Thursday, April 30, 2020

On Adapting Herbs in Recipes

Herbs are such a personal preference.  If you ask someone with a sensitive palate many things will be "too spicy," and if you ask someone like me, many things will be "too bland" or as I often say flat.  We often equate "spicey" with hot, but some equate it with too much going on in a dish.

In Tuesday's article, On Ingredient Adaptations, I touched briefly on the easy part of herb adaptation, exchanging fresh for dried and vice versa - 1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried.  But what if you don't like a certain herb and the flavor it lends to a dish?  The easiest option is to leave it out.  The trouble with leaving it out could be that your dish will fall flat or taste like it's missing something.  Now for those with a sensitive palate, that might be ok, but for someone who likes bold flavors, disappointment will be on the horizon.

I dislike the flavor of this herb intensely.  To me, it tastes like dirt, and not in the earthy good way like sprouts do.  I won't have it in my kitchen and I don't like dishes cooked with it.  Thyme can be swapped for marjoram, rosemary, oregano, or sage.  My swap is almost always oregano.

I for one love cilantro, and feel there is no sub, but there are those that think it tastes like soap.  Did you know that's actually genetic?  Yep.  It's true.  If you think cilantro tastes like soap it's in your genes and you can learn more about that here.  If you really must you can try swapping it for mint, parsley, basil.

This is another favorite in our house.  I'm a sucker for a good Caprese salad and I don't feel homemade pizza is complete without a good shake of dried basil.  My mom, on the other hand, isn't a fan.  She will often leave it out or swap it for Italian seasoning, which still has basil in it but it's less potent in a seasoning mix.  You can also swap this for oregano, thyme, or parsley.

I'm a bit of an oregano snob, I prefer Mexican oregano over the Italian version.  Mexican oregano has a much stronger flavor, but for those looking to move away from it, this isn't the swap you're looking for.  Oregano can be swapped for Marjoram, thyme, basil, and in some dishes sage.

For some, this one is a bit of an acquired taste because of the more "piney" than they care for.  I don't use a lot of rosemary, but it's amazing with chicken and pork.  If you don't want to bring the woods into your food you can swap it for sage, thyme, or savory.

Available from Amazon
I've only selected some of the more common herbs called for in recipes.  The reference books used for today's article are as follows.

Food Lover's Companion.  This is quite possibly the most used book in my kitchen library.  I have the First Edition, and really should upgrade to the faith edition, as it's grown from 3000 terms to 7200.  This book lives by our kitchen table for ease of access.

The Food Substitution Bible, Second Edition.  As I mentioned in Tuesday's article, this book is a great resource to add to your kitchen library.  Great information substitutions for ingredients, equipment, and techniques.

Available from Amazon
The Spice and Herb Bible.  Great book for learning about all those amazing herbs and spices.  This book includes information on origin and history, processing, buying and storage, and use.  There are also lists for each herb that include flavor compliments, what it combines well with, and dishes it's used in.  This book also includes recipes.

If you have a specific swap you're looking for please let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Gardening is Always an Experiment Here

Gardening is always an experiment here, and by here I mean where ever we're living.  We did two years of gardening in Missouri, and have done something nearly every year we've lived in the Interior of Alaska.

We're not serious gardeners.  We're the kind of gardeners that try things because we can or because they sound interesting.  We spout seeds that are nearing 10 more years in age.  We plant all of our seedings at once. We grow tobacco, in Alaska, because we can.  We've grown green corn.  We've even experimented with potato towers.  We don't weed.  We eat what we grow and no two years are ever the same.

This year the list of things we're experimenting with includes five types of tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pie pumpkins, sunflowers, cucumbers, winter squash, anaheim peppers, jalapenos, bell peppers, microgreens, kale, huckleberries, basil, dill, cilantro, oregano, and tobacco.

We spent one-day last week prepping the greenhouse for moving the plants into.  Hoping the night temps even out and stay high enough in the greenhouse our seedlings will flourish.  We're planning to experiment with growing everything but the tobacco and the planned potatoes in the greenhouse this year.  It's our plan to avoid feeding everything to the moose, yet again.

Life with moose in Alaska is tricky.  For newcomers, they're fascinating, for those who grew up here they're something for the freezer, and for the gardener they're the biggest pest for which there is not a relevant deterrent.

We have plans to build a potting table and some verticle shelving for smaller pots of herbs and such.  We'll also build a second table for containers and a trellis for the cucumbers and squash to climb along the back wall.  I order some shade cloth today, that will help us keep temps more manageable in our southern facing greenhouse.

I look forward to being able to eat more of the fruits of our labor this year, rather than them going to the moose.

The containers along the front are mostly for tomatoes.  The back wall isn't pictured, as it still needs a bit of clean up from winter storages, but pepper, squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and pumpkins will be going along that wall.

We really aren't in it for the bounty, all though that is a great perk.  We grow to see what will happen.  This year we layered the containers with straw, dirt, ash, coffee grounds, and eggshells.  Why?  Just to see if it works better than other things we've tried.

