Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Pan Fried Pork Chops

Let’s face it: There’s no right or wrong way to make pork chops. The bottom line, really, is to make sure they’re cooked all the way through (because unlike beef steaks, pork chops aren’t best served while on the verge of being raw in the middle. Some of us learned this the hard way in our earlier days – or was that just me?). As many of us tend to do after undercooking meat, I went to the other extreme and had to learn yet another hard truth: that pork chops don't need to be the texture of car tires, either. It is okay for them to be a little - just a little - pink in the center. Pale, light, "Congratulations on your Baby Girl" balloon pink.

Back to that “right way” thing: Pork chops can be baked, fried, braised, pan seared or method is really superior over another; it’s just a matter of preference. This recipe is technically most similar to fried pork chops, although if you shake off the excess flour enough so that the chops are only coated with a thin, thin dusting, it’s not entirely unlike pan seared pork chops either. These pork chops, like all pork chops, are great served with a dollop of homemade applesauce on top, or with heaps of homemade gravy. I give you:

Pan Fried Pork Chops

1 lb. (about 4) boneless pork chops
1 cup flour
2 tsp. seasoned salt
Oil for frying
2 tbs. butter

Place flour on a pie pan or plate. Immerse pork chops in flour and dredge to coat them. Remove pork chops, shake off excess flour and sprinkle with seasoned salt on both sides. Set pork chops aside. 

Cover a skillet with a shallow layer of oil and add butter, melting over medium high heat. When the butter is melted, place pork chops in skillet. Cook at medium high heat for five minutes on each side. Remove chops from skillet and serve immediately; reserve pan drippings for gravy if desired. 

Pork Chop Gravy
Reserved pan drippings in skillet
3 tbs. flour
1 cup beef stock 
Salt and pepper to taste

While pan drippings are still hot, add flour and stir to make a roux. When mixture is combined, quickly pour in stock. Cook and stir over high heat until thickened and bubbly. Reduce heat to low and simmer for two minutes, stirring to continue thickening. Taste to determine if salt and/or pepper is needed. Serve hot over pork chops.    

Monday, November 28, 2011

How to Get Meat off the Bone

Life’s too short to waste good meat! If you have a leftover turkey or chicken carcass, a pork shoulder or a bone-in cut of beef, getting meat off the bone is easier than it looks. Here’s what to do:

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Place carcass in a roasting pan.
Cover bottom of the pan with water (1-2 cups).
Cover pan with lid or foil.
Roast the carcass for 1-2 hours or until tender.

Then, remove the pan and use a large fork/knife or tongs to easily shred the meat off the bone. Use the meat for soup, casseroles or other recipes. Getting meat off the bone is a great way to make bone-in poultry or red meat stretch beyond one meal.

Ideas for Turkey Leftovers: Beyond the Turkey Sandwich

Thanksgiving is over, and you need some turkey leftover ideas. We could all use a few good alternatives to turkey sandwiches, right? I’m not downplaying the tastiness of the trendy turkey and cranberry roll, but it’s time for something new. Rather than writing out measured recipes for turkey leftovers, I decided to just list a couple in paragraph format (after all, leftovers are informal). My two turkey leftover favorites are:

Turkey stock: Making turkey stock is virtually the same as making homemade chicken stock; just cover the broken turkey carcass with water, add vegetables/aromatics and boil/simmer. Shred the turkey off, then remove the carcass and the veggies. Allow to refrigerate overnight so the fat will be easy to skim off, or patiently skim the fat off while the stock is still hot. Use immediately or store in airtight container or freezer bag and use as needed. 

Turkey hash: If you’ve ever made homemade corned beef hash, you can easily make turkey hash too. Start by shredding the meat off the carcass (here’s the easiest way to get meat off the bone completely). Chop the heck out of the meat, or use your food processor to get a perfect hash meat consistency. Throw some chopped onions and potatoes in a heated skilled over 2 tbs. (more can be added if needed) melted butter. Cook until potatoes are soft and onions are near caramelized. Add the turkey meat, then a little Worschestire, salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer over skillet, brown for 3-4 minutes. Flip and brown the other side. Serve immediately (I eat mine with ketchup; take that, foodie snobs).

Turkey leftovers are an American tradition, but it’s time to give the sandwiches a rest. Try one of these ideas for turkey leftovers while your turkey is still fresh!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits

Homemade biscuits are much easier to accomplish than some of us would like to believe. Making biscuits from scratch is very affordable, too; with just a few low-cost pantry ingredients that you probably already have (and if you don’t, you should!), a batch of homemade buttermilk biscuits can be whipped up in a jif.

