Of diets, water and frozen treats

I used to buy store-brand diet sodas by the 12-pack, sometimes by the 24-pack. I would take 4 cans to work with me in a little cooler, and would drink even more of them at home.

I kept hearing from people that, in some ways, diet sodas could be as bad for you or worse than regular sodas. There’s been some research along the lines that artificially-sweetened drinks cause the body to expect calories – and when they don’t come, you get cravings.

So, earlier this year – not for the observance of Lent, but by coincidence a week or so after Lent started – I gave up diet sodas. I resolved to drink more water. I had a filter pitcher, but I bought a new one in a more convenient size. But I also resolved to allow myself the occasional iced tea, juice or what have you. On a few occasions I’ve even allowed myself a limeade or a regular Coke, which tasted impossibly sweet.

I think I’ve been drinking too much of the sweetened drinks as time has gone on, and that’s one reason I haven’t lost much in the past few weeks. (I gained a little weight back a few weeks ago when I was down with a cold and not walking regularly, and I haven’t quite lost it yet.) Now that the weather is finally warming up, I’ll be drinking more, and I’ll have to be even more careful about it.

I’ve bought Mio (or the equivalent) a couple of times in the past few weeks, although that’s getting me back on the diet-sweetner train, and so I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Today, at Walmart, I bought some ice pop molds. I used to have some, years ago, but had long since lost them. They were in a seasonal display along with several other things, including snow-cone syrups. I figured the berry snow-cone syrup would be a good flavor for the pops. I wasn’t sure exactly how much to use, though. The directions for snow-cones called for two ounces of syrup drizzled over four ounces of shaved ice, so I made up a batch of four pops with a similar two-to-one ratio of water to syrup. The taste is a little less sweet than I expected – but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe an occasional frozen treat will be refreshing and help me drink more water the rest of the time.

In sight it must be right

Double-Steakburger-with-CheeseI’m a sucker for signing up for restaurant e-mail lists, the kind that occasionally send you coupons. Most will send you some kind of coupon for your birthday, and the one for Steak ‘N Shake is actually pretty nice – a free double steakburger with cheese, plus fries. I love Steak ‘N Shake, and don’t get over there as often as I’d like.

Well, I had to go to Murfreesboro tonight for a planning meeting for a big United Methodist laity event that’s taking place in June. We met at the lovely home of the Rev. De Hennessy. I’m going to be one of three people delivering brief messages on the theme of the event.

Anyway, you had better believe that once I was done with the meeting I headed for Steak ‘N Shake to use my coupon (which fortunately, doesn’t have to be used on the exact date of your birthday – it was good until the end of the month). They were quite crowded tonight, but there was one seat left at the counter. If you’ve never watched the grill man at Steak ‘N Shake, you’ve missed a show. He lays out two or three rows of little puck-shaped nuggets of ground beef, and then, spatulas blazing, flattens them out as they cook. The chain’s legacy slogan, “In sight it must be right,” referred to the fact that you could watch  your food being prepared.

I had my free burger and fries, and happily paid for a cherry limeade to go with them. It was all delicious.

A previous mayor of Shelbyville actually called Steak ‘N Shake corporate headquarters during her term to try to talk them into putting a store here. I don’t think they put too many in towns our size, and she was unsuccessful, but I’d have been right there on opening day.

The briner things in life

I don’t cook pork chops often, but I found some beautiful thick ones yesterday at United Grocery Outlet. I brined them all afternoon and cooked them in a cast iron skillet last night – searing them on each side with a little sprinkle of Tony Chachere’s, then covering the skillet, throwing in some diced onions and cranking it down to low to cook them through.

I have to say, the brining worked perfectly. Last night’s chop was moist and tasty, and so was the second chop that I’m eating right now, straight out of the fridge, for lunch.

Whiskey a no-go

In one of my posts about jerky-making a few weeks ago, I said that my favorite brand of commercial jerky seasoning, which I primarily use for making ground meat jerky, is Hi Mountain seasonings.  I happened to run across another brand, Eastman Outdoors, which came in a smaller, less-expensive package, and I had a PayPal credit which paid for part of the cost. I ordered a box of the Whiskey Pepper  flavor from an eBay seller.

I am not impressed, and there’s no need for me to revise or update my original recommendation.

I have several problems with this stuff:

* You would think a product being sold as “whiskey pepper” would have any whiskey flavor at all. I couldn’t find any – but the directions suggest adding a small amount of whiskey when making the jerky, something that wasn’t made clear in the product description. Made without the whiskey, the “whiskey pepper” flavor tasted like neither, and was bland an uninteresting. You’d be much better off, not only with Hi Mountain, but with the generic seasoning that comes with and is sold next to dehydrators.

