Yes, we have no bananas

A couple times, using coupons or sales, I’ve tried the new line of Fruttare frozen milk and fruit pops. I loved both the strawberry and coconut varieties, and so one week when the product was on sale I decided to try the banana flavor.

I love bananas, but I have never been a fan of the fake banana flavor in store-bought banana pudding mix. When I go to Mountain T.O.P., and it’s the night that we have banana pudding for dessert, everyone oohs and ahhs like it’s the second coming and I just shrug my shoulders. I’ll have a little, but it’s nothing special to me.

And the Fruttare banana pops have the fake banana flavor amped up quite a bit more than the pudding.

But even after trying the first pop, I didn’t want to waste them. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that dusting them with a little cocoa powder makes them a lot better.

A loaf in the gadget

I hadn’t used my bread machine in months – I’d been pre-occupied with a couple of other recipes. Last year, at the Times-Gazette cooking show, I picked up a recipe for flatbread where you would make up a quantity of dough ahead of time, keep it in the fridge, and then pinch off a handful and cook it on the George Foreman grill (!!!) whenever you needed it.

Then, I found a recipe for a loaf bread that worked much the same way, and I’ve made that many times since the first of the year, including making loaves of bread for the Times-Gazette’s Relay For Life bake sales. The loaves are round and sort of lens-shaped; they bake on a pizza stone.

But tonight, for some reason, I felt like just dumping everything into the bread machine and pushing the “start” button. The machine is showing its age – it makes this slipping sound on and off when it’s kneading, and I have no doubt that it’s just going to stop working one of these days. But for the moment, it still works. There’s a loaf cooling in my kitchen right now, and the apartment smells wonderful.

I still remember reading a description of a bread machine, before they became affordable or plentiful, in the old DAK catalog. It cost hundreds of dollars, but it sounded amazing. You just dumped in the ingredients, and a few hours later, voila!

Later, after the machines became commonly available, someone gave my parents one as a gift. They used it either once or not at all, and it wound up in a yard sale. When I asked about a price, Mom quoted something, but then later decided she was going to give each of her children in attendance one item they wanted from the sale, and I wound up with the bread machine. I used that one for several years, and when it broke down, maybe five years ago, I bought my current machine, for about $45, at Walmart.

Yes, it’s a gadget. It’s a guy thing. It’s what Alton Brown dismissively calls a “unitasker” on “Good Eats.” But it’s still a pretty amazing thing.

Allez cuisine

I’ve been a huge fan of Alton Brown ever since I first got Food Network and started watching “Good Eats,” within a year or two after its premiere in 1999. The show, now out of production but still in reruns on Cooking Channel, combines food, science and comedy. An episode about potatoes was a parody of “Misery.” An episode on stuffing / dressing used a “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” metaphor as a formula for helping you combine ingredients and flavors. There were various recurring characters, and sometimes Alton himself appeared in character (my favorite being a gracious Southern colonel).

I’ve cooked more Alton Brown recipes than every other TV chef put together. My normal recipes for whole muscle beef jerky, quiche, and other dishes are the ones Alton used on “Good Eats.”

In addition to the Peabody Award-winning “Good Eats,” Alton also hosted two miniseries of “Feasting on Asphalt” and one of “Feasting on Waves,” some of the most informative, intelligent and fun food travelogue shows ever done.

I used to be a big fan of the original Japanese “Iron Chef,” and when Food Network began producing “Iron Chef America,” I thought Alton, with his wit and knowledge, was the perfect choice as host.

But there are a couple of problems. Food Network stopped being about cooking and became more and more about competition shows, and the competition shows became more and more repetitive, which meant they had to rely more and more on personal drama, hyped up by producers and editors, to sustain interest. And Alton seems to be one of the go-to guys for hosting such shows – “The Next Iron Chef,” “[The Next] Food Network Star,” and now – worst of all – “Cutthroat Kitchen,” a show which actively encourages the contestants to try to win by sabotaging each other rather than on their own merits.

How can one of the smartest guys in food television get caught hosting this dreck? I realize he’s got a family to support, and I figured his thinking was that having a job was preferable to not having a job.

But in the latest installment of his excellent podcast, Alton has a conversation with Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli. I like Alex Guarnaschelli but hadn’t kept up with “Iron Chef America” in so long I didn’t realize she was now an Iron Chef. She, like Alton, brings an intelligence and perceptiveness to her food-related programming.