Plus, they're versatile; buttermilk biscuits are a great way to enhance breakfast or dinner. Let’s take a moment to reflect on some popular biscuit-based dishes:

  • Ham and biscuits
  • Sausage biscuits
  • Biscuits and gravy
  • Chicken fried steak and biscuits
  • Biscuits and jam
  • Biscuits and honey
  • Dog biscuits (just seeing if you’re paying attention)
I’ve tried several recipes for homemade biscuits, and this one combines two of the most reputable biscuit authorities known to man: 1.) a baking powder biscuits recipe from The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, enhanced by 2.) an oil-coating technique that comes from none other than the legendary Knotts Berry Farm biscuit recipe. Ironically, you may find that this combination produces biscuits that taste like another famous buttermilk biscuit recipe: Kentucky Fried Chicken biscuits. No joke!

One additional technique that rounds out this recipe comes from yours truly. We’ll call it “Flipping a Biscuit.” It exists for the purpose of guaranteeing your biscuits cook to a golden brown on both sides (in other words, it’s the best way to make sure your biscuits don’t burn). Basically, it just entails flipping your biscuits halfway through baking. There aren’t many other homemade biscuit recipes that recommend this, but don’t be fooled: Failing to flip your biscuits can result in burned biscuits, especially if this is your first time. We could all use some good advice for our first time, right?

Here’s my recipe for homemade biscuits:

Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup shortening (or 5 1/3 tbs. margarine)
1 ½ cups buttermilk 

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a medium mixing bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Using an electric hand mixer, cut in shortening or margarine until mixture resembles course crumbs. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture. Add the buttermilk. Using a fork, stir until moistened.

Gather dough into a ball and knead gently, folding and pressing until smooth (try not to overwork). On a wax paper sheet dusted with flour, roll dough to ½ inch thickness. Cut with a 2” or 2 ½” biscuit cutter. Coat a baking sheet with a shallow layer of vegetable oil (about ½ cup, a little more if you need it to completely coat the surface).

Place biscuits on oiled baking sheet (about an inch apart - do not allow them to touch). Bake for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and use a spatula to quickly flip each biscuit. Return to oven and bake for another 5 minutes. Remove sheet from oven and quickly remove biscuits from sheet to prevent burning. Transfer to plate. Makes 12 biscuits. 

Making biscuits from scratch can be done quickly once you get the hang of it, and it’s a great baking activity for kids to help with too. Also, this recipe can be halved if you’d like. A dozen biscuits is quite a lot for some families; but on the other hand, biscuits at dinner can always mean leftovers for breakfast, and vice versa. Then again, your family may make pigs of themselves eating homemade buttermilk biscuits (like mine). If so, you can always make more tomorrow!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Making Brownies from Scratch

If this is your first time making homemade brownies, prepare to be shocked by how easy it is – and how much better they will be than the box you grew up on. Since I know brownies are one of those desserts that have fans in different camps, I’ll forewarn you: If you want your homemade brownies to be so fudgy that they’re practically unformed (as many boxed brownies are), this isn’t that recipe (but it could be). How so? Keep reading, friends!

This recipe for making brownies from scratch is so easily adaptable that you can adjust it to attain the homemade brownie consistency you’re going for, simply by altering the amount of flour you use. If you just have to have your brownies super-fudgy, you can cut down on the flour in the recipe; but if you're like me, you need something to grab when you're tempted to dip Oreos in your coffee every morning and I assure you, a thick, sturdy brownie that doesn't fall apart when moistened will do the trick. Even if you're in the fudge brownie camp, though: Try making this homemade brownie recipe word-for-word first, and then evaluate whether or not it needs to be adjusted. I will tell you, I’ve tried many homemade brownie recipes on the Web and few are as easily adaptable as this one.

Homemade Brownie Recipe

1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 eggs
3/4 cup dark cocoa powder 
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F and grease a 13x9x2-inch baking pan (although there are other sizes that will work well and give you much thicker brownies like in the photo above; if this sounds intriguing, see the tips below). Place butter in microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for one minute or until melted. Pour melted butter in a large mixing bowl and add sugar and vanilla. Cream butter, sugar and vanilla together with electric mixer. Add eggs and beat in with mixer until combined. Add cocoa, flour, baking powder and salt and beat with mixer for two minutes or until thoroughly blended. Stir in chocolate chips with a spoon. Pour batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove from oven and insert fork in center for doneness (fork should come out clean). Allow brownies to cool in pan for 30 minutes before cutting into bars.

