Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


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Plans for 2013

December 21st came and went, and now that we’re sure the world isn’t going to end it’s time to start with planning for 2013. Since this is the last day before 2013, it seems like as good a time as any to plan ahead for it. Here’s a quick rundown of some projects I want to accomplish next year:

  1. More Preserves. We’ve been giving away jams and preserves as gifts. They make great gifts for friends and family who really deserve more than just a card, especially around the holidays. When the jars start flying off the shelves, you realize just how little you actually have to keep for yourself. Next year, I’ll be doing a much larger quantity of jams and preserves.
    1. Cherry Jam: We loved this stuff but got relatively small amounts of it. We want more cherries, and more cherry jam. I’d like to experiment with more new recipes and combinations too.
    2. Peach Jam: We had a couple batches of peaches that didn’t turn out (got moldy before we could use them, etc). Next year I want to be more efficient and make more peach jam, especially the vanilla peach jam which has become a household favorite. We’ll probably stay away from white peaches for a while, since our luck with them was so bad last summer.
    3. Apple Butter: This made up the bulk of our holiday gifts and it was very well-received. Next year I’m going to experiment more with different varieties of apples, make much larger quantities, and tweak my recipe.
    4. Apple Sauce: It’s dirt simple to make, and is a great gift especially for people with young children. Who doesn’t love a dollop of apple sauce?
    5. Pie Fillings:  Next year I’d like to make more, and more varieties.
    6. Other Fruits: I didn’t do anything in 2012 with pears, plums, citrus, or anything else that makes for fun preserves. Next year I’d like to try to do some of that and try many more new recipes. I want to do more stuff with blueberries,  though I don’t have anything specific in mind.
    7. Tomatoes: I plan to greatly expand my garden tomato-growing efforts next year, and I’d like to be able to put together a few jars of sauce. If I can find a good local farm stand selling good varieties, all the better.
    8. Pickles:  I didn’t have good luck with them last summer, but if I can harden my nerves I’d like to give it another shot.
  2. Flavored Liquors:  Some things I’d like to be making myself, corking up, and keeping on hand:
    1. More Limoncello: It was awesome, and I think I can do even better next year.
    2. Spiced Rum: I’ve seen a few cool-looking recipes online, and I’d like to give it a shot. Plus, there are some people for whom a bottle of spiced rum would make a better gift than a jar of jam.
    3. Triple-Sec: It’s made a lot like Limoncello, just substituting the lemon peels for orange ones and making a few other tweaks.
    4. Amaretto: If we can find a good, cheap source of unmonkeyed almonds I’d love to try my hand at making amaretto and almond extract for baking.
    5. Vanilla Extract: It’s not a liquor per se, but it’s made with booze and it costs so much less to do it yourself than to buy the little bottles at the store. Plus, I’ve found that I can buy a 1lb bag of the beans on Amazon fresh from the supplier for a decent price.
    6. Vinegars: We don’t drink a lot of wine (especially not red wine) but we always end up with a few spare bottles after the holidays. I need to find a good vinegar starter and some good clean glass jugs for brewing. Also, I’ve seen some interesting recipes for making apple cider vinegar from apple scraps.
  3. The Garden: More tomatoes in the garden next year. We’ve got garlic in the ground already, and would like to do some onions and maybe shallots with them. I want bell peppers, a better selection of hot peppers, and maybe some greenish stuff (peas, green beans, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, etc) to fill in the gaps. I’d like a big barrel with potatoes, and maybe a few small cucumber bushes in pots on our patio. I’ve got a few other plans in mind that I’ll talk about later.
  4. Pick Your Own: The munchkin loves to go picking, and we put the mountains of fruit to good use. Next year I’d like to get more peaches and apples and I’d also like to try other fruits as well. Certain ones like cherries, plums, blueberries, grapes and pears are harder to find for picking, but there are a few places nearby that might offer them if the season is good and we’re very attentive to the schedule.

Some of my plans are going to have to get rolling soon (Tomato seeds have to start around March!). I’ll post updates about all these things as they progress.


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Cranberry Sauce

Some people really love the cranberry sauce that comes out of the can. It’s not bad stuff by any stretch and it does play a vital role for some people in bringing back good memories of Thanksgivings gone by. I never had much of it as a kid so I didn’t have the same emotional attachment that other people do. Instead, I started making my own sauce from fresh berries and really enjoy those results. Here’s my “recipe“.