Do you garden?  What's your style?  Are you a by the book, tried and true gardener?  Or are you more like us and throw caution to the wind and see what sprouts?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

On Ingredient Adaptations

Oh the great ingredient swap, so many of them done wrong, so many of them just bad.  Very often when we swap an ingredient we don't think about how it will play with the others in the pot.  We just know that we don't like X and would prefer Y, but Y doesn't always work in a dish for any number of reasons.  Sometimes we're better off just leaving X out than we are looking for an ingredient to use in its place.  Today I'm gonna talk about things that will work and why.

I use tomatoes in a number of dishes.  Canned tomatoes are a staple in my pantry.  If a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes and the tomatoes will be cooked in the dish; they can very often be swapped with canned.  My canned tomatoes of choice are petite diced.  Easy to stir into dishes, easy to pure for soups, stews, and sauces.  I even used canned tomatoes in my homemade salsa.  What if you don't like tomatoes or can't tolerate them?  Consider adapting the recipe by using a jar of roasted red peppers.  These can easily replace tomatoes in chili, bisque, tacos, even pasta sauce.  Canned peppers and canned tomatoes are similar in texture and similar in flavor profile, making them easy to exchange for each other in a recipe.

I'm gonna be honest, I'm not sure we can be friends if you're looking for ways around garlic. We're the people who always up what the recipe calls for, usually we double it.  If you must find a sub, as it somehow you ran out then I'd first suggest using powder, granules, or dried minced garlic.   After that, you can sub in chives, shallots or even a mild onion; it won't be the same, but it's doable.

Onions are a love-hate thing for a number of people.  Fresh onions can be replaced with dried onion flakes in a number of cooked meals.  If you want a milder onion flavor you can use shallots in their place.  In salads and dishes that use raw onion, you can also use green onions.  You can also use onion powder in place of onions in any number of things from soups, marinades, salad dressing, and sauces.  If you just hate them or they give you trouble, leave them out or experiment with using garlic in their place.

Fresh Herbs:
These are amazing if you grow them or readily have access to them at your local farmer's market or grocery store.  In most recipes they can be replaced with dried; 1 tablespoon fresh = 1 teaspoon dried.  I grow the ones we use the most and dry them at the end of the growing season.  You can also grow fresh herbs in a pot in your house.  There's also the option of preserving fresh herbs by freezing them in olive oil.  Simply put the herbs in an ice cube tray, cover with olive oil and freeze.  This is a great way to drop them into winter dishes.

Yes, fresh is best in many things, but there are options.  Of course, there is the age-old add a teaspoon to a cup of milk and let it sit a few minutes, which is good in a pinch but not my favorite option.  I prefer to use powdered buttermilk, yes you can buy this, just add it to the dry ingredients of your recipe and add the appropriate amount of liquid with the wet ingredients.  You can also take a tablespoon of yogurt and stir it into milk equaling the amount of buttermilk called for.  All of this depends on what the buttermilk is for.  If you're using it in a marinade I suggest string buttermilk powder into half and half or cream equal to the amount of buttermilk called for in the recipe.  You may need to experiment to get the right option for this swap.

Let me be clear, this is in cooking not baking.  I almost always eliminate sugar from things like sauces, salad dressing, and marinades.  I'm married to a man that will tell you "sweet and meat don't go together".  In an effort to keep the sweet from the savory in our home I usually just drop it, there are a few exceptions, but very few.  However, that can leave a little flatness in a dish so I compensate in other ways using things like vinegar, lemon juice, or a spice that has a sweeter undertone.  For example, before I was married there was always a little bit of sugar in my chicken salad spread.  Since being married that recipe has been adapted to use vinegar where the sugar once was.  What's more, I actually like it better.

Available on Amazon
These are just a few of the adaptations off the top of my head.  I also own a great book called The Food Substitutions Bible.  This book has substitutions for ingredients, equipment, and techniques.  I have the second edition, but I think any edition you could get your hands on would be a good investment for your kitchen library.

If there is something specific you'd like to see on the list please leave a comment and I'll add it to the list. Later this week I will specifically address herbs and spices.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Homemade vs The Box - Stroganoff Edition

Last week's article On Cooking from Scratch, I talked about the long and winding list of excuses.  I think the first step is setting yourself up for success by selecting things that are easy to make, budget-friendly, and have familiar easy to find ingredients.  Rushing into making something that was pretty in a magazine doesn't always, in fact rarely, ends up that pretty in your home kitchen.  Start with old standbys and favorites, learn to make those from scratch.  Here's my first round of homemade vs the box.  If you like it, we'll keep going.  Read on...

I went for easy and selected the well known Hamburger Helper as today's example.  Their stroganoff mix includes dry noodles and some packets of powdered seasoning/thickening agents.  To the box mix, you add water, milk, and ground beef.  Nothing fancy and it comes in at Alaska prices as follows:

5 (1cup) servings = $10
That's $2 per serving

If we make a more homemade version, you'll need pasta, cream of mushroom soup, milk, some onion, a clove or two of garlic, and ground beef.  The meat will be browned with the onion and the garlic.  The macaroni will need to be cooked and drained before stirring it into the burger.  The mushroom soup and the milk will be the sauce stir in to replace the powdered mix of mystery ingredients. 