Judging from their conversation, however, they don’t share my misgivings about competitive cooking shows. From the tone of this conversation, Alex Guarnaschelli is as thrilled to be a competitor as Alton Brown is to be a host. I just don’t get it. I think Alton is wasted as the Food Network’s answer to Jeff Probst. I want him to make the next “Good Eats” or “Feasting on Asphalt,” whatever that happens to be. The podcast is a great start, and has already become regular weekly listening for me, but I want more – and I suspect I won’t get more as long as he’s pre-occupied with the competition shows.

It’s a shame.

Chili con Carney

The turnout for tonight’s regional chili cookoff is less than expected, although they’re still hoping for a good crowd at the state championship tomorrow. Tonight is somewhat relaxed, with Shelbyville’s Dicky Thorpe facing teams from Michigan and Texas. Dicky’s stove malfunctioned and the Texas team is letting him use one of theirs, under their tent. As someone explained, chili cookoffs are not like barbecue cookoffs.

The official “people’s choice” competition is not being held tonight, but there are spectators and others here tonight anyway, and I’m guessing they’ll get to sample once the official judges’ sample has been dished up by each of the three teams. There’s also some setup going on for the Uptown City Fair tomorrow.
I’m just killing time until it’s time to judge.

Fizzy

For years, I wanted a home carbonator like a SodaStream. When I gave up diet sodas this spring, I figured there was no use in me getting one – I do allow myself sugar sodas from time to time, but I try not to make a habit of it. (I probably overdid it during my Mountain T.O.P. week.) I have a friend who received one from her husband in a situation which, to hear her tell it, was not unlike the time that Homer Simpson gave Marge a bowling ball which already had “HOMER” inscribed on it. I suspect SodaStream is a guy thing, a gadget thing, and that’s probably why I’ve been attracted to it.

Yesterday, I had the strangest craving for a plain sparkling water or soda water. I eventually found one (actually, I bought two).

This morning, I ran across this story on the NPR site; the home carbonators are apparently doing very, very well. Maybe I’ll still get one one of these days; I could use it for soda water some of the time and occasionally for a real soda (or even a fruit juice-based soda).

To all the grills I’ve loved before

Yesterday, at Walmart, I bought a box of those pre-made frozen burgers.

This morning, before I heard much about the weather, I thought about buying a grill. My last little miniature-sized charcoal grill rusted out a few months back and I had to throw it away. I toyed with the idea of buying a new one, thinking that hamburgers on the grill sounded like good 4th of July food.

Then, when we all realized that it’s supposed to be Very, Very Rainy tomorrow (the local emergency management director says up to 3 inches tomorrow, and a total of up to 6 inches through the weekend).

Well, it turns out my charcoal grill wasn’t the only thing I’ve thrown away in the past few months. I had also thrown away a George Foreman grill, because its non-stick coating had worn off the tops of the ridges and was beginning to flake further. So I decided that the grill I would replace today would not be the charcoal grill, it would be the Foreman grill.

I went back to Walmart, which is where this whole thing got started. While there, with my new George Foreman grill under my arm, I ran into my sister-in-law Sandi. She asked me about the grill and I told her the story. Then, after we’d gone our separate ways, I remembered that it was Thomas and Sandi who’d bought me the last Foreman grill, some years ago, as a Christmas gift. I probably should have indicated that I remembered this and praised the long life and heavy use I’d gotten out of the old grill.

I should have waited until tomorrow, but I ended up using the new grill tonight. It works just fine, as expected.

Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter-Pounder

DISCLOSURE: I was given a free product or sample because I’m a Klout influencer. I am under no obligation to receive the sample or talk about the company. I get no additional benefits from talking about the product or the company.

I have to admit that 90 percent of the business I give McDonald’s is the exact same order – and it’s breakfast burritos, first thing in the morning. When I do go for lunch, I’ll usually get McNuggets. McDonald’s hamburgers leave me cold. They’re small, yet they often cost as much as bigger and better burgers from some of the other fast food chains. And, yet, even if you took away the chain’s amazing popularity among children, it’s still obvious that there are some people who love the Big Mac and the Quarter Pounder.

For years, the company has tried various versions on a bigger or better burger – from the McDLT to the Arch Deluxe to the recent (but now discontinued) Angus Third Pounders.

Klout, a site that supposedly scores people based on their social media influence, sent me a $5 McDonald’s gift card to try one of McDonald’s latest attempts, several specially-topped Quarter Pounders. (The net must have been pretty broad if I fell into it.) I opted for the Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder.

