopped, seeded if desired – but I didn’t. If you’re not sure, cut the jalapeno in half lengthwise and seed one half but not the other.

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor; blend until smooth. The dish may be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator, but according to the notes from the original recipe the whey from the yogurt may separate and need to be stirred back in.

round round get around, I get eye of round

UGO had a small eye of round – only a pound and a half – on manager’s special tonight. Usually, when I see an eye of round on sale I think jerky – when you can get it cheaper than normal, it’s a great cut for jerky because the grain runs lengthwise and there’s little marbling, only an easily-removed fat cap. For jerky, you want as little fat as possible; fat goes rancid.

But this was a very small roast – not quite as much meat as I would normally use for a big batch of jerky. Plus, I knew I was out of both Worcestershire and soy sauce, neither of which UGO had tonight, and I didn’t want to make another stop. So my mind went to the other great use for eye of round. It’s a recipe that America’s Test Kitchen had on their show years ago. Unfortunately, that means I can’t link to it here, since only the current season’s recipes are available for free online, and even then you have to register.

Eye of round is sort of a transitional roast – it’s not as cheap and doesn’t have the connective tissue of a good, slow-cooking pot roast, but it’s not naturally as tender as the pricey oven roast cuts. However, it can still be an oven roast – cooked in dry heat to your preferred doneness (I’m going to tell you that your preferred doneness is medium rare). You just have to pay a little attention to it first. ATK has a recipe where the roast is coated generously with kosher salt and wrapped up tightly in plastic wrap for 18-24 hours. The salt works like a brine or marinade – it penetrates and tenderizes the meat a little. It looks like it would be too salty, but it’s not, since the salt distributes itself deep into the meat during that time. My roast is now all wrapped up in the fridge and will be ready for dinner tomorrow night.

Then, you brown the roast in a dutch oven or skillet before cooking it very slowly in the oven over low heat. At one point, you are supposed to cut the oven off without opening it and let the residual heat cook it the rest of the way. The end result is a tender medium-rare roast which you can slice thinly across the grain. I’ve made it in the past, and it tastes like a much more expensive roast.

This recipe works best if you have one of those remote probe thermometers, so you can check the roast’s temperature without opening the oven door. I can never afford a nice one; I’ve bought the cheap ones from Walmart two or three times, and they tear up pretty easily. Plus, the recipe as I have it from ATK is for a much larger roast than the little one I have. But I’m going to do the best I can tomorrow night and check it with my little instant-read thermometer.

souper man

I posted earlier today on Facebook that one of the grocery items in my second-ever Jet order was a bag of Hurst’s HamBeens 15-bean soup, which I think I’m going to make tomorrow, while I’m recuperating from a late night at the show tonight. I’ll have it to and enjoy over the rest of the holiday weekend, and then a little extra to go into the freezer.

I have blogged about this product in the past, but it’s been a while, and so I’m going to wax poetic about it. It’s been a favorite of mine for many years.

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You can find it in the dried bean aisle of the supermarket, because that’s basically what it is – dried beans, plus a small packet of a smoky seasoning. You add other ingredients to turn it into soup – meat (ham, hamhock or smoked sausage), water, a can of diced tomatoes, garlic, onion, a little chili powder and the juice of a lemon. This leaves room for some experimentation, of course. It feels more like a recipe than like processed food.

It’s easy to make, but slow-cooking. You have to soak the dried beans overnight, then you cook them with the onion and with your meat of choice, add the other ingredients and the little seasoning packet, and cook some more. The combination of different beans gives the soup a great texture – you have just enough creamy thickening from the beans that break down, while you still have individual beans in there to give the soup a hearty, meal-worthy bite. Don’t skip the lemon juice – it adds just the right little bit of tanginess to perk up the slow-cooked flavor.

It’s wonderful the night you make it, and – like many soups and chilis – even better when you reheat the leftovers the next day. It also freezes well, as long as you use it before it gets freezer burn. (I miss my FoodSaver. I need to get a new one the next time I get a tax refund or something like that.)

In addition to the basic product you see above, they make other flavors. I’ve tried the Cajun flavor, which is fine, and so is the beef flavor.

On my Facebook post, Donna Brock asked if I was going to have cornbread with the soup tomorrow. That would have been a great idea, and I wish I’d thought of it while I was at the store. Instead, I already bought some canned biscuits. They’ll be good too.

It feels like summer today, but as the weather starts to cool off, and it will, this is the perfect fall meal.

wow, I could have had (something other than) a v-8

When I hear “Mott’s,” I think apple juice.

motts_products_vegetable_juice_spicyBut Mott’s has introduced a vegetable juice (re-introduced? It seems to have been introduced, then went away for a while according to some web sites, and now is back in a different-shaped bottle).

Most store brand vegetable juices try to copy V-8 as closely as possible, but the Mott product is deliberately different from V-8. It’s not as thick and the vegetable blend is different – zestier, with flavors like green pepper, garlic and dill that you might associate with salsa or salads. Like V-8, it comes in regular, spicy-hot and low sodium versions. (The regular versions contain almost as much sodium as V-8, which is to say a lot.)  I’m trying the spicy version, after seeing it at the store. The spicy is what I would usually get if buying V-8. I like it. I really like the flavor of it better than V-8.