5 (1cup) servings = $10
Also $2 per serving

You can also upgrade the meat to some sort of stirfry or stew meat, add cooked or canned mushrooms and sour cream, these add-ins will also change the cost of the dish slightly.  If you'd like to make the homemade version - check out the Stroganoff recipe.

This what your trip to the grocery store for the ingredients might look like:

From the box:
$1.79 = standoff mix
$6.99 = ground beef
$3.89 = gallon of milk
under $13

$1.19 = elbow maccaroni
$1.19 = can of cream of mushroom soup
$6.99 = ground beef
$3.89 = gallon of milk
$0.90 = onion
$0.79 = head of garlic
under $15

This is assuming you're buying a gallon of milk, a whole onion and head of garlic; and shopping in Interior Alaska.  This does not include swapping the meat for stir-fry or stew meat, nor does it include the addition of mushrooms and sour cream.  The cost will vary, depending on your location, it could be slightly more or less based on your location.

Now that I've debunked the idea that it's cheaper to buy the box, let's look at the "it's to hard" excuse.  In the above example, you're still browning the same meat, you're still stirring in milk, the only differences are the need to boil the macaroni and drain it before adding it to the hamburger and you'll stir in the can of soup instead of some funky seasoning envelope.

That was easy right?  Seriously, I want to know what the attraction is to the world of precessed boxed food and don't tell me it cheap - cause that's not true!  If your family has a favorite meal that you get from a box - lay it on me!  I'll develop a recipe to make that dish more homemade and get you more bang for your buck!

Friday, April 24, 2020

Alaskan Life - It’s Called Breakup

The rest of the world calls it spring because the snow melts, the sun shines, and things turn green. In Alaska it’s called breakup because the snow and ice breakup everywhere, things melt, mud happens, ice jams happen, flooding happens. There is nothing pretty about any of it, and while I don’t know the history behind the term it does liken itself to an ugly breakup. It’s messy, no one likes it, and it’ll all be fine once it’s over.

This year our driveway has a bit of a creek running through down it, the picnic table is currently sitting in a pond and there’s a lake in the backyard. Yet, in spite of it all, we get views like this on our evening walks.  The light is nearing the 24-hour mark rapidly. The geese and swans are coming back as well. 

Life in Alaska is hard, don’t let anyone else tell you differently. When I say it's hard I don't mean in the ridiculously portrayed reality tv way.  I mean in the it snows and you have winter for 7 months, you have 4 hours of daylight for what can feel like an eternity, but is really only about four months, and your driveway might turn in to a river during breakup way.  The flip side is that summers are amazing here. You just have to endure the cold winters, the dark, and breakup to get to them. 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

On Adapting Recipes

I chose the word adapting for two reasons, one I dislike the concept of ingredient substitution, and two this is about adapting to what you have available.  Just because a fancy magazine or tv chef made the recipe in the big city, does not mean you can't make it where you live.  If you live in the big city and have access to all the fancy ingredients that's fantastic, but then again you probably aren't reading my blog.  For the rest of us, recipe adaptation could be key to using the recipes you keep collecting. 

I think Alton Brown said it best in episode three of Quarantine Kitchen.  Of his wife Elizabeth, when he said she is an intuitive cook who just makes up things.  That is quite possibly the most accurate way to describe my cooking style as well.  There's a running joke in our house when I make something from intuition, hubby always asks if I wrote it down so we can make it again. 

There are a few things to keep in mind with recipe adaptation.  First and foremost, it works well with cooking, but not always with baking.  Second, think about the flavors you'll be combining when you change the ingredients of a recipe, some things will work, some won't.  Three, be aware that not every recipe adaptation will be a raving success.  My saying used to be "if it doesn't work we call for pizza."  I'm gonna credit that motto with making me kind of fearless when it comes to cooking.  

Baking recipes aren't as easy to adapt.  That's not to say it can't be done, but baking is more about science and formulas.  The only adaptations I usually do in baking are to add spices, increase vanilla, use applesauce in place of fat, change the mix-ins, and on some occasions swap the type of liquid.

Adaptations for cooking are free-range in our house.  I will literally change anything and everything.  I've been know combine two or more recipes to get what I want out of a dish.  Most of our favorite recipes have a plethora of notes scribbled on them.  Eventually, I type them up with all the changes so that I can easily share them, without having to explain all the scribbles.

Here are a few of the simpler examples of adaptations I've made:  

Grilled Pork with Salsa Verde, the original recipe came from Cusine Lite Magazine.  The original recipe called for fresh tomatillos, I use canned.  Very rarely can fresh tomatillos be found in Alaska.  The next change is the fresh lime juice, I used True Lime.  This a shelf-stable option that I keep in my pantry for both lime and lemon.  I eliminated the sugar from the recipe as well.  The original recipe also calls for a number of fresh spices, all of which were exchanged for the dried version I have readily available in my cupboard.