Tips for Making Brownies from Scratch

Maybe it's just me, but I’ve found that day-old brownies almost always taste better. Even if you love the warm-out-of-the-oven brownie variety, try making these a day ahead. You can always re-heat in the microwave for 20 seconds if you want to. You may be pleasantly surprised!

If you own a Perfect Brownie pan, you can easily recognize that the pan in the kit is not 13x9x2 inches. It is actually about 11x7 inches, which is a great size for those who want thicker, sturdier brownies. I plan to post some Perfect Brownie tips soon, because this is a great tool for making homemade brownies if you know how to manipulate it (in other words, don’t bother following the instructions for use). Another pan that works well with this homemade brownie recipe is an 8x8 inch square baking pan, especially if it’s a silicone one because it makes removing your homemade brownies a veritable breeze. 

Making brownies from scratch is an arrow you want in your quiver for those moments when you want to be on your A-game as a cook: the sleepover, the soccer party, the church social or the silly gathering also known as your husband’s fantasy football draft. Everyone loves brownies, but because they’re accustomed to convenience products, they may not know how much they love homemade brownies until they try yours – and how gratifying is that?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Roast Beef in the Oven

On its face, there’s nothing wrong with a crock pot roast. If cooked long enough, it’s tender; if seasoned properly, it’s tasty; and if surrounded by the right vegetables, it can be a thoroughly nutritious meal (and even tastier – roast vegetables are to die for). Of course, crock pot roast is also an insanely user-friendly dish. Let’s be honest: Anyone can make roast beef in a countertop electric appliance.

But how many of today’s home cooks still take the time to roast a slab of beef in the oven – you know, like women on TV say they are when they want to get out of an awkward social situation (think Bree on Desperate Housewives saying, “I’d love to stay and chat, but I have a roast in the oven.” She would never say, “I have a roast in the crock pot” – see what I mean?) Roast beef is just as easy to do in the oven, and as an accomplishment it delivers far more personal satisfaction. Just like pot roast, it can be slow cooked alongside vegetables and aromatics, so that the tenderness and taste factors are all there. Here’s a recipe for cooking roast beef in the oven with delicious vegetable accoutrements – in other words, an oven pot roast.

Oven Pot Roast with Vegetables

4-5 lb. beef chuck roast
2 tbs. olive oil
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
5 potatoes, washed and cut into halves
4 carrots, peeled and cut into halves
1 white or brown onion, peeled and cut into quarters
2 zucchinis, sliced into rounds
½ lb. (about 25) green beans, ends trimmed
2 cups water, red wine or beef stock

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle the roast with olive oil and rub gently. Season it with salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan, or if desired, on a roasting rack inside the pan (this will create a convection oven atmosphere). This is going to sound crazy, but for those who don’t have a roasting rack: I had a stroke of genius one day and decided to use my Perfect Brownie cutter as a roasting rack. It fit perfectly into my roasting pan, stood up to the heat of the oven and functioned as a darn good rack. How about that?). A roasting rack is not necessary for oven pot roast, but it can help keep the roast from cooking in its own fat. Then again, the vegetables will still soak up some of the fat so it’s your call. Next, surround the roast with the vegetables. Here is what the arrangement looks like on the rack (ere to, the Perfect Brownie cutter):

I'm not really sure if that was the proper context for the Shakespearean phrase "ere to."

Now, pour in your chosen liquid (water, wine or stock. I’ll be honest, I do love cooking with wine but I prefer not to use it in roast beef unless diluting it with water or stock. If you want to be a foodie-in-training and use wine, I’d advise a 50/50 split of red wine and beef stock. That’s just me, though).

Cover the roasting pan and place in the oven. Cook uncovered for 15 minutes. Lower heat to 325 degrees, cover pan and cook the covered roast for three hours. When the roast is tender and its internal temperature is 140 degrees, it is ready to eat.

Oven Pot Roast Tips

When making roast beef in the oven, monitor liquid levels so that the roast achieves the same tenderness that it would in a crock pot. This is especially important if you are using a roasting rack, as the roast could dry out more easily. Check your roast halfway through cooking, and if the liquid has dried up, add a little more (up to one cup, depending on how much liquid has evaporated).

