various but not sun-dried

It has been almost a year since I first blogged about my experiment with creating (not-so-)sun-dried tomatoes in the dehydrator.

I used to occasionally buy sun-dried tomatoes, not the kind that come packed in olive oil in a jar but the kind that come loose in a bag in the produce section. I would buy them for recipes but end up snacking on them – and they were kind of expensive to use as a snack.

I came up with the idea of drying some Ro-Tel diced tomatoes in the dehydrator. When I did my first post a year ago, I was trying the recipe with extra-hot Ro-Tel (made with habanero) that I’d found on sale at United Grocery Outlet. They were good, but in their concentrated form they were way too hot. And they stuck to the plastic fruit roll-up sheets that I made them on, resulting in little bits and pieces of tomato flying everywhere as I attempted to chip them off with a knife or metal spatula.

In the past few months I’ve made some vast improvements in the recipe. First, instead of using regular Ro-Tel I use standard diced tomatoes. These are in larger pieces than Ro-Tel, and so the resulting pieces (while still small) are a little more convenient for snacking than the itty-bitty crumbles that would result from the Ro-Tel.

I do like some flavor with the tomatoes, though, so I sprinkle on just a little bit of red pepper flake. I also add some finely-diced raw onion, which dries at the same time and adds a nice flavor contrast to the tomatoes in the finished product.

The final improvement was simply spraying the fruit roll-up sheets with cooking spray (like Pam) before putting the tomatoes on them. It’s much easier to remove the little bits of tomato.

I drain the tomatoes before putting them on the sheet, but don’t throw away the liquid; I add it to any V-8 or tomato juice that I happen to have in the fridge.

The tomatoes shrink up so much that, even though canned tomatoes are cheap, I’m not sure the finished product is that much cheaper per ounce than those bagged sun-dried tomatoes. But they’re probably a little cheaper, and I like the idea of adding the onion and pepper flavor. They’d probably be great added to some sort of savory snack mix. I’ve also tried adding them to bread dough to make sun-dried tomato bread.

Progress marches on.

now is the podcast of our discontent

I was excited when Alton Brown, former host of “Good Eats” and current host of half of Food Network’s repetetive, overblown food-competition shows, started his own podcast. I even wrote a glowing story about it that was included in our Times-Gazette cookbook, a story about which I was reminded day before yesterday when I was looking at one of the cookbooks we’d set aside as a contest entry.

But I think I’m now officially disenchanted.

To backtrack a bit: “Good Eats” started on the Food Network in 1999 and ran for 11 years. Reruns still air regularly on Cooking Channel (a sister channel to Food Network). It remains one of my favorite things ever on television. It was a half-hour cooking show which combined recipes, science, sketch comedy and jury-rigged cooking contraptions. It won a Peabody Award, and Alton won a James Beard award for his work as creator and host.

During the run of “Good Eats,” Alton also had several outstanding food travelogues presented in miniseries format: two runs of “Feasting on Asphalt” (Alton and his crew traveled by motorcycle), and one of “Feasting on Waves” (because it’s hard to travel the Carribbean by motorcycle).

When Food Network, which had run and rerun episodes of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” created its own version, “Iron Chef America,” Alton was signed as host – and that was fine with me at the time; I had been a big fan of the original Japanese show, and Alton brought a lot of his wit and knowledge to his “play-by-play” commentary. But, over time, Food Network became all about the competition shows. “Iron Chef America” doesn’t appeal to me at all anymore, nor do any of the other shows, all of which seem to blend together: “The Next Iron Chef,” “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Food Network Star,” all of them involving Alton in some way or another, plus others like “Chopped,” “The Worst Cooks In America,” and on and on and on. (And on and on.) Someone is apparently watching them, but I have long since gotten sick and tired of them.

When “Good Eats” wrapped up, I figured Alton would be back with some different but equally-imaginative project in a year or two, and that all of these reality shows he was hosting were just helping pay the bills (which I completely understand).

Then, Alton launched his podcast, on the well-established Nerdist podcast network, and I was thrilled. The podcast originally had sort of a magazine format, including cooking tips that would have been at home on “Good Eats” as well as listener questions, along with an interview segment.

