Hello my name is Patty, I’m a candy addict

It’s the middle of the afternoon, I just finished lunch. The gum I’m chewing just isn’t cutting it. I scrounge around my desk drawer, then my purse. I’m looking for a lost M&M or Smartie that may have dropped out. But alas, the mining expedition came up dry.  I chew a new piece of gum to keep the taste buds happy. Running to the vending machine will waste time. Get on with it, get back to work.

It’s been a couple of weeks since Valentine’s day and I’m still thinking about candy. There are four holiday events during the year when the candy has themes and is overflowing entire aisles devoted to: Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter. From October to April it is candy, candy, candy. It’s one holiday rollng into another and the candy is plentiful.

At my Weight Watchers meeting, the leader admitted she was a sugar-holic. She described how she was told that the only way to get over her addiction was to go to the candy aisle and confront the sugar. She failed miserably because she left purchasing bags of candy. Going near the candy aisle was the equivolent of being an alcoholic, you can’t have just one Snicker bar.

I’ll admit I never thought too much about candy until it was always around. I have a friend at work who will slide me a bag of sour gummies or Willy Wonka Nerds. I guess that is how any addiction starts; it is a socially acceptable introduction. It breaks up the monotony of the workday. Everyone is doing it.

Most people need to watch what they eat and I am one of them. I can’t eat on a unlimited basis because it takes me down a spiral of unhealthiness. Being overweight took a toll on my ego many years ago. I climbed out of that hole but, it is a day-to-day challenge. It takes a great deal of discipline from deep down inside me to temper the cravings. 

There is something about that sugar rush on my tongue. It’s like a party in my mouth. I become unconscious. And then I get sick. Why did I eat that?

My name is Patty and I’m a candy addict.

How (not) to read a recipe

The Fearless Cook’s kitchen is getting a facelift. Where once was a doorway is now going to be a wall to add more kitchen space. So in the spirit of preserving my sanity I will write about the act of reading recipes, according to me.  

the kitchen doorway to become a wall

I’ll be the first to admit that I think I have adult attention deficit disorder. It has taken most of my life to figure out how I figure things out. To learn something new takes every bit of patience and focus I have to “get it.” For me, practice and practice and practice, does make perfect. Once I have mastered a task, I find shortcuts to get to the end product quickly.

For the average cook, the basics of cooking start with reading a recipe.  True chefs or chemists understand how ingredients and flavors coalesce. They can taste their way through cooking.

The first recipe I ever followed was Snickerdoodles. It is basically a soft sugar cookie that uses cream of tartar instead of baking soda and is rolled in cinnamon-sugar instead of granulated sugar.  I mastered the recipe mostly through observation. I saw all the ingredients going in, how to roll the dough into balls, pop then into the cinnamon-sugar blend, drop the dough onto the cookie sheet and into the oven. Easy, right?

I made a lot of cookies because it was so easy.  But I couldn’t eat cookies for the rest of my life, I had to cook something else, like dinner? I then discovered soups and chili. Another easy cooking format. Throw all the ingredients into a crock pot and turn it on for 8 hours and voila! dinner for eight.

Reading a recipe is like reading a short story. A writer gets better at her craft by reading, so, a cook should better her skills by reading a recipe, right? When I read one recipe at a time I get a glimpse at a culture and the melding of the ingredients like characters in a story. And just like when I read, if I don’t understand a part in the story, I read it over and over again. I’ve found that I  “get it” when I put my reading of the recipe into the actual act of cooking. Hands on and making mistakes as I go along.

A difficult recipe usually has many ingredients and steps to complete to get to the finished product. This takes a lot of focus on my part. I try to read the recipe from beginning to end. Even though I think I have a good idea of how to make it, I end up going back and forth from the cookbook to the stove, from the cookbook to the chopping board and so on. There isn’t much finesse and flow in my approach. Last year I made Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It took an entire day for me to make the recipe the way Julia advised to make it. I patted dry each piece of beef before I braised it and I didn’t crowd the mushrooms!