Alice Springs Chicken, the original recipe came from Fabulously Creative.  I adapted this one by first removing the honey in the mustard sauce.  We've also used dried minced garlic in place of the onion flakes in the sauce.  Most recently we used swiss cheese to top the chicken.  

No-Stir Granola, the original recipe came from America's Test Kitchen.  The adaptations to this recipe are switching the maple syrup with honey, pecans in place of almonds, ditching the dried fruit and adding different seeds to the mix.  I also add spices to each batch depending on my mood, but the biggest swap is to use quick oats in place of rolled oats.  You'll get a different texture if you use the originally called for rolled oats.  The quick oats gave me more of the store-bought granola texture without the tearing up of the roof of my mouth side affect.

These are just three examples of recipe adaptations.  Next week we'll talk about some of the common ingredients I use to adapt recipes.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Adapting Food Wishes Ultimate Triple Berry Crumble

There's a bit of a story that goes with why I chose this recipe.  I'll start by saying I've been cooking a lot of Chef John's recipes because they are easy to follow, made with attainable ingredients and turn out delicious every time.  Now for the story...

Last week I decided to inventory the freezer.  Quarantine gives you time to do all sorts of fun things.  In all honesty, this is something I like to do a couple times of year to keep from sacrificing too many things to the freezer gods.  This time it was just two pieces of forgotten lasagna.

In cataloging our assets, I found the leftover Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, also known as Tory's Cranberry Sauce.  This is my sister-in-law's recipe, I've been making it for years and it's the only cranberry sauce I make.  The downside to the recipe is that with just two of us, or maybe four of us if we have friends over, I end up with a lot of leftover sauce.  This year I opted to just toss it in the freezer “to do something with another time” as The Kitchn said it in their article Scraps Are the Only Winners in This Pandemic.

If I'm honest, the only reason it came out of the freezer initially was so that I could put it into a smaller container.  While it sat thawing on the counter, I started thinking about how I could make it become more than just sauce.  I started researching recipes, many of which I didn't have some of the ingredients for, and yet others only used a  small amount of sauce.  I had about two cups worth to use and really wanted something that would make this leftover into something new.

Cue YouTube.  Sometimes the "next" video on YouTube is a blessing.  I watched something on using leftover cranberry sauce multiple ways that left me feeling void of ideas.  Then the Food Wishes video for Ultimate Triple Berry Crumble started.  First of all, I watched it because I like Chef John, but the longer I watched the more I thought this could be the perfect recipe.

I made the crumble and swapped the cranberry sauce in for the berry mixture and left out the cayenne.  Not that's not a typo, you watch enough of Chef John and you'll find out he has a real thing for cayenne.  It goes in nearly everything he makes.  My cranberry version of this crumble turned out amazing.  I've never made a crumble, as I was raised in a crunch kind of world.  From what I can tell crunch seems to mean with oatmeal and crumble means without.  Please correct me if I'm wrong.

You can find Chef John's recipe Ultimate Triple Berry Crumble here and you can watch the video here.  If you want to make the cranberry sauce version, you'll need the recipe for Tory's Cranberry Sauce.

Quite possibly the only thing that might have made this better is if we would have been the vanilla Chef John served with his.  Otherwise, this crumble is the perfect balance of sweet and tart with all the great treasures of the crumbles and cranberries.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

On Overcoming Grocery Shopping Challenges

So what do you do when things are expensive and produce has an even shorter shelf life than normal?  You adapt, improvise and overcome it to the best of your abilities. I talked last week, in my post On Challenges - Grocery Shopping in Interior Alaska, about not always getting what you have on your list and the challenges of finding the ingredients for recipes.  This week we're gonna talk about how I've overcome some of those things.  Today we're gonna talk about grocery shopping.  How I shop, when I shop, and where I shop. 

Anyone who lives in Small Town America knows that it's rare to be able to get everything you need in one place.  This could mean shopping in multiple stores, or it might even mean shopping in multiple towns.  If your town is small enough you may have to travel to get groceries.  There's just some stuff your little town does not, will not, and cannot carry.

Alright with all that said, let's start with the grocery list.  I keep a working list on our kitchen counter.  It's broken into two columns food and non-food.  I don't use any kind of fancy list to organize things,  just a spiral-bound notebook.  There are two of us writing on this list, which means simple is better.  There is a second, smaller notebook for the town shopping list.  It's a bit fancier, as it's a reporter's notebook,.  Long and thin, top bound, easy to fit in my bag and easy to hang onto when traveling in and out of multiple stores.  Having two different sized notebooks also helps us keep track of which list is for where. 

Now onto the grocery shopping.  Let me preface this by saying I buy what is available and I don't dwell on what isn't.  This bit of advice is applicable no matter where you live and shop.  Buying what is available takes some of the stress out of the shopping at hand.  After having lived in four states, I have learned that there are just some things that won't be available in your area.  Ok, now about the shopping.

Local Shopping is first, this is the shopping we do the most of.  Our shopping routine is as follows, every two weeks, generally on the Saturday that follows payday.  We start at the commissary and usually end at the local grocery store.  While our grocery store is hit or miss on fresh produce, it is far better than the stuff I can get at the commissary.  Other factors for shopping at the little grocery store include the fact that they have both a bakery and a deli, neither of which are options at our small commissary.  The local grocery store also sells whole bean coffee, the commissary does not.  On the flip side canned goods, dry ingredients, meat, dairy, and eggs are all usually cheaper at the commissary.