Over time, however, all of the other segments have been de-emphasized and the interview segment is now pretty much the whole podcast. That would be OK if the interview subjects were great – and a few of them are, such as the fellow from Nashville’s Olive & Sinclair Chocolates a few episodes back. But too many of them are either tied in with Alton’s competition shows and/or chances to reminisce about the behind-the-scenes production of “Good Eats.” Alton apparently does not share my feelings about the competition shows; based on the interviews, he’s still excited to host as many of them as they’ll throw his way. As a huge fan of “Good Eats,” I enjoy some of the behind-the-scenes stuff, but there’s been an over-reliance on it. I’m not as interested in “Good Eats” as I am in the next “Good Eats,” whatever that turns out to be.

This week’s episode is an interview with the production manager for Alton’s live tour – again, not a bad idea in and of itself, but in the context of where the show has been headed it just means another episode without any real food content, since the interview is the entire show.

I don’t guess I have much room to complain about a free, and advertising-free, podcast. It’s just that the podcast, when it first started, seemed like it might be appointment listening in the same way “Good Eats” was appointment viewing. And it’s not. Alton, you need to be doing something more worthy of your talent.

jiro dreams of sushi

I re-activated my Netflix subscription at the first of the year, but in the past few days – after seeing a $15 per month jump in my DirecTV bill – I’ve been thinking of cancelling it again. But this morning I watched something absolutely sensational on Netflix: the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Here’s a trailer:

Jiro Ono, who was 85 when the documentary was made in 2011, operates perhaps the world’s finest sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, located in Tokyo. It’s small – only 10 seats – and doesn’t even have its own restrooms. The style of service means a meal only takes about 15 minutes, and it costs 30,000 yen (about $300). Even so, you have to make reservations far in advance. It has three stars from Michelin, meaning it’s so good that Michelin would recommend you travel to that country just to eat at that restaurant.

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” beautifully shot, edited and scored, tells the story of Jiro Ono and his two sons. It’s about food, but it’s also about Japanese culture, family dynamics, the pursuit of excellence, and even about the environment and sustainability. Jiro never really knew his own father, who left when he was about 6 or 7. But he has tried to communicate his passion and sense of purpose to both of his sons, who follow in his footsteps – the younger already operates a cheaper branch of the family restaurant, while the older – in his 50s – will eventually take over the original location, knowing he’ll have to work twice as hard if he ever wants to step out of his father’s shadow. (Pay close attention, near the end of the movie, for a fact about the Michelin rating that sheds new light on the elder son’s status.)

There’s no narration, but all of the participants speak Japanese, so  you have to be OK with subtitles.

Dang it, now I’m hungry for sushi.

a man for more seasons

My favorite type of chili to make is spicy Texas-style chili, without beans, either simmered for a long time or cooked in a pressure cooker to speed things up. Because of this, you want to either use coarsely-ground or “chili grind” beef, or beef cut into little half-inch cubes. I either use a variant of Alton Brown’s pressure cooker chili recipe or a product like Wick Fowler’s 3-Alarm Chili Kit. The Wick Fowler product used to have directions for a long-cooking preparation; those aren’t on the package any more, only the quick recipe with ground beef.

But I enjoy just about any type of chili, quick or slow, beans or no beans. Once in a while, a quick-cooked product will attract my attention and I’ll try it out, and it’s usually fine. The Tabasco sauce people make chili fixings in a jar – brown some ground beef, add the contents of the jar, and simmer just enough to heat through and wake up the flavor.

And (put your fingers in your ears, Texas friends) while I love making a good thick chili without beans, I don’t mind something like Wendy’s chili which has beans in it. And the beans are a healthy extender, with lots of fiber.

chilikitToday, while at Dollar General Market (the kind of Dollar General that has a full grocery store), I found something called a Hunt’s Chili Kit. It had a regular price of $2.75 but was marked down to $2.50. I had a pound of ground meat at home and figured I’d buy the Hunt’s kit to use with it. The chili kit is a box containing a full-size can of Hunt’s tomato sauce, a full-size can of Hunt’s diced tomatoes, a full-size can of Van Camp’s kidney beans, and a seasoning packet. None of the canned products is labeled as being “chili flavor” or “chili-seasoned” or “for chili” or anything like that, so none of them appears to have any sort of chili flavor built in. They are just the regular varieties of beans or tomatoes that you’d buy separately off the shelf.

