Friday, January 30, 2009

"Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"

Aside from being one of my kids' favorite books, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, by Judi and Ron Barrett (1978) has also inspired the love of all things meatball in my family.

Let's just take a minute to discuss the spaghetti and/or meatball experience from my youth. Our spaghetti never included meatballs. Generally we had a sort of ragu type sauce with browned ground beef and some seasonings stirred together with Prego brand spaghetti sauce (Ragu brand was too watery, if I remember correctly). As a child, I wasn't a big lover of spaghetti sauce, preferring my noodles plain. In time, however, I managed to ladle a bit of the sauce onto my noodles. It was not my favorite meal in the world.

Strange, I know. Especially after seeing how ravenously my own children devour this staple meal. Who knows why...maybe I was just picky or maybe my mom ate too much of it while I was merely a bun in the oven (she has confessed this was her main craving with me!).

Meatballs, on the other hand, were a family favorite. They never came in the Italian variety, though. We made barbecue meatballs--meatballs covered in BBQ sauce and baked, served over egg noodles most of the time. I used to make up a bunch of these and stick them in the freezer when we were newlyweds.

But after a time, our tastes changed and the BBQ meatballs were abandoned for newer recipes. A few years passed with no meatball-making at all.

Then the kids discovered spaghetti, downing bowl after bowl until it was their tried-and-true favorite meal. It even became their ritual meal for Grandparent's night (yes, I do know how lucky I am to have my parents close by and willing to take the kids one night every week). Unsure of how to make these Italian style meatballs, I resorted to the frozen ones in the Trader Joe's freezer section. We liked the "Italian" style, but usually opted for the "Turkey" balls instead.

Finally, we began to search for meatball recipes, changing and adapting along the way. We now have our favorite recipe worked out. I foresee another 800,000 meatballs in my future on this earth. And as long as they don't start falling from the sky, I'm okay with that.

Italian Meatballs

1 1/2 pounds of ground meat (beef is fine, but a combo of chuck beef, pork, or veal is the best)
1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 c bread crumbs (I don't make these myself...yet)
1/4 c chopped flat-leaf parsley (or curly parsley)
1/2 medium onion, grated (about 1/4 c)
2 tsp kosher salt
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large egg, beaten
freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c olive oil, divided

In a large bowl, combine the meat, Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, onion, salt, garlic, and egg. Be gentle and don't overmix. Try not to mash the meat too much. Season with pepper.

Gently form the meat into golf-ball sized meatballs. Don't pack too tightly or they will be tough. Refrigerate for at least an hour (or don't---they still turn out fine and I never do this step!).

Heat half of the oil in a large non-stick (or cast iron!) skillet over MH heat. Add half of the meatballs (about 9). Cook, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides (about 6 minutes). Transfer meatballs to a plate. Drain the oil, wipe out skillet, return to the heat and repeat with remaining oil and meatballs.

Drain oil again and wipe out. Return the meatballs to the skillet and add your favorite marinara sauce. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, covered, swirling occasionally, until the meatballs are cooked through--about 15 minutes.

Serve over spaghetti noodles or in a sandwich. If serving with spaghetti noodles, toss the noodles with 1/3 of the sauce, then top with remaining sauce and meatballs (and more cheese!). They can be frozen for up to 2 months.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Quaker's "True Delights"

One of the "true delights" of this lucrative food writing career is product review. This time I received a sneak-peek installment of Quaker's new "True Delights" granola bars. So let's start with the product description.

"An amalgam of real fruit, whole nuts, dark chocolate, and honey-drizzled oats..."

Okay, let's stop right there. The word "amalgam" just isn't working for me. But then again, I am prejudiced against dental terms at this particular time in my life. "Real fruit"--good. "Whole nuts"--double good. "Dark chocolate"--well, dark chocolate will get me to eat just about anything (but I'm drawing the line at chocolate covered insects).

"Honey-drizzled oats"--okay, let's just check the listed ingredients...wait a minute. The number one ingredient is rolled oats. Is honey next? No, oh, look there, corn syrup...other things....brown sugar....oh, there's the honey way down the list. But, I guess "corn-syrup drizzled oats" doesn't sell.

The final description alludes to the bars as "guiltless indulgence." All the bars contain 140 calories, with fat contents ranging from 3.5 to 5 grams per bar. Three grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein, 8-10 grams of sugars, a wee bit of iron and nothing in the vitamins category. All contain some artificial flavors and also whey, ruling them out for those with dairy allergies. So, a bit of nutrition there, but the amount of sweeteners used is hardly "guiltless"! And I'd like to know what "oligofructose" and "invert sugar" are.