Less frequent are the trips to "town", we go every six to eight weeks for shopping to get the things we can't get here.  This includes a stop at Costco for bulk purchases and a stop at Fred Meyer for extras.  Costco is where I buy things like nuts, snacks, some meat, produce, and dog treats.  Fred Meyer is where a lot of the "treats" and "bonus buys" come from.  This is where we buy lunchmeat, I grab things from the olive bar, occasionally splurge on something from the cheese counter, and where I get the "good" yogurt.  This is where we pick up shelf-stable special ingredients that we can't get locally; and where we buy seafood, lamb and the Boreshead hotdogs we love. 

Finally, there are then very infrequent online purchases.  If there is something I really want but cannot get locally or in "town" I will order it.  I do a bit of grocery shopping on Amazon and other shops like King Arthur Flour, and a few others.  These kinds of purchases aren't very frequent.  We buy things like falafel mix, individual packs of sauerkraut, spices, and some vitamins just to name a few of the things we buy online. 

That about does it for the secrets to my grocery shopping habits.  Later this week I'll talk about some of my cooking hacks that help with both saving money and adapting recipes to what is available and accessible to me. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Life in Quarantine aka Normal

Who knew the life we live on the weekends was called quarantine? No, seriously I'm an introvert who's lucky enough to be married to an introvert.  For us, this "shelter in place" business really is our regular life, mostly.  There are fewer trips to grocery stores and the post office, but mostly this is our normal life.

I know there's any number of people from my professional life that might be reading this, questioning the introvert part.  They've only ever seen the "on" part of my personality, commonly referred to as extroverted.  My day job requires a lot of talking and being with the public.  I've been in customer service my entire life and seem to have developed and polished the "on" setting, to the point where it can deceiving to the public.  Left to my own devices I prefer to be introverted, also known as the "off" setting.  I prefer a more intentional social life.  Where I only have to be witty, or funny, or know things, or for that matter be social, through my own choosing.

Since I've been "socially isolating" I've rediscovered my passion for cooking and my love of writing about food.  Two things that haven't been high on my list for a few years now.  Things I'd almost forgotten I enjoyed.  I love talking, writing and even teaching others about food. 

This time of quite is making me really rethink some of the things on my priority list. I haven't felt this calm and relaxed in over a year.  I'm finally well-rested, and not chasing my next cup of coffee to get me through the next day at work. I'd also like to point out that my office these days has a better view, especially since my office at work does not have a window. 

I've been reevaluating my availability to my current job.  Before the lockdown, as it seems to be, I was answering work-related emails, calls, and texts at all hours, which for someone who is supposed to be part-time seems a bit absurd.  When we resume "normal", there will be a definite shift happening in that habit.

I hope that many of us are taking this time to reflect on our values and what is important to us.  It's time to start putting those things first.  I know I've thought a lot about relationships and family.  Many of us are lucky enough to be with our families at this time, but some of us are hundreds of miles apart.  We're staying in touch by any means possible, sending cards using video chat, texting, and calling more. 

The other thing that I've focused more on is gratitude, counting my blessing if you will.  Thinking about how fortunate we are during this time of crazy uncertainty.  I'm thankful we're in a small town, which so far only has one case of the virus.  I'm thankful we're both still employed and earning paychecks.  I have a lot of gratitude for technology and the ability to stay in touch with our friends and family, more now than ever.  I'm also grateful for the ability to be content staying home, even with a few stir-crazy moments.  I'm thankful we have a warm house and a full pantry. 

There is no doubt in my mind that this will leave a mark on our society, but I'd like to think it will be for the better.  That we will come out of this stronger, less focused on the "me, me, me" and more inclined to put family before earning every grubby dollar we can snatch up.  That we will return to teaching our youth to value people, not things, that they aren't owed anything and that the world does not revolve around them.  Most of all that we learn to be grateful for what we have and that we make sure our families know love them. 

Friday, April 17, 2020

On Cooking from Scratch

I've talked about the bad time my friends give me about how I cook, most of the time in just, but sometimes I think it's out of self-defense.  Honestly, it's hard to work, come home exhausted and still cook a great meal for your family.  I get it and I also get that I might make it look easy, but there are plenty of times we do open a box or just have breakfast for dinner.

What is so intimidating about cooking from scratch?  Why is the first thought that eating homemade is more work?  Is it easier to open a box and some cans and call it diner?  Is there just a fatal attraction to pretty boxes?   Or is it too hard to figure out what to make and no one wants to put any effort into it?

There is life beyond the pretty boxes and shinny cans!  Get out of the freezer section and thaw your brain while we debunk the myth that homemade and from scratch is to much work.

I learned to cook by gilding many a boxed meal with handmade touches, thanks to the encouragement of some great friends and cooking in their kitchen.  My signature dish 20 years ago was a package mix of noodles and alfredo sauce with some sauteed chicken seasoned with garlic salt and Italian seasoning.  We all have to start somewhere, but we don't have to stay at the bottom of the box forever.