One friend told me that she and her husband would read recipes to each other and discuss them. So, last week on Valentine’s Day, I had my husband read the recipe aloud to me. It actually was more fun to cook that way and we shared in the preparation. It was true team work and saved a lot of time.

I read a lot of recipes. I am drawn to them whether they appear in magazines, TV, newspapers, websites, or cookbooks. I scan the title, the picture, the ingredients, and preparation. If the ingredients are readily available in my kitchen, the flavors are appetizing, and the cooking methods are familiar to me, I will most likely make the dish. I have a short attention span. If I want to cook something for a everyday meal, I want it to be easy to follow and take less than an hour.

But, I am The Fearless Cook, so I will continue to read recipes and investigate different ingredients, one at a time, in the never-ending quest to be an accomplished cook. Even if it takes a lifetime.

Look at all the cookbooks I need to read!

The Fearless Cook takes on….the (sexy) Artichoke

the sexy artichoke

Many years ago, I was put to shame by a teenager and his knowledge of artichokes. He went on and on about how cool it was to be served an artichoke flower. To peel it leaf-by-leaf, dip it in warm garlic butter and savor the fleshy end piece. He made it sound so sophisticated and sexy.  

The music group, Cibo Matta, has a song “Artichokes” whose thinly veiled lyrics are about sex. According to the website 10 songs about food that are really about sex, this song made the number #6 position.  So what better time of year to tackle the artichoke but Valentine’s Day?

I knew nothing about the artichoke plant before taking on this challenge. It is a pretty piece of produce, but also intimidating. It has all these thorny leaves and most of the plant is inedible. It is a thistle plant native to the Mediterranean region and brought to the United States by the Spaniards. I also read that it is a member of the sunflower family.

Another interesting tidbit is that Castroville, CA produces 80% of all commercially grown artichokes. It was put on the map after Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948. She was the epitome of sex, right?

Steamed Artichokes The New Best Recipe 2004

So here I go. I trimmed off the pin-sharp thorns from the tips of the leaves. It makes for easier handling. Then with a a sharp knife, I tried to cut off the top two rows of  the artichoke. I found this pretty difficult to do, so I used a kitchen shears.

Then I cut the stem flush with the base of the bulb and dropped it into a bowl of lemon juice and water to prevent browning before steaming.

I steamed my artichokes by placing the base on top of a 1 1/2 inch thick onion slice. If you have difficulty balancing the artichoke, then pop out the inner 3-4 rings of the onion.

artichoke steam bath

The pot was filled with water a half inch below the top of the onion rings.

Once the water comes to a boil, then cover and cook for 30 minutes or until the outer leaves release into a flower. I had to check the pot periodically to make sure the water did not boil out.

The artichokes were removed from the pot and cooled for 15 minutes. I served them warm, pulling off one leaf at a time and dipping the bottom end into the garlic butter. To eat, scrape off the end with your teeth. It can also be served cold, but it tastes better warm.

leaf-by-leaf dip into garlic butter - YUM

So one by one you get to the heart, the edible part of the plant. See how much fun it can be if shared by two people? 

The Heart

Remove the fuzzy part to reveal the heart.  

I reserved the artichoke heart for an appetizer. I cut the artichoke into bite size pieces, mixed it with soft roasted garlic and a dash of hot pepper sauce. Served on a crostini.

The Fearless Cook Footnotes

The leaf-by-leaf method is ideal for an intimate meal. One heart to be shared by two 🙂

The cost of one artichoke was $3.00. If I was making an artichoke dip, I would go for the jarred version. You get more hearts for your money. My 9/12 oz jar cost about $3.50. 

My lovely artichoke our time together was fun while it lasted. It was a labor intensive tryst we had for very little food. I’m a practical girl raised in the Corn Belt and we live for food production.

The Fearless Cook takes on…Garlic

Fear, innate in all of us, is a human instinct. It is nature’s coping mechanism to protect us from the emotional bad stuff. The number one thing people are afraid of is a terrorist attack. Cooking in the kitchen did not make the top ten list. My minor in psychology causes me ponder these things.