Adjust the vegetables as desired: In my book, the potatoes, onions and carrots are the only “musts.” My mother also used celery, but my husband thinks cooked celery is an ungodly invention and yours probably does too. Garlic cloves are a popular and trendy addition, and if you can only stand one green vegetable with your roast beef, omit either the zucchini or the green beans. You got me: I only used the green beans here. Pictures don't lie. But I have used the zucchini as well, and it is equally delicious.

Roast Beef Gravy

Now comes the really fun part! There’s just something about homemade gravy that says, “I’m a real cook now.” Here's an easy recipe for homemade beef gravy:

Beef Gravy with Pan Drippings

Roast beef pan drippings
2 tablespoons flour
1-1 ½ cups liquid (water, milk or beef stock, depending on the style of gravy you want)
Salt and pepper to taste

First, transfer the roast and vegetables to a serving platter (the roast needs to rest anyway). Then, pour off all but two tablespoons of the pan drippings into a small bowl. Pour the remaining two tablespoons of drippings into a small saucepan or skillet. Stir in flour with a wire whisk or fork until the flour has thickened and the gravy is smooth. Continue to cook slowly to brown the flour, and stir constantly. This is the same thing as a roux – fat and flour. Slowly add back some of the remaining drippings until the roux reaches optimal smoothness. Slowly add liquid to the roux (less liquid for a thick gravy, more liquid for a thinner one). Add salt and pepper to taste.

Roast Beef: The Final Chapter

When I was about seven, I was working on a coloring page while visiting the home of my English next door neighbor. Like any kid who was ready to move on to the next lightly structured activity, I declared, "I'm done" when all the lines were sufficiently shaded in. She scolded, "You're not done, you're finished. A roast beef in the oven is done." I tilted my head and formed what I assume was a confused facial expression. Well, at least I get it now. Enjoy making - and more importantly, eating - your oven pot roast. 

How to Make Chicken Stock

There are lots of ways for making chicken stock, and then there’s the right way – the way that lets you use whatever you have. Rather than telling you that you absolutely need celery, onions, carrots, parsnips (what are those, anyway?) leeks and a bay leaf to make your own chicken stock, I’m going to tell you that really, all you need is a chicken. To be specific, one chicken carcass (as in, the remainder of the roast chicken you made for dinner last night).

Now, if you happen to have some uneaten vegetables and aromatics left in the roasting pan, those can be used as well. But for the love of all that’s holy, do not run out and buy those ingredients. Take advantage of a leftover roast chicken meal to make your own chicken stock, and whatever you don’t use for your chicken noodle soup can be frozen for up to several months. If you try to make your own stock any other time – well, dare I say you have too much time on your hands. Here’s my easy how to make chicken stock recipe:

Homemade Chicken Stock

1 cooked chicken (freshly roasted whole chicken or leftover chicken carcass)
2 quarts water
Vegetables and/or aromatics if available and desired: onions, celery, carrots and garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

Place entire chicken carcass into large pot and pour in water, then add vegetables if desired. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer with lid tilted. Simmer for two hours or until chicken easily falls off bones. Remove from heat. Remove carcass from pot with tongs. Shred chicken off of carcass with fork. If using stock for chicken noodle soup, return the shredded chicken to the pot. If using stock for other recipes, set chicken aside and store in airtight container.

Strain out solids (vegetables and chicken fat) with a slotted spoon or through a colander. If using stock immediately for soup, vegetables can be left in if desired but the fat should still be skimmed off (another option is to refrigerate the stock overnight and skim the fat off the top once it has hardened and risen to the top. If choosing this option, reheat the stock for use).

Once the fat is strained out, the stock is ready for use. Making your own chicken stock is the ideal solution for those who need things to do with leftover chicken, and it's worth its weight in gold when you consider its endless uses: chicken soup, gravy liquid, sauce enhancers, automotive lubricants, dog shampoo. Have fun making your own chicken stock, and be sure to tell people you do it so they feel pitifully inferior to you in the kitchen. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup

If your household has fallen victim to the cold and flu season, the healthiest among you (hopefully, that’s you) is now charged with concocting the homespun cure of the ages, homemade chicken noodle soup. This chicken noodle soup recipe deviates from the norm a little, but in a good way. How so? It calls for an additional ingredient that packs an extra punch of vitamins (C and E, to be exact), for a chicken noodle soup remedy that is truly nutritious – yes, even more nourishing than your mom’s (sorry!). What is it, you ask?

Dunt-da-da-daaa! It’s the yellow bell pepper.