Moving on, the packaging is a matte chocolately burnt umber probably trying to appeal to the "green" crowd who don't like shiny wrappers. Illustrations of the various fruit/nut/chocolate combos decorate the packaging adding a splash of color.

I received three different varieties...Honey Roasted Cashew Mixed Berry, Dark Chocolate Raspberry Almond, and Toasted Coconut Banana Macadamia Nut. This was the order in which we sampled the granola bars.

Honey Roasted Cashew Mixed Berry: Whew! It just smelled so sweet. The mixed berries included dried sweetened cranberries and "infused" dried cherries. This one was by far the sweetest...not our favorite.

Dark Chocolate Raspberry Almond: I was looking forward to this one because I love raspberries and dark chocolate. This bar was less sweet than the first even with all those chunks of chocolate (which, by the way, were listed as semi-sweet on the ingredient list). Definitely better than the mixed berry.

Toasted Coconut Banana Macadamia Nut: Without the chocolate or the dried fruits, I wasn't expecting to like this one as much. However, it turned out to be our favorite! It was the least sweet of all the bars and that totally worked in it's favor. I'd eat this one again!

Thanks to FoodBuzz and Quaker for giving me the opportunity to review this product. With most people wanting to eat better by incorporating more whole grains and less refined sugars, I'm sure there is a big push in the snack industry to produce healthier-sounding products. In addition, these bars seemed to be attempting to appeal to an adult palate with the nuts and dark chocolate (instead of s'mores or m & m's). It was a good start, but still too sweet. They'd do well to check out the flavor combinations produced by Sahale snack makers (think cranberry, orange zest, pecans, and black pepper).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Shepherd's Pie Makes Me Cry

In classic Julie Jams fashion yesterday, I totally overdid it.

Seeing as it was a holiday yesterday, the whole family piled into the uber-awesome minivan and drove up to the Cascade foothills to do a little hiking. I mean, it's January in Washington State...a perfect time for a family hike. The temperature was hovering near 40 degrees with fog blanketing the valleys. Beyond the fog, however, was a beautiful (if not cold) sun! Let's throw on the shorts, wool socks, polar fleece and go outdoors!

Tiger Mountain trails turned out to be a great kid hiking playground! With such fun trail names like "Swamp Monster Trail", "Big Tree Trail", "Wetlands Trail", and "Bus Trail" (leading past the rusty carcass of an old bus in the woods riddled with bullet holes), the kids were kept entertained...only peering over their shoulder now and again to check if the swamp monster was following us. The trails were fairly easy, most were paths through the woods--the bus trail was even wheelchair accessible! But, 3 miles of forest trail trekking with an infant in the backpack, an almost-4 year old begging for snacks, and a kindergartener who just knew "we should have turned right back there", wore us out!

Naturally, I'd planned something new and complicated for dinner. Something sure to cause grumbling and marital strife, with a side of yelling at the kids to "get out of the kitchen and will you stop making that noise!!".

Shepherd's Pie didn't seem all that complicated from my mental recipe run-through. Ground meat, chopped veg, mashed potato topping...then bake. But I'd chosen a fancy Shepherd's Pie (oxymoron anyone???).

Ground lamb instead of beef. All veg chopped in 1/3 inch dice. Thyme leaves here, sprig there. Saute this, then wipe out that. Potatoes boiled in salted garlic water. Combined with a preheated milk/cream/butter/oil/thyme/bay leaf concoction which was supposed to be poured through a fine strainer into the riced-potatoes. Yeah, I like to follow a recipe the first time through, but there were some amendments going on.

And I kept losing my place in the recipe because it was printed microscopically small and my eyesight is impaired by lack of sleep for the past year and throbbing jaw pain last week's dental fiasco. Not to mention that for some reason I just wasn't digging the smell of the ground lamb. Maybe it was the combination of thyme and lamb. I don't know. I like lamb and when I tasted it I liked this lamb. Just not the smell.

I wish I could say that was all, but no. There's more.

Recently, I was signed up for a baking blog (Bake Your Own Bread--BYOB). The idea is to bake as many of your own bread products as possible. I know, sounds like I enjoy insanity. But it suggested this cool cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking

Basically you make a starter dough that can be refrigerated for a couple of weeks--but unlike traditional sourdough starter, you don't have to feed it. Whenever you want fresh bread, you break off a hunk, rest it for a little bit and bake it on a stone. Sounds simple enough.

Except, by the time I had the Shepherd's Pie in the oven my nerves were frazzled and I was sick of reading recipes. The dough is a super wet dough by it can be refrigerated for 2 weeks without going bad. But I forgot to flour the top before grabbing a hunk and so it was totally sticking to my fingers. And how the heck am I supposed to shape this wet mass into a baguette shape 2 inches in diameter???

