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.

the best wings ever

I think I just had the best buffalo wings I’ve ever eaten – and I made them myself. I’m not taking any credit; I think it was luck.

I used to have a small kettle-style grill, the kind sold as a “table top grill” or some such. It rusted out, and I’d been meaning to replace it. I found a pretty-much-identical grill Saturday at Dollar General Market, for $14. I thought about how to break it in. I looked for a steak that was on sale, but didn’t find one, so I got some chicken wings.

With the weather yesterday, I decided not to try to use the grill last night. But as soon as I got home from church this morning, I fired it up.

I’d never cooked chicken wings on the grill before. I looked up a recipe yesterday, but there are so many variables I wasn’t at all sure I’d know how long to cook them.


This is an in-progress photo; they were a little more golden by the time I pulled them a few minutes later. As I said, I think I got lucky. These turned out to be sensational. They were so tender and juicy that, after the first bite, I was afraid I’d under-cooked them. But, no, they were cooked all the way through, with no pink whatsoever. And the smoke flavor came through the buffalo wing sauce.

Speaking of buffalo wing sauce …

franks_redhot_original_cayenne_pepperfranks_redhot_hot_wing_newNever use any of those pre-mixed buffalo wing sauces. The best wing sauce is made from melted (real) butter mixed with the original  Frank’s Red Hot sauce or one of its equivalents (Louisiana, Texas Pete, etc.). Use the ratio on the Red Hot sauce label, adjusting the amount of hot sauce up or down to meet your desired heat level.

If something is labeled as “buffalo wing sauce” — some of them have the same brand names as the hot sauce they’re made from — it probably uses artificial butter flavor, some sort of oil, and chemicals to keep the oil and vinegar from separating. The real stuff only has two ingredients, takes about two minutes to make (Melt the butter and whisk together with the hot sauce. Done.), and is two times as good.

A berry happy birthday

Well, I have the day off today for my birthday, and I stopped by to see Dad this morning. We visited for a while, then he said he had to go to Valley Home Farm in Wartrace for some strawberries. I tagged along.

When we got there, the blackboard out front said they were out of picked berries (you can also pick your own, but that hadn’t been the plan). When we went inside, though, the nice young woman at the counter said that some more berries had just come in. Dad asked for two gallons and then asked if I’d like a gallon for my birthday.

I politely declined, of course.

Like heck I did. You think I’m going to turn down a gallon of freshly-picked strawberries on my birthday?


We asked about Nancy Edwards, and it turns out she was feeling well today. The young woman went and got her and she hugged both Dad and me.

I was out of freezer bags, so on the way home from Dad’s I stopped and got some. As soon as I got home, I started capping and halving the berries and tossing them with Fruit Fresh and a little sugar. I parceled them out into freezer bags, leaving a generous amount in the bottom of the bowl for immediate birthday consumption. They were fantastic, sweet and juicy and just perfect. And I’ve got bags of them in the freezer for future use.

A wonderful birthday treat.

The sun rises in the yeast

I spent a lot of last night baking three loaves of artisan bread for today’s Times-Gazette bake sale to benefit the American Cancer Society Relay For Life. I baked one loaf before Holy Thursday services and then the other two after I got home.

Two of the loaves were bought by co-workers, while my fellow Relay booster Judi Burton – who’s becoming a regular customer – bought the third.

All that baking made me want some bread of my own, so I made up another batch of dough just now. It will sit out for the next two hours, then before I go to bed I’ll snap a lid on it and put it in the fridge, where it will yield three loaves over the next week or so. (For my own use, thankfully, I only need to bake one loaf on a given day.) I use a no-knead recipe; it’s a wet dough designed to keep in the refrigerator until you need it, and the yeasty flavor improves over time. The dough starts to smell like beer after a few days.

The dough is based on the basic recipe from Jeff Herzberg and Zoë François of the “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day” cookbooks, but instead of baking on a baking stone with a pan of water to provide steam, as in their recipe, I now use Kenji Lopez-Alt’s method of baking in a cast iron dutch oven. You pre-heat the dutch oven, including the lid, in a hot oven, so it’s good and hot. and after putting the loaf in you bake it for a while with the lid on, which holds in some steam and gives you the same nice crust as that pan of water would. Then, you take the lid off for the last half of cooking to let it brown.

I use the piece of parchment called for in the Herzberg / François recipe, only I cut it sort of like a sling so that I can use it to lower the ball of dough into the blistering-hot dutch oven. I remove the parchment at the same time I take the lid off the dutch oven, so that the bottom of the loaf can make good contact with the cast iron.

I can bake myself a loaf tomorrow – a good Saturday project – and still have enough dough for two more loaves as I need them next week.

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.