Now I know what you’re thinking…if you hate bell peppers, that is. But even if you do, you have to believe that not only does the yellow bell pepper taste wonderfully different than it’s green counterpart (in fact, it’s even milder than the sweet red pepper), but also that in this recipe, the yellow bell pepper is so thoroughly pureed that it liquefies into the soup while cooking. Basically, all you’ll notice is the bright, sunny sheen it gives your homemade chicken noodle soup. That’s right, it even makes it look more nutritious!

Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup Recipe

2 tbs. olive oil
4 cups chicken stock, homemade or store bought
2-3 cups cooked chicken
1 small brown or white onion, chopped roughly
1 yellow bell pepper
1 stalk celery, diced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups uncooked egg noodles
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
In a large pot, heat olive oil and add onions, celery and carrots. Cook over medium high heat until onions are translucent and all ingredients are soft, about two minutes.

While these are cooking, place chopped yellow bell pepper into food processor or blender. Pulse until nearly liquefied. It should look something like this:

Then, return to your pot. Add chicken, stock, garlic and liquefied yellow pepper. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower heat and simmer with lid tilted for 1 ½ hours. Add uncooked noodles and raise heat. Cook until noodles are soft. Garnish with chopped parsley and add salt to taste. Remove from heat, serve...and get well sooner than you can imagine!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Homemade Applesauce

Making applesauce from scratch is easy, and the payoff is oh-so-satisfying when hungry kids or spouses gobble it up and remark how much better it is than something out of a can (or more likely, a tiny plastic cup with a peel-off foil lid). This homemade applesauce recipe can be eaten warm, cold, solo or as a side dish (i.e., next to its favorite dinner companion, the pork chop).

Homemade Applesauce Recipe

5 medium apples, peeled, cored and chopped into wedge-like chunks
½ cup water
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon

Combine apples, water, sugar, and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Cover and cook over medium high heat until boiling. Reduce heat and simmer 10-15 minutes or until apples are soft.

For a chunky, "country" homemade applesauce consistency: Mash with potato masher or large fork. Observe: 

Or, for the smoother, “lunch box” applesauce consistency pictured at the top: Transfer to food processor (a blender will work if necessary - but trust me, you gotta get yourself a food processor!) and pulse until desired texture. 

Whether you opt for the chunky country texture or the slightly more cosmo lunchbox puree (whoever referred to applesauce as cosmopolitan? It makes sense if you think about it, though), homemade applesauce beats store bought any day. 

Making Chili from Scratch

On a cold fall day, why would you want to do anything else? There are endless homemade chili recipes floating around out there, so I would never proclaim this to be the "best chili recipe" - nor would I tell you that it's award winning, because 1.) I've never entered it in a contest and 2.) those contests don't let you use beans, which I find weird and annoyingly elitist. But darn it, it's the best chili recipe for me.

This homemade chili combines elements of some of the most popular types of chili recipes, including Tex Mex, California and Cincinatti. Strange? Not really, especially if you can't decide which one of those you like the most. And, it's such a basic chili recipe that it's perfect for beginners.

Making Chili from Scratch

1 lb. ground beef or turkey
1 brown onion, chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup beer (or optionally, beef broth)
1-2 serrano chilis (or other fresh chili if preferred), seeded and minced
2 tbs. chili powder
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. brown sugar
1 tbs. cocoa powder 
1/2 tsp. cumin
15 oz. canned or cooked kidney beans
32 oz. tomato sauce
Seasoned salt to taste

Place ground beef in large pot. Brown ground beef over medium high heat. Remove from heat, drain off fat in colander. Return browned beef to pot, add onions, tomatoes and beer or broth. Cook over medium heat for two minutes. Add serrano (or other fresh) chili, cinnamon, brown sugar, cocoa powder and cumin and stir to combine. Add kidney beans and tomato sauce. Cover and heat until boiling. Once boiling, reduce heat, tilt lid and simmer for two hours or until desired consistency. Add seasoned salt to taste. 

Making Chili from Scratch: Tips 

Too spicy? Add more sugar.
Too sweet? Add more chili powder. 
Want more depth? Add more cocoa powder and/or cumin. 
Leftover ideas: Chili spaghetti, Frito pie, or these incredible from scratch chili cheese fries

Making chili from scratch is an art, not a science. Normally, homemade chili is a forgiving dish that allows you to experiment with the ingredients. Remember, though: You can always add, but you can never take away. Ah, chili: a metaphor for life.