* The online description says the 2-ounce package seasons 5 pounds of meat. (The actual box says “up to” 5 pounds.) The directions have two different charts for ground meat – one giving you the proportions for a “mild flavor” version, the other for a “full flavor” version. If you use the latter – and I did – you only have enough seasoning to do four pounds, and you have a little cure left over. But if this was the “full flavor” version, the mild flavor must be indistinguishable from cardboard.

* Confusingly, the charts for making the mild flavor version are all based on doing all five pounds of meat at once, while the charts for making the full flavor version are based on a pound at a time.

Skip the Eastman Outdoors product and buy the Hi Mountain product instead. It seasons up to 15 pounds of meat. I’ll have to try their “bourbon barbecue” flavor now and see how it stacks up.

Forgot to add: I’m making another batch today, but with a heavy addition of a jalapeno pepper sauce, which is likely to be the predominant flavor.

Dough re mi

As I posted a few months back, I have become a big fan of a bread recipe that lets you make up a big batch of wet and sticky dough, without kneading. You let it stand at room temperature for a couple of hours then store it in the fridge for up to two weeks. Whenever you want to make a loaf of bread, you guesstimate and take out about a pound of dough, shape it with floured hands into a ball, let it sit on the counter for 40 minutes up to an hour, and then slash a few vents in the top and bake it on a pizza stone. It yields a nice round lens-shaped loaf.

When the Times-Gazette’s “Press Power” Relay For Life team held a bake sale a couple of weeks back, I made two loaves of bread – but neither sold to the general public. My fellow RFL committee member Judi Burton told me to hold one for her before the sale even started, and my T-G co-worker Mary Cook bought the other.

Well, Judi and Mary, I didn’t say this at the time, but I was kind of disappointed in the way those loaves turned out. All three of the loaves from my next batch after that were much better – they rose more and looked more attractive.

The T-G is having another bake sale this Friday, and I made up a fresh batch of the dough tonight. (You don’t want to let the dough go longer than two weeks, but the yeasty flavor and aroma improves over the first week, week-and-a-half.) The dough is going through its initial rise right now; I’ll put it in the fridge at 10 tonight and leave it there until Thursday night. Last time, I had somewhere to be Thursday night and had to wait until I got home to make my two loaves (and my pizza stone isn’t big enough to bake both at the same time). So far, I don’t have any commitments Thursday night, and so I think I’ll save all of this batch and make three loaves for the bake sale. Hopefully, they’ll turn out well.

A little culture

product-shotsEven though it seemed gimmicky, when I was grocery shopping at Walmart yesterday I bought a brick of Green Mountain Farms’ Greek cream cheese, a cream cheese made in part with Greek yogurt.

According to the manufacturer, it has half the fat and twice the protein of regular cream cheese, plus live and active yogurt cultures. (I never buy the full fat cream cheese, though – I always buy the Neufchatel cheese, labeled as 1/3 less fat cream cheese.)

It has a slightly tangier, more yogurty flavor than regular cream cheese, but it’s not bad at all on a bagel. In a recipe, I doubt you’d be able to tell much difference. (Although any cooked recipe, like cheesecake, would no doubt take away the live-culture benefit.)

You can, of course, make a cream cheese-like spread, called “yogurt cheese,” by pouring yogurt into a cheesecloth-lined colander and letting it drain in the fridge for a long time. The Green Mountain Farms product is less tangy than that homemade yogurt cheese. Presumably, it’s a mixture of yogurt cheese and traditional cream cheese.

By the way, the lower-fat Neufchatel cream cheese is a rare instance of the lowfat version of a product predating the full-fat version. New York dairyman William Lawrence had tasted some authentic French Neufchatel in the 1870s and was trying to recreate it when he developed cream cheese. I understand the original French cheese isn’t exactly the same as the Neufchatel that’s sold as 1/3-less-fat cream cheese. But, even so, Neufchatel is technically the original product and cream cheese is the adaptation.

Jerky update: Improvisation

In my recent series of posts on making beef jerky, I noted that when I make ground meat jerky, I generally use commercial seasonings, the kind which come with a nitrite cure, because of of the slightly-greater chance of contamination when working with ground beef.

I also said that the generic jerky seasonings which are sold by dehydrator manufacturers on the shelf next to the dehydrator tend to be a little ordinary. Often, they don’t even claim to be a particular flavor, just “jerky seasoning.”