It's just possible that there may have been some expletives rolling around in my head at that point, threatening to rocket themselves off of my tongue. I choked most of them down. However, I still had absolutely no faith that the flat-ish lump of dough on my board would rise into a fluffy moist baguette. I was so sure that it would fail that I think I would have bet something vital on it. Good thing no one asked for my firstborn at that moment.

I'm going to say something next that I don't often say. I was wrong. There you go, I said it. That flat piece of wet dough puffed right up in the oven and even produced a great crackling crust! It was sublime slathered with butter, hot out of the oven.

Everyone ate the Shepherd's Pie (some small people used ketchup) leaving quite a few leftovers for the man of the house. But everyone ate all of the bread. Not a crumb left. So for all the crazy circus, I guess it turned out okay. And my husband said he will, and I quote, "never never never never never make you cook Shepherd's Pie again."

Honestly, I'll probably give it a go again someday with few major tweaks. I'm dying to make it look like Chef Ramsey's pies, with the mashed potatoes piped on like meringue spuds. I'm a sucker for presentation.

Baby trail mix is a chilly prospect!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lemons:Lemonade as Chickens:Stock

Last night's dinner menu was yet again inspired by that giant bag of Yukon Gold potatoes in my pantry (don't worry, it's getting smaller...only a few more potato posts to go!). This time we reached for the spuds for two reasons. First, the ubiquitous and ever-present "end of the pay period" syndrome.

But yesterday I had the added bonus of 3 fillings being replaced which also included a shiny new crown. My poor mouth was abused for 2 1/2 hours. There was all sorts of strange smokes and vapors, glowing lights, inner-mouth cameras, every variety of drill and presser-thingy's. When they released me from the torture chair, my dentist literally had to massage my jaw to get it to close correctly again.

Those couple of hours were super great for deep breathing practice (actually, shallow breathing...the rubber dam on my face for 2 hours did give me a little suffocation panic). However, after my third experience at childbirth, I was sort of hoping to be done with the need for finding a "happy place".

Needless to say, when I arrived home eating was not so appealing. My husband graciously offered to be in charge of dinner...he even suggested picking up a pizza, until he saw my tortured look, horrified at the thought of that chewy crust. How about something mashed potatoes! Okay, but mashed potatoes and what else. He saved the day by rushing to the store and carefully choosing a rotisserie chicken from the heated deli box.

Thankfully I was able to eat my dinner, albeit in a slow and fumbling manner. I removed the rest of the meat from the chicken carcass and threw the bony skeleton into my shiny new red Dutch oven. Have I mentioned how much I love my new pot? It's so great to have a pot that is wide and deep enough to fit a chicken carcass into! In fact, I had two additional carcasses (carci??) in the freezer and my pot is so big that I could pop those babies in as well.

I rooted around in my freezer for any other chicken parts waiting to be transformed into stock and found a little baggie of chicken necks---FYI never throw those out when you get a whole roaster because they have lots of collagen in them and contribute loads to your stock!

Now for a quartered onion, a peeled carrot, a head of garlic with the top chopped off, a bouquet of parsley and bay leaves, some pepper corns, etc etc etc....I was out of celery and didn't want to head out to my backyard for some fresh thyme, but they would've been good additions as well.

Covering all that goodness with a bunch of water, I put the pot on to simmer. If you've ever made stock, you've probably run into the problem of starting it after dinner. Truly great stock takes hours to simmer all that collagen and other good stuff out of the bones. Boiling your stock quickly doesn't really do the trick. But thanks to the heavy, even-heating power of a Dutch oven, I just left it on simmer all night long. And I'm not talking a bubbling simmer...more like one or two bubbles every now and then type of simmer.

Eleven hours later, I removed the lid to find liquid gold surrounding all the aromatics in the pot. Using tongs, I took out all of the large items...bones, vegetable, herbs, etc. Then, ladle-full after ladle-full, poured it through a clean towel (I was out of cheesecloth) to leave me with a super clean pot of stock.

The other problem with stock is that usually you decide to cool it off before bedtime and then forget about it all night. I don't know how many batches of stock I've had to throw out because it sat on the counter all night long! A good way to cool it down is to pour it into one or two large roasting pan type dishes. The large amount of surface area helps to cool it. Also, throw some ice cubes into a freezer type of zip top bag and float it in the stock.

Finally, I ladled the cool stock into smaller containers to freeze for my next culinary inspiration. Risotto, soup, and grains are so much tastier with homemade stock. Plus it makes you feel like a Native American using the "whole animal". And, I, for one, love feeling like a Native American--tapping into my Cherokee roots...satisfying 1/32 of myself (the hook on my nose trembled in joy).

