Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


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Spaghetti Sauce

Spaghetti and meatballs was a staple food in our house growing up. We would make big pots of the stuff, which would turn into dinners (and meatball-sandwich lunches) for a week or more. It also freezes well; big containers could be dropped into the freezer for use later (very handy to have, when you know cooking time will be short). This sauce recipe is spicy and very savory, it doesn’t have any sweetness to it like many other recipes and many store-bought brands do. It’s a favorite in our family, maybe yours will like it too. Next time I’ll talk about the all-important meatballs.

Spaghetti Sauce

  1. Cans of Tomato Sauce (We always use Hunts by tradition, but I suspect the exact brand may not matter).
  2. Seasonings: Garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, bay leaf
  3. Green Bell Pepper
  4. Olive Oil

Add the olive oil to the pot, about a tablespoon per can of sauce you plan to use. Dice up some garlic, I used 5 cloves. Add the garlic, about 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, about 1/2 tsp oregano and a generous portion of fresh ground black pepper to the pot. Bring the ingredients up to a sizzle over medium heat, stirring to keep the garlic from burning or browning. You want to get flavor out of these ingredients without burning anything.  Burnt garlic is going to add a bitter flavor to the sauce which will basically ruin it. Err on the side of less cooking, if you’re not sure. This part of the recipe will go quickly, and should be basically done by the time you’ve opened your cans of sauce.

Open your cans of sauce and add them to the pot. Keep in mind that meatballs are going to add a lot of volume, so if you fill the pot too high with sauce you’re not going to have enough space to add all your meatballs (or chicken, or sausage, or whatever meats you’re adding). Stir the sauce to incorporate the oil and seasonings. Add basil (I did about 1Tbsp), and salt to taste. Wash a green bell pepper, cut it in half, remove the ribs and seeds, and put half of the pepper in the sauce. Add a bayleaf as well.

Bring the sauce to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for at least 30 minutes. Taste the sauce occasionally. When it’s peppery enough, remove and discard the green pepper and bay leaf.

At this point you can add whatever meat to your sauce that you’ll be using. Meatballs are what I’ll be focusing on in my next post, but you can definitely add italian sausage (sweet and/or hot) and chicken. We usually like to fry up the sausage first and add it, already cooked, to the sauce in 4-inch chunks. Chicken can likewise be fried or baked. All meats can be added to sauce raw, and cooked by boiling the soup for about 20 minutes or more, which can add a certain flavor profile but all the grease and drippings from the meet end up directly in the sauce as well. Next time I’ll talk more about meatballs.

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Flavored Liquor Scorecard

Dana and I don’t really drink too much. Because of that, we’ve got stuff in our liquor cabinet that’s been there for a long time and we haven’t planned to use in the foreseeable future. Repeating the mantra “waste not, want not” over and over in my head, we have started to turn some of this excess booze into some homemade flavored liquors. This year we’ve done small batches of several things, but next year we may take some of the lessons we’ve learned and try to ramp up to larger batches for gift-giving and drunk-getting.

How do you infuse liquor? The “recipe” is really simple: Take some booze. Cram flavorful stuff in there. Let it sit for a while. Strain the liquour out. The hard part is finding combinations that work, and deciding how long to let the mixtures sit before straining.

Here’s a scorecard of the things we’ve tried:

Cherry Rum

Stuff a pint jar with pitted sweet cherries. Top off with Rum. Let it sit in the pantry for about two weeks. I mentioned in a post a while back that this rum made a great mohito, but the reality is that I wish we had used vodka instead. We just don’t use rum enough (which, admittedly, is why we had such a big jug of it begging to be used). The color was a great deep red and the flavor was very cherry-full. I’m told that tart cherries work very well too, so if we can get our hands on some of those we may give it a shot.

Final Grade: B

Watermelon Vodka

We had a watermelon sitting around that we weren’t eating and it was quickly becoming over-ripe. So I chopped it up, stuffed some chunks into a pint jar and covered with vodka. We didn’t start with the best watermelon so the final product is probably not as good as it could be. The pink color of the vodka is great and the flavor does go very well with many mixers, but there is a certain off-ripe bitterness to it that you can definitely taste if you drink it straight. A little bit of simple syrup goes a long way to fixing this problem. I am encouraged to try this again next year with a better melon.

Final Grade: C

Grape Vodka

Like many of these other applications, we had some green seedless grapes laying around that weren’t being eaten as quickly as they needed. I cut several handfuls of them in half, stuffed them into a pint jar and topped with Absolut. The final product had a very feint greenish hue and had a good grape flavor. It was a little bit bitter, but mixed extremely well. We liked it a lot with some simple syrup and club soda.

