Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


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Apple Review: William’s Pride

Before the ubiquity of Honey Crisp and Granny Smith, I thought I hated apples. The ones you got at the store were almost always one of three varieties: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Macintosh. I didn’t like any of them. They were mealy and lousy. But, of those three, the one that I hated most of all was Macintosh.

Honestly if you gave me a bushel of Macintosh apples, I would be torn between using them to line my compost pile or just putting them out with the weekly trash. They are horrid little things and I will never understand why people eat them. The flesh is soft and mealy, the skin is thick and waxy. The flavor is lousy. Macintosh are to apples what grapefruit are to citrus.

Once we found a bottle of “Macintosh Juice” for sale, and I bought it on a final attempt to find redemption in this little apple. Dana and I both poured ourselves little glasses of it, tasted it, and dumped the rest down the drain. Terrible. Absolutely terrible.

We were at the orchard picking peaches in early August, and were alerted to the fact that there were some early varietals of apples ready for picking too. The apple in question was Williams’ Pride, one we had never tasted before. It wasn’t until we were already committed, sitting in the wagon with buckets in hand, that the farmhand described them as “like a macintosh”. Great.

We picked half a bucket of them to test, without high hopes. When we came home I rinsed one off, cut a slice, and took a bite.

Actually, they’re really pretty good. Maybe it’s just because it’s August, and we haven’t had fresh apples in months, but I really think they’re a decent apple. There are definite similarities with macintosh, I can see why the farmhand described them that way. However, they don’t have any of the problems. The skin isn’t thick or waxy. The flesh is crisp. The flavor is slightly tart, reminiscent of Jonathan (which itself is pretty good, though not my favorite).

Overall, Williams Pride is a decent apple in general and is pretty amazing for the time of year when it comes in season. If you’re jonesing for apples in late July or early August, Williams Pride is going to hit the spot. Later in the season you’d do much better with Gala, Jonathan or Honeycrisp instead.

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Honey Vanilla Cherry Compote

In one of my first blog posts I mentioned, but shared no details about, a batch of cherry jam without pectin which I cooked down into more of a “compote” than a “jam”. I didn’t share any details about it because I hadn’t tasted it yet. More than a year after canning it, I finally opened up the jar and gave it a taste.

Let me set the stage. I was just starting to make and can jams and jellies, and had only put up a batch or two of jam and some cherries in syrup. I found a recipe online for a cherry jam without using pectin. So easy, I was repeatedly assured, that an idiot could do it. Little did the original author know, that I was bringing a higher class of idiot to bear.

After making a few substitutions, in my usual fashion, I put the whole thing on the stove to start reducing down and thickening up. Well, it reduced down too far and got too thick. When I went to put it in a jar, the only ones I had left were pints, so I ladled the whole mess into a single jar. It was sealed, shelved and forgotten.

I didn’t know exactly how thick it was when it cooled, but I knew it was definitely too thick to be called jam. Also we’ve had a pretty steady supply of half full and unsealed jars of jam in the fridge, so there was never any reason to open it. It wasn’t until just yesterday that we were picking off a tray of cheese and crackers that I decided it was time.

Honey Vanilla Cherry Compote

Let’s be honest: This was a long time ago and I don’t remember the recipe. I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast today. Here’s what I do remember:

  1. I used sweet dark cherries
  2. I used about equal parts of honey and sugar
  3. A dash of my homemade vanilla extract

There was no pectin added, so I put all the ingredients into the pot and cooked down until it was thick enough.

Results

I’m writing a blog post about this a year later, so you know it was worth writing about. In short, the compote was absolutely fantastic. Normally I find that honey loses much of its flavor and character when it’s cooked, but this time was definitely an exception. The honey flavor was strong, but not too strong and perfectly complimentary to the taste of the cherries. The vanilla added a nice backdrop to the other flavors, and helped the cherry flavor really stand out.

This was, in short, a very happy accident.

The compote is way too thick and unruly to use on toast or muffins or anything like that. We’ve found that it goes extremely well on a cheese tray, dabbed on to slices of aged Parmesan or aged Gouda. I suspect, strongly, that it would make an excellent addition to a recipe of baked Brie. I also suspect that, if thinned out with some white wine and heated, it would make a fantastic glaze for pork.