I wanted to make some ground meat jerky today. I found two pounds of very-lean ground beef on sale at the supermarket. I knew I had two remaining packets of generic dehydrator-maker jerky seasoning at home. This was not the NESCO / American Harvest product, but rather from Oster (although, for all I know, the same supplier makes the seasoning for both companies).

While looking through the spice aisle, I saw that Kroger had several of McCormick’s line of “Grill Mates” dry seasonings on sale. There was one called … drum roll, please … “Molasses Bacon.” That, to me, sounded like a jerky flavor.

I bought the McCormick seasoning on sale. I used the cure packets – and only the cure packets – from the Oster seasonings, and instead of using the seasoning packets I added the molasses bacon seasoning, plus a little red pepper flake. I didn’t feel bad about wasting the seasoning packets because they were kind of old anyway. And I know that I’ve got the cure in there as a preservative.

One tip I forgot to give you during the jerky series is that you can get a rough, imperfect approximation of how a jerky seasoning or marinade recipe is going to taste by taking a tiny bit of the seasoned or marinated meat and cooking it in the microwave for a few seconds.  I did that test, and I think this is going to be some good jerky  — interesting, anyway. Hopefully, it will be done before I leave for Hee Haw tonight, and I can snack while I’m on my feet for much of the evening.

Ro-Tel it on the Mountain

I love sun-dried tomatoes, and use them in dishes, but sometimes find myself snacking on the kind that are packed dry in a plastic bag. (I’m not talking about the kind that are packed in a jar in olive oil.) The trouble is, they’re kind of expensive to be used as a snack.

Anyway, I had a couple of cans of Ro-Tel extra hot diced tomatoes, 89 cents each at United Grocery Outlet. I had a use for one of them – I added it a box of deluxe mac and cheese. But as I looked at the two cans, sitting there, I had an idea. What would happen if I drained the Ro-Tel and spread them out on a roll-up sheet and dried it in my dehydrator?

What happens is that you get little shards of very hot “sun”-dried tomatoes. The quantity is quite small, so it’s not too much of a savings over the sun-dried tomatoes in the bag. but they taste great. I can also think of some recipe uses for them – salad dressings, bread and other places where the concentrated tomato flavor and the peppery kick would be a benefit.

Unfortunately, I’ve already had to pay the price for what I ate of the mac and cheese, so I won’t be snacking too much on the little shards tonight. The process concentrates not only the flavor but the heat; the regular Ro-Tel would probably have been plenty hot enough, and I may try that next time.

By the way, when I drained the Ro-Tel – both the can I used in the mac and cheese and the can I dehydrated – I saved the liquid, and added it to the bottle of tomato juice I had in the fridge. It would have worked equally well with V-8, which I have in the fridge much more often. It added a great spicy kick.

Jerky Basics, Part 5: Wrapping up

I discussed doneness for both ground meat jerky and whole muscle jerky, but it occurs to me that I didn’t say much about how long it would take. There’s really no telling. In a hot dehydrator, in low humidity, the jerky can be done in just four hours. If the heat setting is lower, or if the jerky is thicker, or if it’s really humid, it can take a lot longer. Until you become familiar with the process, you might want to do it on a weekend when you’re at home for a long period of time and can check for doneness often.

If I put jerky in the dehydrator before going to bed I will turn the temperature down a bit, maybe to 145 degrees instead of 155 or 160. The USDA doesn’t have to know. I don’t want to run the risk of the jerky getting too dry and becoming rock-hard.

OK, so you’ve made your jerky. What about storage?

I have to admit I have very little experience with long-term storage of my homemade jerky. I have very little experience with three-day storage of my homemade jerky. Usually, I take it to work, and I eat more than I should and my co-workers eat the rest.

If you are, in fact, making large quantities, all of the experts recommend storing it in the fridge or freezer for as long as you can, and then taking it out when you get ready to use it, take it on a trip, or what have you.

You do need to let the jerky cool completely before putting it into a closed container, since it may be a little steamy fresh out of the dehydrator. But then, put it in an airtight container, so that the fat in the jerky doesn’t pick up any funky flavors, and throw it in the fridge until you’re ready to take it somewhere.

As mentioned in the previous installment, you can find recipes for using your jerky as an ingredient in cooking, for camping trips or just as a novel ingredient. If you know ahead of time that this is the intended use for your jerky, cut the beef across the grain and use a very basic marinade. Jerky cut across the grain can be more easily crumbled into things.

Bananarama

This isn’t jerky-related, but since I’ve encouraged you to buy a dehydrator, let me say a few words about banana chips.