The trouble is, I opened the box to look at the ingredients and found that it’s a very small seasoning packet – half the size of those packets of chili seasoning or taco meat seasoning you find in grocery stores. I don’t see how this packet could possibly have enough chili flavor for a pound of ground meat and the contents of those three big cans.

Even worse, I appear to be out of chili powder. I’m going to have to put off making the Hunt’s chili kit until I can have some chili powder standing by to augment the packet that was included.

Roast beef friday

A few days ago, I was responding to a post on Facebook – not even a friend’s post; a commercial post, from Kroger – and I recalled the wonderful Cook’s Illustrated / America’s Test Kitchen recipe for eye of round. I got to thinking that I hadn’t made that eye of round in ages. So I went to the grocery store yesterday – Kroger, no less – and eye of round was on sale.

Well played, Kroger.

I can’t link to the actual recipe because it’s behind a paywall. But here’s a blogger who reviewed it, and I’ll give you some of the high points. Eye of round is more expensive than pot roast cuts but usually less expensive than fancy oven roasts. But you have to treat it well in order to get it to turn out well as an oven roast. The ATK recipe involves coating it liberally with kosher salt and then wrapping it in plastic for 24 hours. It looks like too much salt, but it gets distributed throughout the meat and helps tenderize and flavor it.

Then, you sear it in a hot cast-iron skillet, to give you the lovely brown crust, before putting it in a very low and slow oven. (I should have added pepper before searing but forgot.) There are some times in the recipe but they suggest, because of the nature of it, that you go by probe thermometer instead of by the clock. I’m talking about the kind of thermometer where you put the probe in the meat but the digital readout sits outside the oven, attached by magnet to the oven door. You cook the meat slowly until it reaches 115 degrees (if you want to wind up medium rare) or 125 (if your final destination is medium). Then, then you turn the oven off, without opening the door, and let it sit in the oven. The carryover heat should get you an extra 15 degrees, which is 130 for a nice medium rare or 140 for medium. You slice very thinly, against the grain, and it tastes like a much more expensive roast than it really is. Medium rare is the way to go.

The roast is in the oven right now. Of course, I knew there was a lot of browned goodness in the cast iron skillet I used for searing, so I deglazed the skillet with a little water and am using the water to make rice in my rice cooker. The rice will help tide me over until the beef is done, since that will take a couple of hours. When your’re cooking for yourself, it doesn’t all have to get done at once.

I’ll have a few wonderful hot slices tonight, but it will also be quite good cold in the next few days.

Turkey stroganoff

Our family tradition on Christmas Day is a big sit-down breakfast but then a lot of munchies and sandwich fixings on the table for people to enjoy as desired.

Well, for various reasons – nobody staying overnight, and what have you – Dad had a lot of leftover turkey as thing were breaking up yesterday. He was going to split it between Elecia and me but Elecia told me to take it all, and I did.

Tonight’s dinner menu, therefore, is turkey stroganoff. I’m heating up some mushroom soup to which I’ve added a little worcestershire, soy sauce and dry mustard. I’ll add the leftover turkey and warm it through, and then take it off the heat and whisk in some sour cream (actually, a slightly-healthier sour-cream-and-Greek-yogurt blend I got at UGO this evening). I’ll serve it over rice, which is going in the rice cooker.

… and now, a few minutes later, I’m actually eating it. Turned out pretty good.

Berry tasty

Yesterday, when I was at United Grocery Outlet, they had bags of cranberries on sale in the produce department. On a whim, I decided to buy a bag, and last night, for the first time ever, I made cranberry sauce. The recipe on the bag just called for sugar and water, but – with a vague recollection of other cranberry sauce recipes I’d seen in the past – I opted for orange juice, the bottom of a plastic bottle of honey and a little stevia.