Final Grade: B+

Apple Bourbon

When pick-your-own season started up, we were covered in apples. I took two 8-oz jars, put a single diced jonathan apple in each, and topped with bourbon. After sitting for a few weeks, shaking occasionally, I put it into a little flip-top bottle. The resulting liquor is much smoother than it was going in, but the apple flavor is very muted and subtle. I was hoping for something a little bit more obvious. Oh well. Next year I plan to make a much larger batch of this stuff, with different varieties of apples and a few other changes.

Final Grade: B

Homemade Limoncello and Apple Bourbon

Limoncello

The most complicated recipe on this list, Limoncello is made by steeping the lemon peels in alcohol instead of the flesh of the fruit. Then you finish it off with some simple syrup to give the classic sweet flavor. Most recipes call for a grain alcohol or an over-proof vodka, but we had regular 80 proof Absolut on hand so that’s what we used. Lemons are something we’ve had in surplus lately; many of our canning recipes call for lemon juice and I try to use fresh lemons instead of bottled lemon juice when possible (I usually go extra on the quantity, to make sure the pH is safe). Instead of juicing them and tossing them, I’ve been squeezing them AND peeling them before the final trip to the big compost pile in the sky (in my back yard). I’m told that a similar process is used to make home-made Triple Sec, and using something besides vodka could give us something closer to a home-made Grand Marnier. Maybe we’ll try something like that next. The final product has a great lemony flavor and a taste comparable to a store-bought variety or better.

Final Grade: A


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Beef and Vegetable Soup

Fall time growing up always brought a few cooking traditions: Apple pie, A big pot of spaghetti sauce and meatballs, and a gigantic pot of beef and vegetable soup. My parents would make a huge pot of this soup most years, and it would be dinner (and lunch, and occasionally breakfast) for weeks on end. Toss in a spoonful of hot pepper vinegar, and it’s heaven in a bowl.  With containers in the freezer, we could have hot delicious soup at a moment’s notice.

This soup uses a beef broth base but draws much flavor inspiration from a few particular vegetables. Specifically the cabbage, rutabaga and tomatoes are the most important for the flavor palette, and I consider them indispensable here. I suppose you could omit the beef products for a vegetarian offering, but I’ve never tried it.

Beef and Vegetable Soup

  1. Cubed beef for stewing
  2. A medium head of green cabbage (I used three quarters of a large head)
  3. One medium Rutabaga
  4. Potatoes (I used 4 large russets)
  5. Carrots (I used 4)
  6. Celery (I used 3 stalks)
  7. Frozen peas, green beans and corn (About a half bag each of the frozen stuff)
  8. Beef bouillon (I used three cubes)
  9. Garlic (I used three cloves)
  10. Cans of diced tomatoes (I used 2 8-oz cans)
  11. Oil, salt, pepper, bay leaves and other seasonings to taste

My parents might also add things like chopped up cauliflower and lima beans. Instead of putting those in the soup, I like to chop them up fresh and dump them right in the garbage where they belong. Your mileage may vary.

Put the oil, garlic and beef cubs in the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is browned on all sides. While that’s going, start to peel and chop your root vegetables. Add them into the pot in order that they need to cook. You can just start layering things, you don’t need to stir them all in. Peel and chop your carrots, potatoes and rutabagas. When the meat is cooked, toss those in on top. Now clean and chop your celery, and toss that in on top too.

After the celery, clean your cabbage and give it a rough chop. Cabbage is going to make up the bulk of your soup, so don’t skimp on it. On top of the cabbage I added my two cans of tomatoes, followed by the frozen vegetables. Again, you can just toss things in layers, there’s no need to stir it all up yet.

Finally I added two bay leaves, some salt, pepper, bouillon cubes, and then added water to cover. Bring the whole mixture to a boil. Simmer until the cabbage is translucent and the root veggies are all fork-tender.

Unlike the French Onion soup, there’s no real prep work necessary before you serve it. Ladle it into a bowl and put it in your mouth. I like a spoonful of the hot pepper vinegar to really brighten it up, but that’s completely optional (Dana likes it just fine without).

I’ve never tried canning this soup before. You’d definitely need a pressure canner of some variety, and you might want to under-cook it a little bit so it doesn’t completely turn to mush in the pressure canner. One day I’ll give it a shot and report back on how it turned out.