To move out of the box, I had to start by first deconstructing what was in the box.  We'll take the noodles and sauce package.  It's just that noodles and powdered stuff that turns into a sauce.  If we upgrade that to the next level, it's a box of pasta and a jar of alfredo, still using the same sauteed chicken.  I still make this dish this way today.  I've yet to level up on making my own sauce or my own pasta, yet it's still more homemade than where I started.  This dish is also still really easy to throw together on a busy night and you can add some frozen peas or broccoli to it for a one-pot meal.

Step one to more homemade meals is to think outside the box, but keep it simple!  Look at what you are already making and find a recipe that will make something similar.  Think about the ingredients that would into your favorite boxed meals if they were made from scratch.  I'm not talking about making fresh pasta and grinding your own sausage.  While both are interesting endeavors, they are not practical for our regular every day lives.

Step two is to stop making excuses - It's to hard, It takes more time, It's more expensive.  I don't know how to cook.  The excuse list is long and winding, we could go on for days here, but we won't.  The point of this post is to introduce a new blog segment I'll be doing - Homemade vs The Box where I'll walk through debunking some of the excuses for using the box and share an easy recipe for a more homemade version. 

None of your favorite cooks started out where they are today.  We all had to learn one way or another.  Starting with boxes is great, but at some point, it is good to move to the next level.  You don't need to start you homemade cooking by trying to make some fancy thing out of a French cookbook.

Now, that was easy right?  Seriously, I want to know what the attraction is to the world of precessed boxed food and don't tell me it cheap - cause that's not true!  If your family has a favorite meal that you get from a boxed meal - lay it on me!  I'll help you develop a recipe to make that dish more homemade that will get you more bang for your buck!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

On Challenges - Grocery Shopping in Interior Alaska

We live in small-town America. No, really we do.  We’re just a bit more remote than other American small towns.  Shopping is challenging in all small towns but there’s a bit more adversity that comes with shopping here. Before we moved to Alaska I was a meal planner. I planned two weeks of meals and went to the store, list in hand. Rarely did I come without what I went for.  Alaska, that’s a different story. You can make a list, but I guarantee you’ll return home with at least four things that weren't in stock or the store doesn't carry.

The world I live in now, I keep two grocery lists, one for shopping local and one for the “trip to town”, translation 100-mile drive to Fairbanks. We don't fit the norm when it comes to going to "town". We’re some sort of oddity as we only go every six to eight weeks, sometimes less. I’m pretty skilled at adapting to what I can get locally.

This brings me back to meal planning. It just doesn’t happen the way you think it should. I tried hard the first couple of years we lived here and I would come home with half the ingredients on my list and only be able to make about a third of the meals I planned.  I don't meal plan anymore, and to be honest, I miss it.  I've tried reverse planning, doing the shopping and then planning the meals, but that doesn't seem to work for us.  I've adapted to shopping and buying what looks good that week and then using it to build our meals, but it doesn't work as smoothly. 

There are other difficulties with grocery shopping beyond availability.  Our food budget doesn't go as far as it did when we lived in the lower 48.  For example, things like star fruit are usually $6.99 each.  We think Avocados are a deal if we can get them for $1 to $1.50 each, they're more often in the $2 to $2.50 each range.  With that comes the gamble of ripe versus rotten inside.  You might find yourself holding your breath when you cut into one.  It really is a crapshoot.  Next, we have the berries spoil very quickly here.  If I'm lucky, I can get a couple of days out of small clamshell of raspberries.  Blueberries are a bit less fragile and will last a few days.  Berries are also expensive.  I usually only buy them when they're on sale, as the going price usually in the $6.99 range if they aren't. 

Often you will find produce at our local grocery store that has rotted before it sold.  I would wager a guess that it rots because patrons won't pay the high price.  Artichokes can be as high as $5 each.  At that price, they often end up in the "discount" cart, past their prime, with a final stop at the garbage bin.  Becoming nothing more than a profit and loss write off for the store. 

The last cost perspective I'll leave you with is the cost of lunch meat from the deli counter.  Get out your wallet because it's going to cost an average of $10 to $12 per pound.  I could go on and on about the cost of groceries here, but I refrain.  You adjust what you eat to fit the food budget you have.  Things like lunch meat become a treat rather than the norm.

Because my husband is a retired Marine we have commissary privileges, which helps immensely with stretching our food budget.  This especially beneficial when purchasing things like meat and dairy.  Their produce is just as bad, if not worse than the local store, but you learn to cope with it and work around it.  To be quite honest, by the time produce makes it to our part of the world it's already on the downhill slide. 

I'd love to tell you that there are things on my list that are inexpensive or super affordable.  Some things are more affordable than others, but I wouldn't go so far as to say cheap groceries exist here.  We've lived here long enough that I no longer get overwhelmed by the prices, I shop sales and pay attention to the volume per dollar way more than I used to when we lived in the lower 48.  There are several things that I splurge on when they are available, but with varying availability, they become treats or bonus buys. 