When cherries are in season again I definitely want to try my hand at a similar recipe: Cherry jam sweetened with honey and flavored with a dash of my homemade vanilla. I also intend to use some of the lessons learned to help further my endless pursuit of the perfect cherry jam.


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Hard Cider Update

I’ve made two batches of hard cider so far, both are long since done primary fermentation. Here’s a quick status update.

Hard Cider Batch 1

This was an extremely simple recipe: Cider, yeast and time. The “cider” we got was already clear, so the end result is likewise clear. Overall it’s interesting and tastes like apples, with the unmistakable flavors of yeast and fermentation. I actually think it has some flavors of a light, unhopped wheat beer, probably from the lager yeast  I used. It’s weak and not very alcoholic. I racked the cider into a reclaimed wine bottle for conditioning.

After conditioning it’s pretty smooth, mostly dry and very drinkable. More aging would do it some good, but I don’t have the time nor the space to let it sit around forever. Considering the extremely simple ingredient list (apple juice, yeast, nothing else) it’s good enough and plenty worth the effort. I’ve been keeping it out as a table wine, and drinking a glass or two when the mood strikes me.

Hard Cider Batch 2

This batch was significantly more complicated than the first batch. We had a gallon of a favorite local cider in our fridge that was starting to ferment on it’s own. I transferred it to my glass jug, added some brown sugar and some honey, and a little bit of yeast nutrient to keep the yeast healthy.

Coming out of primary, the resulting cider was…pungent. It had a strong flavor, yeasty and maybe even a bit sour or funky. I decided to let it sit out and start the process of turning into vinegar. The mother has been extremely slow to form on this batch, even after adding some distilled water to dilute it down. I may end up dumping it if it doesn’t progress or if mold starts to get involved.

I’ll be posting updates about my two batches of Cherry Melomel when I taste them around the end of January.


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New Garden Bed And New Plants

So much to talk about!

I finally got Dana to agree to adding a third garden bed. The reasoning goes like this: We want to buy a new swing-set for the munchkin at some point. The swing-set we’re looking at has a space for a sandbox at the bottom of it. However, the new swing-set will definitely not fit over where the sandbox is now. But if we move the sandbox, there will be a big open patch of dirt where the grass hasn’t been able to grow. In that patch of dirt we can either put down some grass seed or just turn it into another garden bed.

Since I’ve got a new shovel (with a snap-resistant fiberglass handle!), and more energy than I know what to do with, I started digging. The munchkin and I went down to Home Depot and picked up a few landscape timbers, and cut them to make a 4×8 garden. I dug up the patch and turned over all the grass. By the next weekend we were able to rip out all the dead grass clumps, and mixed in the last of the mushroom soil from last Autumn. This weekend we ran out and grabbed two bags of organic garden soil and four 40lb bags of pre-made compost. We went down to Home Depot and picked up a few new plants for the garden bed and for some empty pots we had sitting around:

We also got some spearmint from my parents last weekend (they’ve had a great perennial patch of it that’s been popping up for decades), and I have a tray of Pumpkin and Spaghetti Squash seeds just starting to sprout.

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The new garden bed has the 4 new tomato plants along the back and the Butternut Squash up front. In a few days I’ll transplant the pumpkin and Spaghetti Squash seedlings to that bed as well. This should be the end of our garden plantings for this year.

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The herbs have all been arranged in colorful pots on the porch. We used mostly some bagged potting soil for these, with some stones at the bottom to help with drainage and some peat moss mixed in for moisture control and texture. From left to right, our potted herbs are: Rosemary, Spearmint, Thyme and two pots of Sweet Basil.

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We also picked up some big pots for the blueberry bushes and transplanted them. The blueberries were potted in a mixture of about equal parts potting soil and peat moss. I’ll be adding in some special fertilizer for acid-loving plants soonish, to help ensure that the soil pH gets into  a friendly range for them. Hopefully the pH being out of range won’t hurt them too much in the near term.

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I was looking at pictures on the camera when I realized something important: my first batch of hard apple cider was moved to secondary before Xander’s fourth birthday, which is exactly a month before Christmas. That means the wine has aged for a month and is ready for a taste.

It is good. It’s weak and has a good apple flavor, but isn’t too dry and is very drinkable. Not that drinking it will produce any effect, as weak as it is. I’m going to drink it up so I can reuse the bottle for something else.


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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.