The Mott’s product, probably because of the different vegetables, is not as much of a vitamin powerhouse as V-8, but it does have 100 percent of your daily requirement of Vitamin C and 25 percent of Vitamin A, plus some iron and potassium. But if you don’t like V-8, you might like this, and it would be better for you than something sugary. It tastes a little closer to bloody mary mix (which I sometimes buy and just drink by itself, sans booze), so those of you who make bloody marys might want to try it as well.

the elusive sicilian

UPDATE: I found the coupons after all! They’re round, and like Frisbees they flopped out a little farther than I had looked for them. Apologies, Screamin’ Sicilian; you did a great job after all.

A week or two ago, I posted this photo to Facebook:


I explained that I had an online coupon, loaded to my Kroger Plus card, for something called Screamin’ Sicilian pizza, a brand with which I was not familiar. The pizza box includes a punch-out moustache on the back.

The pizza was wonderful – outstanding for a frozen supermarket pizza, with really good flavor. It is priced as a premium product, not surprisingly, and so I tried to go to the company’s website and sign up for its e-mail list, which supposedly gets you a dollar-off coupon. I tried from two different computers, a Mac at work and a PC at home, and the signup process wouldn’t complete – the site took me to a page with an error message and some HTML code. I posted about this on Facebook, and the company – which does a commendable job of following social media – responded and asked me to send them my mailing address.

I did, and sure enough, today in my mailbox I got a hand-addressed envelope from Screamin’ Sicilian Pizza. The letter apologized for my trouble and invited me to use one of the enclosed coupons and give the rest to my friends.

The only trouble?

There were no coupons in the envelope. I looked in the envelope to see if I’d missed them, I looked on the floor to see if they’d fallen out without me noticing. There was nothing.

I know it was an honest mistake, but I swear it reminded me of some dialogue from an old Marx Brothers movie. Groucho is dictating a letter to someone, probably Zeppo, to one of his creditors. The letter ends with “enclosed, please find 20 dollars.”

“Do you want me to send them 20 dollars?” Zeppo asks.

“You do, and you’re fired,” Groucho shoots back.

singin’ in the grain

For some years now, Betty Crocker has sold its “Suddenly Salad” line of pasta salad kits. The kit contains dry pasta, maybe with a few tiny little veggies, plus an envelope of dressing mix. You boil the pasta, mix the dressing mix with mayo (or some other ingredient, depending on the specific flavor) and you have a pasta salad. You’re encouraged to add other ingredients, of course.

harvest-grains.jpgWell, they’ve now expanded the line to include three grain-based salads. I’m trying the “Harvest Grain” flavor tonight. It has brown, white and red rice, plus quinoa, all in a boil-in bag. There’s a separate package of cranberries and almond slivers to stir into the finished salad, and there’s a dressing mix that you combine with oil and water. (The tanginess which would normally be provided by vinegar or citrus is in the dry mix.)

It’s not bad. It makes me want to go and get some quinoa by itself, though, and make it with a nice chicken stock.

There are also southwest and Tuscan flavors. I have a box of the southwest flavor in my cupboard and will try it out later in the week.

bread head

My friend Sue Thelen was baking bread today, with a sourdough starter I gave her, and posted about it on Facebook. Something in her post reminded me of something I heard once – there are cooks, and there are bakers. Cooks tend to change and adapt recipes to suit their taste, their imagination, and whatever happens to be in the cupboard. Bakers, however, have to follow a recipe a little more closely. In many baked goods, for scientific reasons, a slight difference in, say, the ratio of flour to water can make a big difference. Bakers care whether they use bread flour, all-purpose flour or cake flour, and they know the difference.

I tend to be a cook, and I’m not the type to bake desserts or pastries, but I do love to bake bread, and I can generally stick to a recipe well enough for bread to turn out. I’m still amazed that I’ve been able to keep my home-grown sourdough starter alive for so long now.

Father Dominic Garramone, an actual Benedictine monk, used to have a show on public TV called “Breaking Bread with Father Dominic.” Yes, baking can be picky, but you can’t stress over it too much; Father Dominic used to say, repeatedly, “It’s bread; it’ll forgive you.” I’ve found that to be true. Even if a loaf of bread is a little denser than expected or a little softer than expected, it’s still usually good.

After I told Sue that earlier today, however, I had a less-than-forgiving moment tonight. I had reserved half of the bread dough from this past weekend, frozen it, and then thawed it overnight last night. I let it rise today and put it in the oven tonight. So far, so good; I now know I can safely freeze bread dough.

The trouble is that the rickety oven in my apartment does strange things sometimes, and I had the thermostat turned up a little too high tonight, causing the broiler to turn on, burning the top of the loaf before the center had even started really baking. I had to throw it out.

Sue’s loaves today turned out well, and since that was my starter I can at least take some solace.

I was happy that our conversation made me think of Father Dominic, by the way; I had no idea that he had a website, and a blog. There are some short videos, “Breadhead Minutes,” which apparently still run on some public TV stations (I haven’t seen them locally, but I may have just missed them).

Interestingly enough, my tech column in today’s Times-Gazette referenced Leo Laporte’s TWiT Network and the new relaunch of “The Screen Savers,” both of which feature another Catholic father who dabbles in television on the side – the likable and knowledgeable Father Robert Ballacer, a Jesuit priest. If the Wittenburg Door were still active, I’d be pitching interviews with both of them.