Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


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Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast

We eat a heck of a lot of chicken breast in our household, so I definitely want to make sure we get our chicken breasts at a decent price. Depending on market conditions and brand it seems like we can pay anywhere from 2$ to 5$ per pound of the stuff, which is a pain.

On thing we’ve started doing is buying the bone-in, split-breast chicken, especially when we get it on good sale. Not only are these cuts a heck of a lot less expensive (even considering the extra weight of the bones), but we also end up with lots of extra chicken bones that we can turn into stock.  We pick them up on the cheap, take them home, butcher them, and toss the various bits in the freezer until needed.

We keep two big plastic bags in the freezer. One is filled with chicken bones, and the other is filled with old vegetable peelings and vegetables that were about to go bad but we froze them at the last minute. If we’ve got half an onion that’s been in the fridge for a few days and we don’t have any plans to use it, we throw it in the freezer. Buy more carrots than we can reasonably eat before they get rotten? In the freezer. Some fresh herbs left over that we don’t have a plan for? In the freezer. You’re digging through the fridge and Oh No! There’s some old bell peppers hiding under the tortillas? Throw it in the freezer. Every couple weeks we can take the contents of these bags out, toss all the stuff into a big pot with some other bits and seasonings, and we get chicken stock.

Chicken Stock

  • A pile of chicken bones and parts
  • Various vegetables that still have good flavor, even if the texture and appearance is a little off (carrots, celery, onion, turnips, tomatoes, etc)
  • Herbs and seasonings (Sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, salt, etc)

Put the stock pot over medium-high heat. Add some oil, onions (if using) and chicken bits. Let these things get a little bit brown, for added flavor. Add in your other vegetables and seasonings and add enough water to cover. Bring the pot to a boil, and boil/simmer for a few hours. Strain out the liquid into a container and put it in the refrigerator. Later, when the stock is cool, skim off the congealed fat from the top of the stock.

Notes:

  1. Everything solid is being strained out, so don’t worry about chopping your vegetables nicely. Toss in whole carrots or celery stick, snapping them in half if they’re too big for your pot. You don’t need to peel your carrots either, just give them a quick wash to make sure the dirt and other bits are off them.
  2. Depending on salt content, the stock should freeze well and keep for a long time in your freezer. Your stock should keep for several days in your refrigerator as well. If you have the equipment, you can put it into quart jars and pressure can them at 11 pounds for 25 minutes, depending on your altitude.
  3. Chicken skins have lots of flavor, but that flavor is mostly trapped in the fats, which will be skimmed off later. Don’t bother putting chicken skin in with your stock, it adds nothing to the final product.

 

This is a pretty darn cheap alternative, considering the store-bought stock can cost upwards of 2 dollars per quart.

We’ve done the same thing with beef and pork bones too, although we tend to eat less beef and pork than we do chicken and sometimes it can be best flavor-wise to leave the bones in these things.

Next time I’ll talk about what to do with a big container of chicken broth.


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Spring 2013 Planting Plans

It’s the time of year to start planning ahead for next spring. Many plants such as tomatoes and hot peppers need to be started indoors long before the weather gets warm enough to put the plants into the ground.  Other seeds and plants can be ordered now and many companies will ship them only when it’s time to actually be planted. Here are some of my plans for the new year:

Tomatoes

I plan to devote almost my entire second bed to ‘maters this year. Last year I had only 5 plants in the ground, 4 of which performed poorly. I would like at least 6 to 8 of them this time around, and I’m hoping my experience and preparations will lead to bigger yields on all of them.

We would probably like one each of an heirloom, a slicer and a cherry tomato, since our cherry tomato plant performed so well last year. The rest of the tomatoes to be planted are will probably be plums.

Peppers

I like peppers so I’m going to try and grow a few. I like making some hot sauces for myself and various hot sauces and other spicy things make great gifts come the holidays.  This year I would like to grow some bell peppers and some new hot pepper varieties. I’m thinking tabasco, cayanne, and maybe more cowhorns or serranos, since they were easy to grow and worked great in hot sauces.

This picture shows my second garden plot. The purple area will be filled with tomatoes. The orange area will be hot and bell peppers. I’ll probably only have room for 4-5 small pepper plants, considering how much space is already devoted to tomatoes.