Cranberry Sauce

  1. Fresh Cranberries
  2. Some liquid
  3. Sugar
  4. Fresh Oranges
  5. Seasonings

Start off with the cranberries. Put them in a colander  give them a good rinse, pick of any stems you find and remove any brown/gooey/mushy/yucky/creepy berries. Dump them all in a big pot. Peel some Oranges. You only want to get the good peel or “zest” from the orange, not the white pith. I like to use a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler to get the peel because I like the look of big chunks in my sauce. You can use a microplane too for good results.

You need some liquid to cook the cranberries in. Most “traditional” recipes I’ve seen in the past call just for water, but I don’t like to use plain water unless I have to. Since I have some oranges laying around without peels, I juice those into the pot as well. This time I added a few cups of leftover limeade we had in the fridge and some extra orange juice. In years past I’ve added apple cider, white wine, or a variety of other flavorful fluids. You want to fill the liquid about 3/4 of the way up the pot to where the tops of the cranberries are. Keep in mind that cranberries float, so if you add too much liquid the level of the cranberries will rise but the relative levels of cranberries to liquid won’t change.  I also like to get some of the orange pulp into the mix too, I scrape some of it out of the juiced oranges with a knife, spoon or even my fingers. It’s just window-dressing at this point, so be creative.

I’ve heard of adding some diced apples to the sauce too. I’ve never tried it but I see no reason why it wouldn’t work.

Next, add some seasonings. I toss in a few cinnamon sticks to start. These look great in the final presentation, even if they aren’t edible. I toss in some cinnamon powder too. I also add, depending on my mood and what I’ve got in my pantry: some clove, nutmeg and maybe even some ginger. Sometimes I add some vanilla extract. Vanilla helps the flavors come together, but you don’t taste much of it in the final product. It gets mostly overwhelmed by the other flavors involved.

I bring the whole pot to a boil, and let it boil for a few minutes until most of the cranberries are popped and the sauce is noticeably thicker.

Now we need to add sugar to make it palatable. Some people like a more tart sauce, some people like it sweeter. Add the sugar in small quantities until you find the amount of sweetness that you prefer. Adding more sugar will help to thicken the sauce up as well.

Preserving

If you want to can it, to have some fresh cranberry sauce at other times in the year, it’s easy to do. If you followed my recipe you may have plenty of acid in the mix already. If you haven’t added all the citrus, or if you want to be belt-and-suspenders sure, add some lemon juice. It never hurts and I usually do. You need to get to a pH of 4.6 or lower.  If you aren’t sure, either add a crapton of lemon juice or go out and invest in a food-grade pH meter. I put the sauce into some sterilized jars and boiled in a water bath for 20 minutes.


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So Dana comes into the living room last Friday and says “We’ve got mushrooms growing in the shower”. And I’m all like “lol wat?

“There are mushrooms in the shower. Like, growing out of the window.”

“Big mushrooms?”

“Big enough.”

I head into the bathroom and sure enough, there’s a little beige mushroom the size of a quarter growing out of the caulk between the window trim and the surrounding tile. So I says to myself “Okay, I’ll cut out this old caulk, put in some new caulk and slap on a new coat of water resistant paint and call it a day.”

Off comes the caulk, and underneath it the wooden trim is all black from mold and water damage. I say to myself, “Okay, plan B. I’ll just rip off this trim, replace it with some new wood, slap on a few coats of water-proof paint and some more caulk and we’re done.”

Under the trim, the wood framing and insulation is all black and rotting with mold and water damage. I say to myself, “Okay, plan C. I’ll just rip down some of the drywall and some of the tiles, however much I need to take out and replace the damaged parts, and then patch things up again.”

I started ripping. And ripping. And ripping some more. The damage goes all the way down to the ground, and all the way out to both sides. Now I say to myself. “Okay, I’m going to go crazy, completely gut my bathroom down to the studs and redo the whole damn thing.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing the past couple days instead of cooking stuff or writing blog posts about cooking stuff. Posts will be delayed for the next few days.


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Meatballs

Last time I shared my recipe for spaghetti sauce. However without some meatballs spaghetti sauce is just the color red over some noodles. Meatballs really add depth and bulk to sauce and turn it from just one component of a meal into a meal in and of itself. As I mentioned in the last post these are recipes that I grew up with, so they don’t always follow the make-it-from-scratch philosophy that I tend to follow in other recipes. If I ever come up with a replacement recipe that I like better and follows better from first principles, I’ll post that.