The resulting sauce didn’t set up as much as I was hoping, but it was quite tasty. I had some with breakfast this morning.

Then, during the day, I tried to figure out something else I could do with the sauce. I ended up baking some chicken thighs in a mixture of my homemade cranberry sauce, soy sauce, grated onion and red pepper flake. (Perhaps too much red pepper flake. Ask me tomorrow.) The sauce itself has berries in it, but for purposes of this glaze I used a stick blender to make the cranberry sauce smooth before adding the other ingredients.

Cranchicken

Friends, this turned out rather good. The extra sauce was wonderful over rice.

Scattered, smothered and capped

Our family Thanksgiving dinner is going to be relatively late in the day – I’m not even headed over to Dad’s until about midday – so I thought I’d have a hearty breakfast to tide me over. Thankfully, Waffle House was there for me.

There’s been a lot of discussion about stores being open on Thanksgiving – and I’m not going to step into that minefield – but I’m sure glad Waffle House is. Every Waffle House has a 24-7-365 schedule. When they opened in Shelbyville, the ribbon-cutting ceremony included something that takes place at virtually every Waffle House opening. They tie a key, representing the key to the front door, to a helium balloon and release it, saying it won’t ever be needed again.

The chain’s disaster planning is said to be without peer in the restaurant industry. The restaurants have generators, and have pre-printed limited menus that that can be used if external factors prevent the restaurant from normal operation.

In fact, the company is so good at staying open that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has what’s called the “Waffle House Index” as one of a number of metrics it examines in the early stages of a disaster. If the Waffle Houses near the disaster scene are open but offering a limited menu, it’s a serious disaster. If the Waffle Houses near the disaster scene are closed, well, it must be a really serious disaster.

So I had a cheesesteak omelet this morning, with hash browns scattered, smothered (onions) and capped (mushrooms). I tipped 30 percent, not knowing if the waitress had volunteered or had been made to work the holiday. If I’m the only one who did that, of course, it’s a pretty feeble gesture, but maybe others will think the same way.

Saute, can you see?

There are a lot of things I love about Southern cooking, but one thing I’ve never liked is the way we cook the life out of green beans. I like mine with a little bit of snap. Anyway, I was in the produce department of our fine French grocery store, Kro-zhay, this afternoon and found this on expiration day special:

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There’s nothing fancy, just some grape tomatoes, very thin green beans (haricots verts?) red onion and a packet of balsamic vinegar.

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The directions were simple: heat oil in a skillet. Saute the veggies at medium-high heat for two minutes, then add two tablespoons of water and steam covered for two minutes, then a minute more uncovered to let the water evaporate. Then add the vinegar and cook just until the vinegar is warm. Season with basil, salt and pepper.

It turned out pretty well:

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The onions were soft and just a little browned, the grape tomatoes were soft and bursting, and the green beans had some snap to them. Absolutely delicious, and something I could easily make myself without the kit.

Inedible

I feel like I owe Debra Snellen an apology.

Debra – and I’m sure I’ve told this story before – is the co-founder and executive director of LEAMIS International Ministries, the group with which I take my foreign mission trips, and she’ll be my traveling companion on our trip next year to Sierra Leone (no, we don’t have new dates yet, and may not until after the first of the year).

Earlier in her life, Debra lived with the Inuit for several years, and ever since that time, she’s had a thing about anyone wasting food. She’s much too nice to make a scene about it, but if you know her and see some egregious case of food being thrown away you can just see the gears in her head turning and little wisps of smoke coming out of her ears.

Well, a few weeks ago I bought a super-cheap box of frozen hamburger patties. They weren’t good. I ate them from time to time, hoping that the tomato and onion would make up for the sins of the patty. I had a couple of patties left tonight and I decided that I would cook them with some rice and make a sort of ad-hoc “dirty rice” recipe, thinking maybe the seasonings and the rice would make up for those lousy patties.

It was terrible. I ate two-thirds of a bowl, never finished it, and just now I threw the rest of the saucepan-full into the garbage and found something else to eat.

Sorry about that, Debra.