Check the package of commercially-available apple or banana chips, and you’ll find oil as a key ingredient. They’ve either been fried, or – if they were dehydrated – oil was sprayed onto them for some reason, such as to get seasonings to stick to the outside or to keep the product from re-absorbing moisture. When you make these products yourself, you know what they do or don’t contain.

I love making homemade banana chips. You want to start with slightly-green bananas, which turn out much better as chips than fully ripe ones. Get a bowl of cold water, not a huge amount but enough that you think it will be sufficient to cover all of the banana chips. Add some Fruit Fresh, which you can find in the canning or baking aisle of your local supermarket. (It’s basically Vitamin C and sugar.) The last batch I made, I also added just a little bit of honey to the water, and I think it made a difference in the finished product.  If you don’t have Fruit Fresh, try adding some lemon juice and a little bit more honey.

Slice the bananas, trying to make the slices as consistent as possible. If you want super-consistent slices, which will all be ready at the same time, you can use a hard-boiled-egg slicer, one of those hinged contraptions with a lot of little wires. Cut the banana into egg-sized pieces and then use the egg slicer on each piece. The chips will shrink, so if you are cutting by hand, I suggest you cut them on the bias (making ovals instead of circles) so that you have a slightly-larger finished product. Then again, if you plan to use the banana chips in trail mix the smaller circles might be what you want. Put the slices into the water as soon as you cut them. The Fruit Fresh will help keep them from turning brown. Swirl them around in the mixture and separate any slices that are clinging to each other, so that they can get the benefit of the Fruit Fresh or lemon juice. Pull the pieces, one by one, out of the water and put them on the trays of your dehydrator.

Be sure and use the fruit and veggie setting on your dehydrator, something like 135 degrees. Banana chips will take longer than beef jerky; they’re a good overnight project. Put them on late at night and they’ll probably be ready in the morning, unless it’s really, really humid or you cut the chips way too thickly. Here, even more than with jerky, you must let a piece cool before checking for doneness. A piece that is flexible when warm from the dehydrator may turn out to be crunchy, which is what you want, once it’s cooled off.

The bananas will stick to your dehydrator trays. Try to peel them off gently so that you don’t break the tray. I should probably try spraying the trays with Pam (maybe that’s why the commercially-made chips have oil on them!) Even better, you can use the “clean-a-screen” flexible inserts, sold separately, which lay right on top of the trays and are used for very small, gooey or sticky foods. I haven’t tried these, but they make perfect sense. You can just lift off the screen and flex it to peel off the sticky items.

Your dehydrator will probably come with instructions for drying various other fruits and vegetables. Some may need to be blanched in order to dry properly. Next time you need half an onion for a recipe, slice the other half and lay it on one tray in the dehydrator. Once it’s dry, you can crush it into homemade onion powder, or break it into small pieces to add to recipes, soups and what have you.

So there you have it. I’ve blithered for four and a half whole posts about beef jerky. I hope it’s been helpful, and I hope you’ll think about making jerky. I think you’ll enjoy it.


Jerky Basics:

Jerky Basics, Part 4: Slice of life

In the previous installment, we discussed ground meat jerky, and some of its advantages and disadvantages. But the traditional form of jerky is whole muscle, or sliced, jerky, made from slices of meat.

Because sliced meat is a little safer to work with, for reasons discussed in the previous post, there are plenty of recipes that don’t involve nitrite cures. You can play around a little more with the marinade.

To make whole muscle jerky, look for a lean cut of meat. For traditional jerky, you’ll want to slice it with the grain, so you want a piece where the grain runs lengthwise. Generally, I generally wait and make jerky when I happen to find a suitable piece of meat on sale. The last batch of sliced jerky I made was with an eye of round roast, on half-price sale because it was near the sell-by date. I brought it straight home, made jerky with it, and took in the compliments from my co-workers the next day.

You want to slice the jerky about 1/4” thick. The more uniform the slices are, the more evenly they’ll all dry. You will be helped by placing the roast in the freezer for 45 minutes or so before slicing it. You don’t want it to freeze solid, only to firm up a bit. As I pointed out in a previous installment, Hi Mountain Jerky Seasonings makes a special recessed cutting board for slicing jerky. If you do end up with unusually thick or thin pieces, try to keep all of the thick ones together on one tray, and likewise with the thin ones. If you have a stackable-tray dehydrator, you can pull each tray as it reaches the desired doneness and then keep the other trays going.