I grew up in a rural town and some people might say that because of that upbringing I was sheltered from the “real world”. I was exposed to cooking according to how my mom did it in the 60s and 70s. There were five kids in my family and cooking was a way to get food on the table to feed seven people. Cooking with non-traditional ingredients and foods weren’t high on the list.

I will never forget my first exposure to garlic. It was 7:00 am on the hospital day shift and the assistant head nurse was giving me me my assignment for the day. She was of Italian descent and she reeked of garlic on her breath. Whoa! That was overpowering! My mother never cooked with real garlic, ever. She used garlic powder or salt that got sprinkled into a sauce or chili. I had no idea such a thing existed.

This was the beginning of tackling my fear of cooking. I was determined to overcome foods and ingredients I knew nothing about, one at a time. The basics of cooking are the ingredients, one ingredient building on another. One ingredient can make a recipe sing.

So, with respect to garlic, you were my first fear. I looked at you in the produce section all tiny in that wrapping paper of Mother Nature. I wasn’t fond of your strong smell in my hands. But combined with olive oil in a sauté pan and heaven!

As you can see below, garlic comes in many forms,already minced in a jar, already peeled in a bag, dried minced and of course garlic powder. With all the focus of cooking magazines, websites, TV shows and features; garlic is available everywhere now.

When I started cooking with garlic I started with garlic powder. Then I moved to the minced garlic in a jar. Both of these versions didn’t require touching it with my hands. I slowly moved to the real thing and it took an awful lot of practice AND TIME to break open those cloves.

the side of a knife to break open the clove covering

look a clove!

Now, I have broke open many a garlic bulb and the cloves are not always that easy to pull apart and break open. But with practice I have gotten better. Now once it is out of the paper you can put it in a garlic press to mince it (still don’t have to touch it!), mince it or chop it with a knife (full hands on at this point), or put it whole in the food processor (and let the blades chop it for you). I have seen several ways to get the smell of garlic off your hands, which include: pouring mouthwash over your hands, rubbing your hands with kosher salt and lemon, and rubbing your hands on a piece of silver.

Garlic is a member of the onion family. China produces the most garlic in the world with the U.S. 6th in production. Throughout history, many cultures believe in the medicinal properties of garlic. Garlic cloves were swallowed whole or strings of garlic bulbs were worn around necks to ward off viruses and even bacteria. It is available in pill or capsule form in the health food supplement aisle for people trying alternative methods of reducing cholesterol levels. This health benefit has helped the popularity of garlic. Knock on wood, I have not been sick this year. In fact, one day when I felt a cold coming on, I roasted some garlic with vegetables and my sniffles dissipated.

One of the best ways I like to use garlic is to get a big piece of aluminum foil and throw 6-8 whole cloves in with fresh beets from the garden, cover it with olive oil and kosher salt. It gets steam-roasted in a 350 degree oven for about an hour. The garlic is so buttery, soft and wonderful that I eat it whole or spread it on a crostini. No offensive garlicky flavor.

The nice thing about all these different forms of garlic is that it makes it easier for us as consumers to use it more readily. There is a garlic chicken recipe that calls for 40 cloves of garlic. I saw Alton Brown make it once on “Good Eats.”. How would you like to unwrap several heads of garlic, smash and peel until you got 40 cloves? That is labor intensive. That bag of already peeled garlic would save me 30 minutes of prep time. I conquered my fear, but I don’t want to spend my whole day in the kitchen. I do have a full time job afterall.

The Fearless Cook takes on….Chopped Liver

The Fearless cook did a mini survey this week of reader’s fears of cooking and liver appeared.  I am a chicken about liver. I guess I forgot about liver many years ago because I faced my fear about it and moved on.  About 25 years ago I decided I would be “cultured” and try to make pate’. I made it, liked it but didn’t see it appearing in my life again.

In the grocery store, you can find chicken and calves liver easily. My mother used to cook calves liver in the Weight Watcher days of the 1970s when it was recommended to eat once a week for stamina while losing weight. She also tried to feed it to us kids; flouring it, frying it in oil, adding fried onions . She tried to convince us it tasted like chicken. Yeah, sure chicken fried liver, yummy. My problem with liver is I dislike the taste, immensely. 