We don't have cable or dish tv, we don't go to the movies, we aren't big into shopping.  We find our enjoyment in cooking and eating out.  Food is the thing we spend our money on.  We're just food people and we enjoy really good food. 

Next week I'll talk about overcoming all of these hurdles and how I still make amazing meals despite the grocery shopping struggles here in the Interior.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

On Writing About Food

Let's get in the DeLorean and travel back about a dozen years.  Once upon a time, I wrote a food blog.  No, don't go looking for it.  You won't find it.  I took it down a few years ago.  I still have a few mixed emotions about that, but it's done and there's no undo button for it.

I started that blog, on a whim, when we live in Missouri, and I didn't yet have a job.  I wrote a post nearly every day for just over seven years.  It started as a food blog and then morphed into a handmade blog when I started sewing and crocheting things to sell on Etsy.  In hindsight, I wish I'd just left it as a food blog, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

I haven't done much work on food writing, since those couple of years in  Missouri, but my food writing didn't start there.  It started a few years earlier when I was bored at my day job as a receptionist and needed something to keep me busy when things were slow. I  was also in a new relationship with a man who loved food as much as me.  I later married that man, but that's another post.  I opted to write a cookbook, which turned into two cookbooks that I self-published and sold to friends and family.

I tried to keep my food passion and food writing going as we got married and moved three times, but by the time we reached Alaska I had lost sight of the real reason I started a food blog in the first place.  I'd also tried to convert it into a crafting blog and honestly made a mess of the whole thing because, in the end, I had stopped writing any kind of quality content. 

Fast forward to the current state of affairs - pandemic, social distancing, etc.  I'm home, socially isolating, quarantined, whatever you want to call is and I'm doing what I do best to cope, I'm cooking.  I've reignited my food passion, started a Facebook Group, and my desk is piled with unfinished recipe and cookbook projects.   I find myself writing and rewriting recipes to share in the group and working to help people figure out how or what to cook during this pandemic. 

We're all experiencing some kind of home cooking, food-related stress.  Whether it's a shortage of the things we're used to having easy access to, having to cook every meal, or not know what to make with the things we already have.  Sharing ideas and tips helps take some of the pressure off.  Talking about how to make bread without yeast, what to do with leftover coffee, or how to preserve food in the freezer, all helps to take our minds off the constant news feed play by play of the COVID-19 virus. 

So why am I writing about all of this?  When I put it out there that I was dusting off this blog and going to start writing again I had several people tell me they would love to see me write about food, the challenges I face in small rural remote Alaska, and share my recipes again.  My friends give me a bad time about the "food porn" photos I share on my personal Facebook feed.  They ask me questions like "when is your restaurant opening?" and "do I send Uber Eats to you or do you call them?"  Most of them want to move in with us just for the food. 

Food really is the universal language.  Most of us start talking about the next meal while we're eating our current one.  Food is how we show people we care, tell them we missed them, welcome new babies, and that we're sorry for their loss.  We do bake sales and pancake breakfast to raise money for clubs and school trips.  We celebrate milestones and surviving until Friday by having dinner surrounded by friends and loved ones. 

I speak "food" fluently.  I've never gone to culinary school, I've never even taken a cooking class.  I learned to cook in the kitchen of some dear friends some 20ish years ago.  I know what I know because I am passionately curious and enjoy making good food, recreating those amazing dishes we've had living in other states and traveling, and because I've never been afraid to try something new.  I adapt recipes to make them easier, to fit the ingredients we have access to, and to suit our tastes.  So why am I writing about all of this?  Because I'm giving some strong consideration to writing more about food again.  Stick around, this could get pretty tasty!

Friday, April 3, 2020

On Freezing Food

The other way that I preserve food is in the freezer.  I often cook large batches of things and freeze them for later use.  Most commonly I think we think in terms of meals when we talk about cooking in large batches, but I also do the same with ingredients for future meals.

One of the easiest "frozen assets" is stale bread.  I freeze the odds and ends of the bread we don't quite finish, usually, the heals and small hunks of french bread.  Once I have a large zip-top bag of bits and pieces I pull out the food processor and turn it all into breadcrumbs.  These breadcrumbs go back into the freezer and are later added to meatloaf, meatballs, top mac'n'cheese.  The same crumbs can be toasted to use for breading on meats, cheeses, or vegetables. 

Another easily frozen asset is to take veggie scraps like carrot ends, onion peals, cilantro stems, etc and drop them in a freezer back.  When the bag gets full make vegetable stock.  Once you have a great veggie make, freeze in one or two cup portions to use in future dishes. 

Our crockpot gets a workout when I cook for the freezer.  Chicken stock happens often after we cook a whole chicken for a meal, like this Fauxtisserie Chicken from Our Best Bites.  Once we've eaten the chicken and picked it clean, I put the picked carcass into the crockpot with carrots, celery, onion, and some herbs.  Top with enough water to cover and cook for 8 to 10 hours on low.  I strain the broth and put it into 2-cup containers and freezer for later.