Garlic and Onions

We’ve already got garlic in the ground and I’m hoping when the spring weather comes some if it will sprout. I would also like to put down at least a few sweet yellow onions if I can find a variety I like. The garlic should harvest relatively early compared to some other vegetables, making way for potential fall crops.  Scallions and shallots are things we enjoy as well, but I worry about devoting too much garden space to these similar things and then having an avalanche of them late in the season.

Here’s a picture of my first garden plot. Red is where garlic is. Blue is where onions will be going. The rest of the plot is reserved for other vegetables to be decided.

Other Vegetables

Dana and I would love to plant some winter squashes, especially butternut and spaghetti.  We do have enough space for one or two of these. I may be dumb enough to try cucumbers again if I can find a variety resistant to diseases. We’ve kicked around the idea of getting more bushy varieties and planting them in large pots on our patio. I would love to grow some little kirbys and make pickles with them.

I would like to grow potatoes, but it seems you can do that better in a large barrel than you can doing it straight in the ground. I would probably do a few russets and a bunch of fingerlings, if I can find a suitable barrel.

We like asparagus, but it represents a long-term commitment which we might not be ready to make yet.

We like broccoli too, if we have room.

Fruits

In addition to vegetables, we’re planning to put some fruit trees in the ground this spring. Maybe cherry and peach or pear. We would also like to plant some grape vines to grow around the back porch. I’ve got a lot of thinking and planning before I commit to any fruit trees or vines.


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Over-Winter Garden Preparations

I’ve got two garden beds. The first one is about 5×7 and the other one is 4×8. The first plot held the bulk of my summer plants: Tomatoes, hot peppers, cucumber and cantelope. After those plants came out in the fall, I put some garlic in the ground to sit out the winter and get a jump start on the spring growing season. The second plot held my fall crops: Carrots, spinach and lettuce. Well, it held the seeds I planted for those things, since most of the seeds didn’t even sprout.

This picture shows my first plot. Almost all the plants had been pulled out after the first frost, and the bed covered over in straw. Garlic is planted along the right side.

This picture shows my second plot the day after our first frost. The lettuce has already been harvested but the carrots are still going strong.

The poor performance of my gardens this first year has prompted me to start preparations early and to try and get my soil into better shape. The pH levels seem fine but vital nutrients are definitely lacking. Fixing this deficiency is necessary to prevent poor performance like I had last summer. Also, adding a little bit of soil volume and improving drainage would be good.

For the first plot, I’ve put a few shovelfuls of compost where the garlic is growing. I don’t want to put any heavy fertilizers or something like mushroom soil down in this bed for fear of burning the garlic. As shown in the picture above I covered it over with straw and will add compost to it in the spring.

The second plot is empty for the winter so I can be a little bit more aggressive in making amendments. I plan to get a few bags of mushroom soil to mix in before the weather gets really cold. Mushroom soil, though the exact recipe changes from manufacturer to manufacturer, tends to be a little bit too “hot” for many plants. It’s dense in nutrient salts which can “burn” small plants and seeds, sometimes killing them outright.  Instead, mushroom soil should either be diluted out with other soil mixes, or it should be set out over winter to “cure” it and let the dense nutrients flow out into the surrounding areas.


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Over-Winter Garlic

October is the time of year to plant garlic. The traditional wisdom is that garlic should go in the ground around Columbus Day and harvest preparations start around 4th of July.  (Embarrassing fact: I had to go to Wikipedia to find out when Columbus Day was. October 8th! The more you know…). Many people will tell you not to wait so long. I put my garlic in the ground on September 31st.

Some clarification: You can alternatively plant garlic in the early spring. Planting in the fall gives the garlic a jump start on developing roots so that in the spring it can grow faster. The downside is that if the garlic freezes hard over the winter it will die before spring rolls around. Fall-planted garlic needs to be well protected to prevent it from freezing.

When you plant garlic you’re supposed to plant the biggest, healthiest cloves, but I put in several smaller ones that had been sprouting too. Considering they would have ended up on the compost pile otherwise, and considering my poor track record growing plants this summer, I figure every little bit helps. Any heads of garlic I can harvest next year, even if they’re small ones, will be better than what I would have gotten otherwise.