Liver is an organ; I have one you have one and animals with vertebraes have them also. It is an organ where the protein stores for the body lie. I am all about trying to be healthy and liver is high in iron and Vitamin A, but it is also high in cholesterol. Many cooking sources recommend not to eat it very often. 

I decided to make chopped liver. Chopped liver is a traditional dish served in many European countries and for those of Ashkenazi Jewish decent (www.brighthub.com).

So, I searched several recipes and found Ina Garten 2001 Barefoot Contessa Parties! recipe for Chopped Liver.  This is from www.foodnetwork.com website. I love Ina Garten because her recipes are simple and delicious. It also had about 100 or so reader reviews that were highly favorable. Any liver recipe that can “hide” the taste of liver sounded good to me.

Ingredients: 
2 lbs of chicken livers
2 lbs of chicken liver

free range chicken liver

1 cup of rendered chicken fat (or extra virgin olive oil=EVOO)
2 cups of diced yellow onion ( 2 med onions)

diced onion

1/3 cup Madeira wineMadeira wine
4 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup parsley
2 tsp fresh thyme
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper

Drain the livers, saute in 2 batches each with 2 TBSP fat or EVOO at medium-high heat, turn once for a total of 5 minutes, with the center barely pink. The recipe recommends not to overcook the liver or it will be dry. Transfer to a large bowl.

saute the chicken liver

In same pan, saute the onions in 3 TBSP of fat or EVOO for until golden. Add the Madeira and deglaze the pan, scraping the sides. Transfer to the bowl with the livers.

Add the eggs, remaining fat or EVOO, parsley, thyme, salt, black pepper and cayenne. Toss to combine.

Transfer to the food processor and in batches pulse until coarsely chopped. Okay, it turned into a puree, like pate’.

Season to taste, chill in the refrigerator and serve with crackers, matzo or crostini.

Chopped liver is served

Okay, I made a few mistakes, but corrected them as I went along. I had to go back and add the hard-boiled eggs and the EVOO because I forgot them. The picture above with the eggs shows them being added to already pureed ingredients. What I learned from my mistake, and tasting as I went along is that the eggs and the oil helped dampen the strong liver taste. It tasted much better after adding them.

The second thing I learned is that this makes a whopping amount of chopped liver. I think it made about 3-4 cups. I am lucky that I am taking it to a party this weekend. I’ll let you know how the guests like it. If I made it again I would cut the recipe in half using only one pound of chicken livers.

The dog thought it smelled great

Cooking the liver made the kitchen smell wonderful. Okay the dog did get a taste of the liver freshly cooked from the pan. She is a such a faithful fan.

The Fearless Cook takes on…The Clay Cooker

I am a self-taught cook. Growing up in the early 1970s, home cooking was making casseroles and big slabs of meat for family meals. I was more of a baker in my teenage years where the recipes were pretty straight forward. Launching into the world of good cooking is a leap of faith for me to overcome my fears of the ingredients and the kitchen equipment. I have transformed from the fearful to the Fearless Cook.

This week I am taking on the Clay Cooker. It was given to me by my friend Joy, who should start her own blog on shopping at garage and estate sales.  She is a master. So she dropped this clay cooker on my door step in a box and there it sat in my entryway for a couple of months. On a Saturday afternoon I pulled it out and read about it. Lucky for me there was a little instruction sheet included for care and cooking instructions. The one I have is a ROMERTOPF (Roman pot) which has an excellent online website. You can also type in the key word  “clay cooker” and see what appears on the internet.

The clay cooker has an interesting history in many cultures with various names for the pot. It is called by different names for Chinese (sand pots), Italian (tian), Spanish (cazuela),  Moroccan (tagine). It’s like an ancient version of the crock pot – an all in one pot meal vessel. Whichever one you choose, follow the cooking directions closely because they all vary. Some are for oven use only, some are versatile enough to use on a barbeque.

My Romertopf is an unglazed terracotta vessel and from the picture looks like a roaster. This one fits a whole chicken perfectly. Cooking a whole roasted chicken is a perfect way to break in a clay cooker.  This month in January 2011 Martha Stewart Living takes on the basics of the roasted chicken and Jan/Feb 2011 Cooking Light has Chicken Makeovers for the theme.