Check out this New World Gold.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Orange and Olive Salad

A few posts back, I mentioned the superbly wonderful new cookbook I received from my friend for Christmas-- The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters.
This being citrus season, I decided to try "Orange and Olive Salad."

What was this going to taste like, I wondered. Well you can't go wrong with oranges in winter, so it had that going for it.

As it turns out, this is an excellent salad! We absolutely loved it. Even my 6 year old daughter ate it all up, onions and olives included. If you're going for seasonal, or just plain delicious, you have to try this!


3-4 oranges (Navel or Blood oranges work well--or a combination would be even better!)
1 small red onion
small black briny olives, nicoise if you have them (4-5 per person)


2 TB orange juice
1 tsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
2 TB olive oil

Remove the peel and pith of the orange with a knife. Slice out the orange sections, removing the membrane between the slices. Arrange into pinwheels on a large platter.

Peel the onion. Slice it in half lengthwise through the root. With each half lying flat on the cutting board, thinly slice across the onion. Scatter or arrange these slices over the oranges. (If the onions are too strong in flavor, soak them in ice water for 5-10 minutes first)

Mix the orange juice with the vinegar and the salt/pepper. Whisk in the oil. Adjust the vinegar or salt if necessary. Pour the dressing over the oranges and onions. Scatter the olives on top.

On a side note...I learned a thing or two about olives while reading "Salt and Pepper" (Michele Anna Jordan, 1999). Traditionally, the bitterness in olives is leached out using a slow immersion in salt. It can take weeks or months, hence the more expensive price. What we know as canned olives (you know, the ones you can top your fingers with) are a product usually from California that are cured using lye. It only takes about 24 hours to cure an olive in lye, but it removes everything flavorful from the olive. Salt is then used to add some flavor back into the olive. As you can probably see, I used the latter olives in this photograph. But, I'm excited to test out some other olives (kalamatas are one of my favorites).

99 pounds of spuds on the wall...

Over the holidays, I planned a couple of potatorific meals--a large quantity of mashed potatoes to accompany my husband's fried chicken birthday dinner and a shepherd's pie on a different night. However, I never got around to the shepherd's pie as I decided to cut back on time consuming recipes.

Unfortunately, I had done something that I never do.....I bought the 15 lb. bag of Yukon Gold potatoes at Costco. Wow, 15 lbs. is a lot of potatoes, especially when you don't make a shepherd's pie.

In an effort to use what I've already got, we looked up some potato recipes. I've got so many great cookbooks now that it's pretty easy to find at least one good recipe revolving around a single ingredient. I was all set to make latkes until my husband changed our course.

Yukon Gold Potato Soup.

Honestly, I wasn't all that excited to begin with. I don't consider myself a huge potato soup fan. But I decided to give it a shot.

From first glance, I noticed there was quite of bit of vegetable dicing. This may not make your heart flutter, but then again, you probably didn't get a proverbial samurai sword for Christmas. I, on the other hand, was just so lucky this year. And I've been relishing all opportunities to hone my knife skills. Vegetable dice are prime practice!


4 TB olive oil, divided
1 shallot or small onion, peeled and finely diced
2 large Yukon Gold potatoes, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
4 - 4 1/2 c vegetable stock (I used Rapunzel brand veg bouillon cubes), heated to a boil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 c cream, optional
Salt and pepper

For the garnish:

1/2 c vegetable stock
3 potatoes (can be a combo of Yukon and purple for color if desired), 1/2 inch dice
2 TB butter
snipped chives

Heat 2 TB of oil in a Dutch oven (another wonderful Christmas gift this year!) or heavy casserole dish. Add the onions and sprinkle with some salt. Sweat the onions until they are opaque. Remove the onions to another dish.

Heat remaining 2 TB of oil in the pot. Add dice of the 2 Yukon Gold potatoes. Turn up the heat and sear the potatoes until they are caramelized and golden. Add the onions back into the pot along with the garlic. Pour in the boiling stock, reserving 1/2 c vegetable stock for the garnish. Cook until the potatoes are soft. Add the cream if desired. Blend the mixture with an immersion blender or pass through a fine strainer.

Boil the remaining 1/2 c of vegetable stock. Add the remaining dice of 3 potatoes and boil on high, add the butter, and reduce the stock down into an emulsion that coats the potatoes.

Ladle the pureed soup into a bowl, add in some potato garnish, and top with chives. We also added toasted chunks of a crusty bread.

This is winter comfort food at its silky, seasoned greatest! 98 pounds of spuds on the wall, 98 pounds of spuds....
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