Eh.

It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s not going to pull me away from Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Sonic or Burger King, all of which have superior burgers.

Habanero is a tricky ingredient. It’s a very, very hot pepper, albeit one with a distinctive fruity flavor. The McDonald’s burger has a tiny, tiny kick – just enough to prevent the Gerber baby from being featured on the wrapper – but none of the distinctive Habanero flavor. The bacon is OK, and the split-top bun is nice. I didn’t even notice the white cheddar which takes the place of the normal yellow cheese.

If you like McDonald’s, or if you are contractually required to take your young children there because of the playground, the burger isn’t a bad choice. But I don’t expect to make a special trip for it.

Preserved lemons

I have tried a few times to make preserved lemons, which I love. All of the recipes I’d seen in the past called for you to pack cut lemons and salt tightly into a jar and then top off the jar with freshly-squeezed lemon juice. (For this use, you don’t want the cloudiness or chemicals of the bottled stuff.)

The trouble is, it would sometimes take twice as many lemons to make the juice than were going into the jar. That’s a lot of lemons.

Well, “Martha’s Cooking School” was on NPT just now and she had a recipe that involved just the cut lemons and salt – a lot of salt. She packed the lemons as tightly as possible and covered them with a little extra salt, with the premise that the salt would draw enough juice out of the lemons to cover them once they soften and collapse a little bit.

I hit the record button on my DVR but I also went to see if there was a recipe at the show’s web site.

There’s not, but it directed you to MarthaStewart.com for further recipes. There, I found a video on making preserved lemons – but it was obviously an older video, from Martha’s heyday, and it involved covering the lemons with juice as I’d done in the past.

Anyway, I may have to try the no-juice method some time when I get back from camp.

Preserved lemons, if you’ve never had them, are lemons pickled in their own juice. They have to sit in the refrigerator for a month. The rind – which, in a fresh lemon, would be bitter and unpleasant – takes on a wonderful lemony flavor. You scrape off the lemon pulp – which, at that point, is way too salty – with a spoon and discard it (or put it carefully back into the jar, to help keep the remaining lemons submerged). The rind, including the zest, can then be diced or cut into little strips and used in salads, tartar sauce, seafood dishes, or what have you. I have to admit I will sometimes take a rind and just nibble at it.

You can also use a tiny bit of the salty brine to add to salad dressings or what have you. (Treat it carefully, like soy sauce – it’s very, very salty.)

Bean there, done that

Usually, in the middle of winter, I’ll make a big pot of Hurst’s HamBeens 15-bean soup, put some in the fridge for the next few days, and freeze a few servings for further out. (It makes a big pot, and I live by myself.)

I’ve blogged about this stuff before, and even got feedback from the company for doing so. It’s a great thing – a big bag of 15 different kinds of dried beans, with a little seasoning pack. The directions read  more like a recipe than like processed food, but that’s a good thing – you add meat, and aromatics, and tomato, and what have you. Improvisation is absolutely possible.

I don’t know why I had a hankering for the stuff during warm weather, but while grocery shopping the other day I noticed the beef flavor. I’ve always tried either the original or Cajun flavors, and I’m not sure I’ve even seen the beef flavor in the stores here before. So I bought the beef flavor. It can be made with either stew meat or ground meat, and with anywhere between one and two pounds. I found a good price on a family-size pack of ground meat, just under two pounds, so that’s what I went with. The resulting soup looks more like beef soup with beans than the other way around, but that’s OK with me.

I soaked the beans all day, and then got home a little early (comp time for a looong day yesterday) and began cooking the beans for two hours by themselves. Then, after two hours, you brown the meat along with onion and garlic. As I posted on Facebook, the instructions call for one clove of garlic, minced, but I’ve never put just one clove of garlic in anything, ever.  Once the meat is browned, you add a can of tomatoes to it, plus the seasoning packet from the beans. You let that meat mixture simmer for five minutes then add it to your beans, and simmer the pot of soup for an hour more.

The directions for the original flavor 15-bean soup have you add a little fresh lemon juice near the end of cooking, and that really helps perk up and complement the slow-cooked flavors. I had a couple of limes on hand tonight, and even though the recipe for this variety doesn’t call for it I added some fresh lime juice, and even a little zest, to the soup just before serving.

Excellent. Then again, it had better be; I’ll be eating it for weeks.

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.