Meatballs

  1. Ground beef. I like 90/10, but you can use whatever.
  2. Italian seasoned bread crumbs
  3. Eggs
  4. Seasoning (salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc)

Add the ingredients to a bowl. Kneed until well mixed, adjust levels to give the right consistency, then form into balls and cook.

It sounds easy but there’s a lot of nuance to it that can make or break your meatballs. Eggs work to really bring the meatballs together and keep them in ball shape. However too much egg makes the mixture goopy and they’ll fall apart during cooking. The bread crumbs work to keep things drier and more managable, but too dry and they’ll fall apart as well. I used three pounds of meat, two eggs, and started with about a cup of bread crumbs, which I didn’t add all at once. As I start mixing I slowly add more crumbs to absorb some of the free liquid until the mixture really starts coming together and holding shape.

Break the meat up into small chunks and roll them around in your hands until they are ball shaped. Cook.

Variations

A few years ago, back when Atkins was all the rage, I heard somebody mention that you could use parmesian cheese in place of some of the bread crumbs. This does indeed reduce the amount of carbs in the recipe and also can add a subtle flavor profile. I’ve replaced up to half of my bread crumbs with parmesian cheese before to good effect. Notice that if you do this you may want to replace some of the seasonings from the bread crumbs: some oregano, basil, rosemary or thyme might be good additions so you gain the good parm flavor without losing any of the other flavors.

Sometimes we add garlic powder. Sometimes we add finely chopped fresh garlic.

I have added some other things as well, with more or less success: small chunks of mozerella seem like a great idea but they tend to melt out when cooking (unless you cook the meatballs directly in the sauce). Diced sundried tomatoes are completely lost in the overpowering tomato flavor of the sauce. There are lots of things that you can add to your meatballs, but it doesn’t usually produce results worthy of the expended effort.

Cooking

There are three methods to cooking meatballs that I’ve seen and tried. All of them have pros and cons.

  • Baking: Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil. Put the meatballs on the pan and bake (covered or not seems to make no difference to me). Last time I baked them at 375 for about 30 minutes, more or less. Once they’re baked, toss the still-hot balls into the still-hot sauce. This is the method that my mother usually uses. The meatballs taste good and are supposedly healthier (just look at all the grease left in the bottom of the pan!). However, there’s a real risk that baked meatballs can come out tasting a little bit meat-loafy, so make sure you season them up good before putting them in the oven. The picture above shows a batch of baked meatballs fresh out of the oven.
  • Frying: Put some olive oil in a cast iron fry pan and fry the meatballs. You’ll need to turn them several times to make sure all sides get browned and the ball is completely cooked through. Because the side on the bottom of the meatball sort of flattens out as you cook, this can lead to funny-looking angular “balls”. The frying does add heaps of extra flavor, and you can drain the fried balls on a paper towel before you drop them in the sauce to try and make them not quite so unhealthy. This is probably the tastiest of all cooking methods, but requires the most work (you have to stand there and fry them, and large batches can take an hour or more), is among the least healthy, and is the most error prone. It’s easy to burn one side of your meatballs, and if you aren’t careful they can stick to the pan and rip apart when you try to turn them. Also, fry splatter. This is the method my father uses.
  • Boiling: Take your raw meatballs and drop them directly into the pot of boiling sauce. Simmer away for an hour or so, and enjoy. This is among the easiest cooking methods, has almost zero cleanup, and produces tasty balls. However all the grease comes out and forms a layer on top of your sauce which never mixes in all the way and you lose out on the added flavor you would have from browning your meatballs before adding them to the sauce. I find that this method works the best when you’re making meatballs in bulk for the express purpose of meatball sandwiches, because the sauce can get a little bit too greasy to really enjoy over noodles. Also, because of all the raw meat, you can’t even taste-test your sauce until the meat is finished cooking. This is the method my mother-in-law uses.

I use a variety of methods depending on my mood. Most recently I baked my meatballs in the oven, but times before that I’ve done a combination of frying and boiling. I’ll give them a quick fry to completely brown the outsides and then finish them by boiling in the sauce. I’ve also done the same with baking: Start the cooking and brown the outside in the oven and finish in the sauce. Doing about 50% or more of the cooking elsewhere helps to keep down the grease level in the sauce, and sealing the outside surface of the ball can help to keep more of the natural juices inside the ball where they belong.