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French Onion Soup Part 2

In my last post I talked about French Onion Soup and gave my recipe for the soup broth. Today I’m going to talk about what to do with that broth once you’ve made a boatload of it.

Eat It

Of course you want to eat it. It’s delicious. Grab a bowl and a spoon and go crazy.

…Unless you want to do it right. That’s going to take a little bit more prep work.

Prepare It

Here’s what you’re going to need:

  1. Something bread-like. I like a loaf of french bread or a french baguette. I’ve also seen it done up with garlicky croutons if you’ve got those laying around.
  2. 1 clove of fresh garlic
  3. Good cheese (I use a sharp Provolone).

I’ve seen Mozzarella cheese used instead of the Provolone. But for my money I would always go with the Provolone. If you can find some that’s sharp and aged a year or more, even better.

So here’s how you prepare a great bowl of soup:

  1. Slice your bread into inch-thick slices (more or less to your liking). Get them toasted. You can do it in a toaster oven, you can do it with a big torch. I like to do it under the broiler. Keep in mind that un-toasted bread will soak up a lot of the broth and you’ll be left with really tasty bread mush. Toast it up good.
  2. Peel your garlic and chop off the end. Rub the toasted side of every piece of bread with the garlic to coat it with a fresh garlic flavor.
  3. Pour soup into oven-safe bowls. Float a piece of the bread on each (more if they’re small pieces). Cover each with a big slice or two of cheese.
  4. Put the bowls of soup on the cookie sheet, back in the over under the broiler.
  5. Once the cheese melts and gets a little bubbly, you’re done. Take it out, let it cool, open face, insert soup.
  6. Since you did a lot of work, somebody else can do the dishes. That melted cheese can be a real pain to scratch off.

Preserve it

If you’ve got a pressure canner, you can can put the soup into jars, can them, and they will be shelf stable for quite a while. Since the soup base is, effectively, beef broth with some flavorings, you can follow canning instructions for other broths. I don’t currently have a pressure canner (xmas gift hint!), but I would love to be able to put up a few quarts of this soup for a rainy day. At least 10lbs of pressure for 25 minutes should be more than enough to heat the soup through.

Keep in mind that the onions have already been cooked to hell and back. You don’t need to worry about them getting soggy or overcooked, because they’re already soggy and overcooked. When in doubt, throw another few minutes on the timer. You really can’t cook it too much at this point.

If you don’t have a canner, this broth will keep very well in the freezer or the fridge. I’ve got a few big glass containers with air-tight lids I use for exactly this purpose, but most plastic storage containers should work just fine.


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French Onion Soup Part 1

When I’m canning I follow recipes, or I try to, because there are serious health and safety issues involved and I don’t want my family to get all sick and dead and whatever because I didn’t have the temperature or pH levels correct. But when I’m cooking normal food, recipes are treated like vague inspiration. The big downside to this approach is that when something turns out spectacularly good, there’s no written record of exactly how you produced it, and subsequent attempts will never turn out exactly the same.

Today I’m going to share, as best as I can remember it, my recipe for French Onion Soup. And let me tell you, when this “recipe” turns out the results are fantastic. At it’s best, this recipe is the best French Onion Soup I’ve ever had. At it’s worst it is still pretty darn good.

First, the ingredients:

  • A whole bunch of onions. Get one of those bags at the grocery store. Or more than one bag. Go nuts.
  • Good, fresh garlic.
  • Enough beef stock or broth. How much is “enough”? It depends how big your pot is and how many onions you got.
  • Some beef bouillon
  • Good apple cider
  • Salt, pepper. Some herbs too. I like Rosemary and some bayleaves.
  • Butter. Or olive oil. Or whatever you’ve got.

I like a good sweet Vidalia or other sweet yellow onion. You can use white onions too, but a good sweet yellow onion seems to produce the best results for me. The beef broth you get is going to make up the majority of your soup, so don’t skimp on quality. I tend to like a good, clear broth for best presentation, and something low in sodium. Some recipes call for veal stock. I’m not a big fan of veal personally, so I stick with beef broth.

The apple cider is my secret weapon, and what sets my recipe apart from so many others. I’ve also made this soup, with very good results, using a good quality Marsala wine instead of Apple Cider, and I’ve made it before with about 50/50 Marsala and Cider. If you use Cider you want something that’s sweet and a little tart. Too much bitterness or sourness won’t work. Because of weather-related issues, I didn’t have any apple cider on hand this time and had to use a no-sugar-added, 100% apple juice instead. The results were still good but not as great as with a good cider.

