Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Rescuing Food Disasters

Meatball Sandwiches
Unfortunately you can’t just call the Fire Department when you have a food disaster.  Instead you need to call on your ingenuity.  Hunger is a great motivator.  Just ask my brother.

He was about to take the first bite of his meatball sandwich—meatballs, marinara sauce, melted mozzarella cheese on a large bun—when the unthinkable happened.  Standing over the sink to keep crumbs from falling on the floor, he dropped the sandwich into some soapy water.

His reflexes were fast – but not fast enough to keep the bun from getting soaked.  He fished the sandwich out of the water, set it on the counter, grabbed a large spoon and a plate and scrapped out the sandwich filling.  He re-dubbed his lunch Pasta-Less Lasagna.  On the Disaster Scale, I would count that as 2 out of 10.  He was still able to eat most of his lunch.  

That’s a lot better than my disaster yesterday with black beans.  I filled up a pot with water, added 1 cup dried black beans, put the gas flame on low and set the timer for 2 hours.  I left the kitchen, didn’t hear the timer ring and returned 3 hours later to a pot of charred black beans.  That was a 10 out of 10 disaster, maybe even an 11 out of 10 because I had to throw the beans and the pot away.  I must remember to take the timer with me next time I leave something cooking.

Sometimes cooking disasters can have a positive result in the future.  I discovered the value of lining a layer cake pan with wax paper or parchment paper when I couldn’t extract a layer from the pan without breaking it. Now I know better. 

I learned from experience that baby octopus takes less than 5 minutes to cook, unless you like eating rubber bands.

Grilled Baby Octopus
The good thing about disasters is that you discover something new.  The bad thing is that the possibilities for disasters are never-ending.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 85

If you have leftover French bread that you have already sliced, freeze it until you need garlic bread.  Then spread the pieces on a baking tray covered with a silicon mat or foil.  Cover each with a little olive oil, oregano, salad seasoning and fresh garlic.  Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, or until the slices are slightly crispy. and serve.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Mom’s Basic Bootcamp: Pizza Dough

I have been making pizza for so many years that I could probably create the dough in my sleep.  In fact, I’ve written about pizza before because I love it so much.

Making pizza dough is a simple procedure, although there are many ways for something to go wrong.  I’ve stumbled through all of them.

The worst was forgetting to add salt.  You wouldn’t think a little bit of salt would make a difference, but you could really taste its absence.  My second worst mistake was adding too much salt, which made the crust nearly inedible.

What else can go wrong?  You can over-bake it and have crunchy pizza.  Or you can under-bake it and have floppy pizza, although that’s easily corrected by 1-2 more minutes in the oven.

If you don’t add enough flour, when the dough rises it will be too sticky and won’t stretch out properly.  You can fix that by kneading in a few tablespoons flour to counteract the stickiness.  You can also rub your hands with olive oil or water before you start stretching the dough so it won’t stick to you.

If you add too much flour, the dough will be too dry and will crumble when you’re trying to stretch it.  To moisten the dough, knead in 1 tablespoon water or more as needed.  You want the dough to be smooth but not sticky.

Speaking of stretching, I have never managed to throw the dough up in the air and spin it like pizza maestros do.  But it’s possible to stretch the dough by gently pulling it into a 10-or-12-inch sort of round shape.

In case you’ve made too much dough, put the extra in a greased freezer bag and freeze it until needed.  Let it defrost in the fridge overnight.  About 3 hours before you want to eat the pizza, remove the dough from the fridge, transfer it to a greased bowl, cover with a tea towel and let rise for about 2 hours.  Then treat it like regular dough.
Mom’s Basic Pizza Dough – makes 3 10-or-12-inch pizzas  
1 scant tablespoon active dry yeast (scant means just a little less) or 1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1 cup room temperature tap water + more if needed
1 teaspoon brown sugar or honey
3 tablespoons olive oil + more for greasing bowl
3 cups flour + more if needed
1 teaspoon salt  
Pizza sauce
Toppings – Mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, cooked sausage, sliced mushrooms, sliced tomatoes or whole cherry tomatoes, anything else you like on pizza 
Put the yeast in a food processor or electric mixer with dough hook and pour in a few tablespoons of water.  If you add all the water to a food processor bowl at this stage, it might leak.  Add the brown sugar or honey and let sit for several minutes.  Then add the olive oil, flour and salt.  
Begin processing, adding the rest of the water, and process or beat until the contents form a rough ball.  If the dough is crumbly and won’t hold together, add more water, 1 teaspoon at a time, until it forms a ball that is smooth and not too sticky.  If the ball is too sticky, add more flour, 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough becomes smooth. 
Add a teaspoon olive oil to a large bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl.  Turn the dough over once so that the top of the dough is covered with oil.  Cover with a tea towel and set on a counter to rise for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, until it has doubled in size. 
Once the dough has risen, it’s time to make the pizza.  Remove the top rack from the oven and place the bottom rack on the lowest position.  Place a pizza stone, if you have one, on the bottom rack and begin heating the oven to 500 degrees.  If you don’t have ne, you can use a heavy-duty sheet pan placed upside down on the rack.  Sprinkle it with cornmeal to keep the dough from sticking to it. 
Cut the dough into thirds.  Sprinkle a thin layer of cornmeal on a pizza paddle. Take one of the pieces of dough and slowly and carefully stretch it into a 10-12” circle and lay it on the pizza paddle.  Patch any holes with dough from one of the edges.  Cover with sauce and toppings, slide it onto the pizza stone and bake for about 7 minutes or until the dough has fully baked.  Slide it out of the oven with a metal spatula onto a large plate or cutting board and serve immediately.
Dough Mixed in Food Processor