I marked off a small section of my first garden bed where the beefsteak tomatoes and cantelope had been over the summer. I filled a 5-gallon bucket up with some compost out of my pile, mixed it in good with the top two inches of soil,  planted the garlic in 2-inch deep holes (root-side down!), and covered with a thin layer of straw. I’m going to add much more straw and some fall leaves too, before things get too cold. The straw mulch will help to keep those little cloves from freezing hard and dieing over the winter. Also, they’ll help to return some nutrients to the soil in the process.

Two (hard to see) garlic sprouts coming up from between the straw

While planting the garden, I pulled a sweet yellow onion bulb out of the bottom of the compost pile. Despite having been buried for weeks at least, it had a full set of roots and some long green stems, and looked quite healthy. I know onions aren’t supposed to go into the ground until early spring, but I’ve got this one now so I threw it into the garden anyway. Either way, it’s no loss to me.

I would like to grow more onions next year. I’ll probably shop around for some small seed onions when it gets closer to planting time and put them in next to the garlic in the spring. I’m still coming up with plans for what I want to do with the rest of my garden next year, but I’m sure I’ll post about that soon.


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Apple Pie

I loves me some apple pie. Not just any apple pie, of course: The absolute best is my Nana’s apple pie. She follows a deceptively simple recipe, and she always uses the same Stayman Winesap apples. She won’t make a pie without them, and for the most part I won’t either. There’s a reason for this: These apples make a damn good pie.

I also love them for other purposes too. They cook great and they’re great for eating out of hand too. They’ve got a juicy, almost creamy mild apple flavor that I absolutely love. You can’t always find them at the grocery store next to some of the more popular varieties, but when I can get my hands on them I like to buy them in bulk.

They’re a late season apple, so when they finally came it around the beginning of October, we went out a-pickin’ with my parents and the munchkin. And picked we did: We came home with almost 40lbs for ourselves (my parents took home about half as much for themselves).

The recipe my Nana uses, and I try to follow, is very simple and very similar to recipes I’ve seen in some common cookbooks.  I say that I “try to follow” the recipe because I never seem to do it correctly and the results of my efforts are never quite as good as hers is. I’ve got a whole lifetime to practice, so eventually I might start getting it correctly.

These are the bags of the stayman winesap apples we brought home, after pulling out enough for a pie, a slow-cooker full of simmering apple-butter, and about half a dozen for hand eating. What are we going to do with all the rest of these apples? More pie, of course!

Nana’s Apple Pie

  • 1 Cup Sugar
  • 2 Tbsp Flour
  • 1 tsp Cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp Salt
  • 2 Tbsp Butter
  • 6-7 Cups Apples, peeled and sliced (Stayman Winesap)

Combine the dry ingredients together. Spread 1/2 cup of the dry mixture in the prepared bottom crust. Add apples and sprinkle the remaining dry ingredients on top. Dot with the butter. Cover with top crust and cinch. Cut several small holes in the top crust to vent. Protect crust rim with aluminum foil if necessary.

Bake on the lowest rack in your oven on 425 degrees for 35-40 minutes (I actually think my oven requires a little bit more time than that). Remove from oven and let cool. Jam it into your face with the force of a thousand suns. Repeat. I’ve got so many apples laying around, I almost can’t afford to not make another pie. Or two.


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Using Hot Peppers

Dana doesn’t really eat hot peppers (or bell peppers, but that’s a different story) so I don’t grow too many of them and I use them either for myself or as gifts to family members. Here are some of the things I’ve done with the small bounty of Serrano and Cowhorn peppers I grew this year.

Hot Pepper Vinegar

Growing up we always had a bottle in the fridge of hot pepper vinegar. The recipe is simple: Put some hot peppers in a glass bottle. Fill with distilled white vinegar. Put a cork in the bottle and keep it in the fridge. It doesn’t have the same heat density as a more traditional hot sauce and it has no salt or other flavorings. It’s a simple recipe that adds a great tang and warm pepper flavor to many different dishes. I consider a spoonful of this pepper vinegar to be an indispensable finish to vegetable and chicken noodle, among other, soups. It also works great to add a little bit of extra oomph to certain asian, italian and mexican dishes.

This year I made two bottles of the stuff. The first was a glass pint jar for myself, which I’ll probably transfer to something easier to pour.  The second bottle was a reused wine bottle that I suspect will be given away as a gift. These bottles were mostly filled with serranos (with the stems cut off) and cowhorns (split or chopped). I added a few of the little red ornamental peppers as well, although they mostly add color and didn’t do much to the taste or the spice level.