Next, the process:

  1. Take the skin and ends off your onions and slice them. I like long, thin slices. Aesthetics. Cut an onion, go have a good cry. Cut another onion, go cry some more. Don’t judge me. You want to fill whatever pot you are using completely to the top with onions. All the way to the very top. Don’t skimp out and try to get away with fewer onions. FILL. IT. UP.
  2. Oh right, you’re supposed to add some butter or oil or something to the pan so things don’t burn. Go back and do that first.
  3. Cook your onions down, stirring them around so they don’t burn. You want to cook them down until they turn a deep golden brown. There’s a fine line between perfectly caramelized onions and burnt nasty onions. Once you’ve crossed that line you’ve cooked them too much. Start over. The higher your heat, the more closely it will need to be tended. medium low or medium heat work well. This part of the process took me about an hour and a half, but for most of it I didn’t need to watch very closely.
  4. When the onions are cooked all the way down and are deep golden brown, you can add your deglazing liquid. You only need, at most, 4 cups. One or two might be fine too. Put it in the pot and let it bubble while stiring and scraping the bottom of the pot to get all the important flavor bits dissolved into solution. In this picture, I walked away to get the camera and a little bit of the goop on the bottom started to burn. It wasn’t too bad though, and didn’t really affect the final soup.
  5. You’re going to need to add garlic at some point. I like a fresh, raw garlic flavor so I add it just before, or just after the deglazing liquid. If you like a more mild, caramelized garlic flavor, add it to the onions earlier and let the two cook together for a while. This is a trial and error process to find what you like most.
  6. Add some herbs and black pepper. You can add the black pepper all the way at the very beginning if you want, but I don’t think it makes much of a difference. You can add the bay leaves pretty early while the onions are cooking down too, but I also don’t think it matters. All these things can be added after the deglazing liquid if you want. I’ll usually add a bay leaf or two and  handful of chopped fresh rosemary. Thyme, marjoram, taragon and even oregano may work well, but you’ll need to experiment to find a collection that works well for you.
  7. After the flavor bits are dissolved and the deglazing liquid has reduced by half or more add your stock. Fill your pot up with it. Turn up the heat and bring the whole thing to a boil.
  8. Now you start to taste it. Taste the soup and see two things: whether the salt level is good enough and whether the broth has a rich-enough beefy flavor. Add beef bouillon first to adjust the beefy flavor, then add salt if you still need more after that. This is why you should use the low-sodium broths, so you don’t over-do the salt levels when adjusting the beefy flavor.
  9. Boil the whole shebang for an hour at least. You want to make sure all the good onion flavor gets out into the broth. After this, take out the bayleaves. You’re done! Eat your soup.

That’s the general recipe for creating French Onion Soup. Next post I’m going to talk about storing, canning, and eating this great soup.


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Carrots

Last weekend I decided it was time to pull out the carrots, all 4 of them.

I’m glad I did! Given my luck this year, and the poor performance of the bed in general, I was worried that they would be short, stubby nonsense. As you can see, they came out surprisingly big:

For comparison, the largest of the carrots has a larger diameter than a half dollar (anybody else remember those things?). Two of the carrots were absurdly small, but 4 of them are pretty darn big and are more than enough for use in a meal or two. I’m still not sure why the majority of my carrot seeds didn’t sprout at all and why some of them stayed very small. I’m hoping some soil adjustments and other changes over the winter will help to fix whatever problem I’ve got.

I don’t have the package on hand anymore, but I’m pretty certain that this variety is called “Scarlet Nantes“. The picture on the website doesn’t look too similar to the carrots I got, however, so I really cannot be sure.

These carrots are softer than the ones we normally get at the store, but still have a good crunch and a good flavor. One has already ended up in a big pot of beef and vegetable soup (I’ll write about that later), and I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with the other ones.


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I’ve been trying to stick to a schedule of publishing two posts per week, but last week there was some kind of weather thing that knocked out our power and I missed my second post for the week. I’m not complaining; after a week in the dark, I’m just happy to have power back.

Thanks for everybody who helped and offered well-wishes during our week in the dark. Thanks to the power guys and tree guys for getting us back up and running again. Thanks also to my compost pile for kindly accepting all the spoiled produce that was in our fridge.

I had wanted to publish a post about chicken noodle soup to follow my post about chicken stock. However, we didn’t get any pictures of the soup  before it was all gone, so that might not happen for a while. I’ll be back to regular posts later this week.