A few rules.  This type of cooking vessel has some special care instructions. The clay pot and lid must be soaked in water for a least 15 minutes before using, if it is brand new 30 minutes of soaking for first use.     Once food is prepared it place it in your clay cooker into a cold oven then set the oven temperature. 

clay cooker in cold oven

 If using broth or water in the recipe, allow for additional time to cook about 15-30 minutes. Some instructions say to increase the oven temperature by 50 degrees – but I did not with my cooker.  When using it for the first time and unsure, use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. 

There are some definite no-no’s in cooking with a clay pot cooker. Never: 1) use it under the broiler; 2) let it touch the sides of the oven; 3) use it on a stove-top element. When removing it from the oven always set it on a hot pad to avoid temperature extremes from hot to cold or it will break. So here is my roasted chicken.
browning the chicken

 

It took about 1 hour 20 minutes of cooking with the lid on. I wanted my chicken browned so I removed the clay cooker lid and let it brown for about 15-20 minutes before removing from oven. Then I set it on top of oven pads on the counter and put the lid back on it to rest the chicken before slicing and serving. It can stay in the clay pot and not continue to cook yet stay warm.

Cleaning and storage.   A few more no-no’s involved with cleaning and storage. Never: 1) use scouring powders as they will clog the pores in the cooker; 2) put it in the dishwasher; 3) store with the lid sealed as mold may form inside. Clean it using salt or baking soda and water paste to remove debris. You could also add water to the cooker bottom and allow the water to come to a boil in the oven to loosen food debris.
Air dry your clay cooker and store it lid inverted upside down into cooker bottom as shown below.

Store with the lid inverted upside down in the bottom

yummy chicken

This method of cooking has produced the juiciest chicken I have ever eaten. It steamed it in it’s own juices. It was yummy. Happy roasting. 
 

Cilantro – An ingredient not to fear

Since there are so many excellent blogs on baking and cooking…I decided to focus my food blog on ingredients and kitchen equipment that I have overcome my fear of using in recipes. 

The first blog is about my most favorite herb, cilantro. Cilantro brings out strong emotions – people either love it or hate it. Many years ago I purchased cilantro dried in a jar and it tasted like soap. I couldn’t understand what the flavor of soap could add to a recipe and dismissed it from my life. But, I live in Colorado where there is a strong Mexican influence in restaurants and cooking here and cilantro is a big part of that.

Cilantro is the leaf of the coriander plant and is commonly referred to as Chinese parsley. It is used in Egyptian, Indian, Southeast Asian, Chinese, Mexican and Peruvian foods. 

I overcame my fear of cilantro when I saw Rick Bayless make a pico de gallo shrimp taco on the beach somewhere in Mexico. I was excited that the recipe was so easy to make and he used fresh cilantro.   The flavor of cilantro is pure and it brings out the best in all the flavors of the pico de gallo – the tomato, red onion, salt and lime. YUM. My family was hooked and so was I.

a cilantro bunch

Cilantro can be found in my supermarket year round just like parsley. I have never been adept at growing it, but I know people who are. When I purchase it at the store I rinse it off, shake off the water, wrap it in paper towels and store it in plastic bag container specifically for produce. It keeps in the hydrator of my refrigerator for about a week. 

When I am ready to make pico de gallo, I rip off a handful from the top of the bunch. I don’t use the stems and use only the leaves for chopping. I roll the leaves up together before I start chopping.

And I chop over and over in different directions until you get small uniform pieces.

Here is my pico de gallo – sorry the cilantro is buried and if I was a “super” cook I would have had the cilantro on top of the red onion. This is how I store it in the refrigerator. Then when it is time to serve, I mix the ingredients (squeeze the lime to taste) and serve with tortilla chips.

As you can see, cilantro can be found pureed in a tube. I will probably use this if I am making something like Pad Thai, a dish where the cilantro gets added at the end to add flavor.

I will probably never buy dried cilantro. That flavor of soap still lingers in my memory.