Onions are so easy to carmelize in the crockpot.  I use this recipe from Kitchn and they turn out perfect every time.  Wondering what I do with them after I cook them?  I freeze them.  I usually put them into my vintage muffin tins to flash freeze them into 1/2 cup portions for recipes later.  I put them in chili, burgers, meatloaf, soups, and stews.  You could also use them for a quick French Onion soup.

These are just a few of the things  I make for the freezer.  I realize the freeze isn't always the best method of preservation, but if you cycle things through, much like the working pantry we talked about last week you won't lose things for a lifetime in there.

I also highly recommend a vac sealing machine for freezing as well.  We use ours mostly for freezing cuts of meat, but it can be used for freezing most of the things we talked about above.  I'm not sure I would freeze broth this way, but breadcrumbs, onions, and leftover chicken would be great things to vac seal and freeze for later. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

On Dehydrating Food

Why do I dehydrate?  Because it's kind of the fix it and forget it of the food preservation world.  If you're old enough you now have a Ronco infomercial playing in your head.  You're welcome.  I do love that part of the dehydrator process.  There's a bit of prep, some chopping or slicing, maybe a marinade if you're making jerky; but mostly it's a wash, slice, lay on try, and leave for like five or more hours.
Excalibur 3500B 5-Tray Electric Food Dehydrator

We have an Excalibur 3500 dehydrator that we've been using for over 10 years.  I did quite a bit of research before we purchased an Excalibur.

In the research, I learned that having the heat element and fan at the back made tray rotation less necessary, and in some cases eliminates the need completely.  This also helps extend the life of your dehydrator, with less overheating issues.

I knew I wanted square trays, to provide us with more surface area in comparison to round trays.  Round dehydrators usually have a bottom heating element and the trays are round with a large hole in the middle for stacking and additional circulation.  This style requires more tray rotation and has reviews of quicker overheating and heating element burn out with use.

We've dried a lot of things, but mostly fruits and veggies with a bit of jerky now and then.  The seasonal produce sales are when our dehydrator gets the most use.  I buy a variety of fruits and vegetables and dry them for later use.

The things we dehydrate most often are:
  • Bell peppers - dried peppers go into my homemade taco and spaghetti sauce mix and occasionally soups.
  • Mushrooms - used the most on pizza, rehydrating to a meaty texture when placed on top of the sauce.  Also into soups, stews and crockpot dishes that call for mushrooms.
  • Celery - soups, stews, stuffing, and the like.  This will nearly dissolve and disappear in the cooking process.  
  • Tomatoes - great replacement for chips with creamy dips.  Adds a big punch of flavor to soups and sauces if ground into tomato powder.  
  • Apples - mostly just for snacking.  Can be used in baking, if they last that long.
  • Strawberries - a great addition to hot or cold cereal and quick bread recipes.  Also great for snacking.
  • Pineapple - like candy when dried.
  • Herbs - for use in future meals or homemade mixes.
  • Breadcrumbs - great for breading, adding to meatloaf, or sprinkle them on mac and cheese before baking.

We've also done blueberries, onions, cauliflower, spinach, kale, mango, bananas, plums, raspberries,  rhubarb, and zucchini.  We've even tried canned peas, canned corn, cooked rice, and cooked beans.

Herbs, fruits, and veggies don't take a lot of prep to dehydrate.  Most of them can just be washed, sliced or chopped and put on a tray.  Some of them need a little more be it pitted or parboiled before drying them.

To make your own breadcrumbs there are two options, depending on the components you have.  Option one is to dry slices of bread until very crisp, then you can crush with a rolling pin or grind in a food processor or blender.  Option two you will need a set of the drying sheets for your dehydrator, also known as fruit leather sheets.  Process stale bread in your food processor until it's the desired crumb texture, spread crumbs on drying sheets and dehydrate until crisp.

Foodsaver FSFSSL2244-000 V2244

You have all this dried food, now what's the best way to store it?  I suggest mason jars or resealable containers.  I would only suggest resealable zip-top bags if you plan to use up the dried food in a very short amount of time.

I'm a big fan of jars because we have a Food Saver with both a standard and wide mouth mason jar attachment.  The beauty of this is that you can put your food into jars, place the sealing lid on top of the jar, place the jar attachment over the lid, vac-seal and then add the jarring.

I use this method for my dehydrated food, but also for specialty flours, dried beans and other dry foods that we plan to keep for longer amounts of time.  I'd also like to point out that jars, lids, and rings are all reusable when used in this method.

You could also consider using the vac-seal bags if you need to save on space when storing your dried foods.  We choose jars because we have space for them, and reserve our bags for use in the freezer.

The Dehydrator Bible

If you're looking for a great book as a companion to your dehydrator I would suggest the Dehydrator Bible by Jennifer MacKenzie, Jay Nutt, and Don Mercer.  This book is full of great info, recipes and drying times for most anything you might want to try dehydrating.  There are recipes for jerky, fruit rollups and the like, as well as recipes for using your newly dried ingredients.

Do you have a dehydrator?  Are you underusing it?  Are you now interested in owning a dehydrator? 

Friday we'll talk more about preserving your food through freezing.