Dough Before It Rises

Dough After Rising

Uocooked Pizza

Pizza Ready to Eat
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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Za’atar: What Is It and How Do I Cook with It?

(Left) Za'atar                                                          (Right) Sumac
Za’atar (aka zatar or zahtar) is a spice blend that has been around for centuries and used primarily in the Middle East.  Travelers have come across it sprinkled on pita bread, hummus, meat, salads and roast potatoes and began searching for it when they got back home.  Now it’s available in some ethnic groceries and online at Penzeys.com, spiceandtea.com and wholespice.com.

What’s in za’atar?   Toasted sesame seeds, salt, thyme or oregano and sumac. 

You ask what is sumac?  First let me say it has nothing to do with poison sumac.  Edible sumac is a dark red spice made from dried and crushed berries harvested from sumac bushes.  It has a distinctive sour taste and livens up whatever you sprinkle it on.  It is generally available wherever za’atar is sold.

For a quick appetizer, add 1 tablespoon za’atar to 1/2 cup olive oil, mix, pour into a dish and dip warm pita bread into it. 

Last night I added za’atar to stuffed baked tomatoes, and it improved the flavor enormously.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Mom Money-Saving Tip 84

If you have frozen leftover slices of French bread, and they are dried out when they thaw, don’t toss them in the trash.  Sprinkle them with a small amount of water and set aside for 10 minutes until they soften up.  Then cut them into small pieces.  Add some chopped garlic, sliced scallions, olive oil, salt and black pepper and use the mixture to stuff tomatoes or mushrooms. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the bread starts to crisp.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Mom Cooking Tip 117

Don’t bother rinsing the inside of a roasting chicken.  There’s no need.  Water will spread raw chicken juices and bacteria into the sink and possibly beyond, where they can contaminate surfaces and anything else sitting there.  If you roast the chicken until it’s fully cooked (165 degrees on a meat thermometer), the heat will kill all bacteria.  Water can’t do that.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

First Catch Your Trout

Or get a friend to go fishing on your behalf.  That’s how I came to be cooking fresh trout a few years ago.  My friend caught more than he could eat while camping, so he brought me some extras.  And he told me how to cook them.

Pan-Fried trout is a no-nonsense recipe, especially if you’re camping in the woods and know how to light a fire.  I confess I have never been camping, and I have never rubbed two sticks together to create a spark.  I don’t have a cast iron frying pan either, although I do have a frying pan big enough to hold three trout.

If you don't fish or have a fisherman friend , the fish counter at most grocery stores can get you fresh trout.

Luckily, my friend gutted the trout, so all I had to do was rinse them off, coat them with cornmeal and pop them into a hot frying pan for a few minutes per side. 

We should have gone into the backyard and sat on the grass to eat dinner by moonlight.  But that would have been too much like camping.

Pan-Fried Trout – serves 3 
3 cleaned trout (about 3/4 pound each)
1/3 cup cornmeal or flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons canola oil or butter
3 lemon halves 
Rinse the trout in cold running water, making sure all the insides have been cleaned out.  Set aside. 
Put the cornmeal or flour, salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper, if using, into a large paper bag and shake. 
Put the oil or butter into a large frying pan or wok and begin heating over medium-high heat.  When it’s hot, put a trout in the paper bag, hold it closed and shake it several times to coat the trout with the mixture.  Put the trout into the hot pan and repeat the process with the other trout.  Cook for about 3 minutes per side, or until the coating has browned and the flesh of the fish has turned from translucent to white.  Pull up a piece of the skin to check.  Also, to test for doneness, see if a fork slides easily into the trout in the flesh near the tail. 
Serve immediately with a lemon half per person.  Advise diners to eat the top layer of fish (and skin, if desired), and then gently pull away and discard the backbone.  Then eat the bottom layer.

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