Slicing across the grain will result in a more crumbly texture, not the traditional chewy texture. This might be an advantage for people with dentures or dental problems; and it’s also recommended if you’re making the jerky specifically for use as an ingredient in dishes (for example, to cook with on a camping trip). If you’re making the jerky as a cooking ingredient, you may want to flavor it in a more neutral fashion than if you’re making it for a snack.

When the meat is sliced, it’s time to marinate it. That’s one disadvantage of sliced jerky; it takes more time.

My favorite marinade is based on the one Alton Brown used in an episode of his TV show “Good Eats.” It’s a great basic recipe with a lot of room for experimentation. As Alton explained on the show, the point is to have enough salt, sugar and (in this case) a little bit of acid, in order to make the finished jerky an inhospitable place for microbes. All of those things add flavor, of course, but they’re also there as preservatives. I’ve seen a few recipes for low-sodium jerky, but not many. The salt needs to be there as a preservative. If you’re on a low-salt diet, avoid jerky or make it a very rare treat.

Alton’s recipe is based on a 1:1 ratio of soy sauce to Worcestershire sauce, along with a little honey, onion powder, black pepper, red pepper flake and liquid smoke. The soy sauce (and, to a lesser extent, the Worcestershire) bring the salt; the honey brings sugar, and is also hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture. The honey, in the finished product, serves as insurance against the jerky drying out so completely that it will break your teeth. Sugar might sound like microbe food, and in some concentrations it is, but in a highly-concentrated form like honey it’s not a good place for microbes. That’s why honey, in previous generations, was sometimes used to treat wounds. (Honey is, however, hospitable to one particular strain of bacteria, which is why it should not be fed to infants.)

The Worcestershire sauce contains a little vinegar, also helping to make the final product microbe-unfriendly. The liquid smoke is used because smoke is an expected flavor for jerky, going back to the days when meat was dried over a fire.

Alton’s basic recipe lends itself to experimentation. I’ve been out of onion powder and used garlic powder, or grated a raw onion into the marinade. I’ve substituted molasses for the honey with great success. You could easily substitute your favorite hot sauce for the red pepper flake, or leave it out if you don’t want your jerky to have a kick.

Teriyaki sauce, of course, is another great jerky marinade, and it’s available in the Asian food section of your supermarket.

I have two cookbooks with tons of creative jerky recipes.

The first one I bought is “Jerky,” by outdoors writer A.D. Livingston. Livingston is an iconoclast. He rejects the USDA’s recommendation that jerky be heated to 160 degrees, preferring the rare beef flavor of jerky prepared at lower temperatures. That doesn’t bother me – Alton Brown says the same thing, and I’ve already told you about his box fan-based system for drying jerky without heat. But Livingston even includes recipes for sun-dried and other air-dried jerky, which gives me the willies just thinking about it. Livingston is, however, insistent on getting jerky meat from a known and trusted source, and he’s sharply critical of USDA regulation of the corporate meat processors which supply supermarkets.

Anyway, safety concerns aside, Livingston includes lots of great recipes for jerky marinades, nitrite-free seasonings for ground meat jerky, and recipes using jerky as an ingredient. Many of the dehydrator recipes are for 10 pounds of meat, which is about five times what I usally make, but I’m sure they could be scaled down.  He also includes recipes for fish jerky and other unexpected meats.

A little less adventurous than Livingston’s book is “Just Jerky,” by Mary Bell. Bell has written a series of dehydrator-related books. She has tons of great recipes, even including a few vegetarian recipes for a jerky-like snack. (Livingston, I suspect, would be horrified at the thought.) I want to try the Bloody Mary beef jerky, which uses V-8 and vodka as marinade ingredients. Like Livingston, she has recipes for non-traditional meats and recipes using jerky as an ingredient.

As discussed yesterday, you can also use a dry seasoning and cure mix to treat sliced jerky, by sprinkling and tossing it liberally with the seasoning and then wrapping it up. Using this method takes even longer than marinating, however; it takes 24 hours for the dry cure to penetrate the meat.

Once the meat has marinated for the amount of time prescribed by the recipe, blot it dry (unless the recipe says otherwise) and lay it onto the dehydrator trays. There have been a few times I’ve skipped the blotting step, giving me a little bit of extra flavor from the marinade on the surface. But that’s messy, and with some marinades it results in a kind of gummy coating to the jerky. Normally, you want to marinate so that the flavor is inside the meat, not on it.

As with ground meat jerky, you want a finished product that is dry but not rock-hard. It should splinter when you bend it in half, but not break in two. (Let a piece cool completely before testing it.)

In the next installment, we’ll wrap things up, and sweep up some random loose ends.


Jerky Basics: