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.

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.