From left to right: Two bottles of hot pepper vinegar,
hot pepper flakes (top) and hot pepper relish (bottom)

Hot Pepper Relish

I made a very small batch of a hot pepper relish, and have been told by people that it’s great spread on sandwiches. The “recipe” I use is very ad hoc, but you can use a real recipe with measurements and things too if you prefer:

  • A few hot peppers
  • Some cloves of garlic
  • Juice from a Lemon
  • salt
  • fresh ground black pepper

Toss all that stuff in the blender with a little olive oil. chop. Drop it into a pan and cook it up. Fill up a few small jars and heat-process them. You could put some tomatoes in there too, for bulk, but I didn’t for this batch.

Hot Pepper Flakes

I had a few extra cowhorns than I knew what to do with so I dried them out. They spent a couple days hanging outside, but I got impatient and finished them in the toaster oven. Once dried out completely I chopped them up into flakes. Because I used cowhorns and not something more traditional (and spicier) like cayennes these flakes were not as spicy as usual. However, they do make a perfect alternative for when a recipe calls for the flakes but Dana wouldn’t be happy with a normal spice level. I may also consider throwing some of these into a small bottle of pepper oil, but I need to find a good oil to use first.

Overall this year I was very happy with the production of my pepper plants and the varieties I grew. Next year I would like to expand a little bit because there are so many recipes I want to try, and so many people for whom a bottle of homemade hot sauce would be a perfect (and perfectly cheap!) holiday gift.


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Cherry Tomatoes From the Garden

One of the best performing plants from my garden was my cherry tomato plant. Unlike all the other tomato plants that essentially produced nothing over the entire season, the cherry tomato plant was absolutely covered in delicious little balls of awesomeness and still is. If my other plants weren’t so pathetic I might not have needed to buy tomatoes by the crate, but them’s the breaks.

The problem with cherry tomatoes from a single plant is that you’re bringing in about a dozen tomatoes from it every couple days. That’s way more than we need for a salad, but way less than we would need to make anything substantial and can-able. Since our freezer space is at a premium, we couldn’t toss them in there to brighten up a few dark winter nights. They had to go. We did, however, throw together a few little batches of things that worked very well:

Peach and Cherry Tomato Salsa

We had some pick-your-own peaches left over from our various jam-making sessions, and a few hot peppers coming in from the garden, so I made a batch or two of easy peach salsa. I mixed a diced peach, some diced onion, a clove of minced garlic, half a finely-chopped serrano pepper, some cilantro, about two dozen of my little cherry tomatoes and the juice of one lime together into a bowl for a sweet and cheery summer salsa. It was the perfect accompaniment to a lazy weekend lunch. Plus, salsas like this are so easy to throw together without having to follow any recipe. Pick some salsa-sounding ingredients you like and combine them together according to your tastes.

Cherry Tomato Bruschetta

Dana and I love fresh bruschetta. It ranks among the top of the list of things we might arrogantly refer to as our “specialties”. We made a great little bowl of fresh bruschetta by mixing together some of our cherry tomatoes, garlic, fresh basil, small balls of fresh mozzarella,  balsamic vinegar and some extra virgin olive oil. We served it on some thin-sliced, garlic’d baguette. Unfortunately this recipe didn’t last long enough to get a picture of it.

“Sundried” Cherry Tomatoes

I brought in my biggest single-harvest batch of the cherry tomatoes over Dana’s birthday weekend and didn’t have any immediate plans for what to do with them. Drawing inspiration from one of my favorite sites, I cut them in half, sea-salted them, and tossed them in the oven. Oven-dried “sundried” tomatoes! The recipe I saw for these suggested it would take 2-3 hours. 5 hours later they were finally dried out and ready to store. I don’t know why there was such a discrepancy in the times, but I was glad I started early in the morning.

About 30 cherry tomatoes produced less than an 8-oz jar of dried tomatoes, but each one packs a big flavor. Part of me wants to find a great recipe to use them in. Another one wants to sit down on the couch and eat them like chips. Next time for small-batch drying I may try the toaster oven instead. It’s got naturally better ventilation and requires less energy to operate.

As I write this I have about two dozen of these cherry tomatoes sitting in my kitchen and maybe a dozen more on that vine that should ripen before the season comes to a screeching halt. I’m not quite sure, but I may dry these last few out if we can’t think of something better and soon.