Friday, March 30

A Matter of Opinion - The 5 W's Redeux

If you've ever felt let down after someone's comment about your latest entree, here's an older post that is still very valid, today. I hope it gives you the courage to fly high and become super-creative in your own kitchens!

Some Folks Just Won't Try New Foods
Pickey eaters! They are everywhere and, some times, right at your own table. It's been my good fortune to have a family willing to try anything I prepare and eagerly look forward to new tastes. But, that's not true for every chef. So, for today's blog, I'm going to offer a few tips to new chefs to help them gain confidence in their culinary skills.

Take this little unfortunate fellow on the left here. This is definitely NOT one of my creations but was the result of a Photoshop Pictures Contest site, Freaking News, asking for bad food pictures, that does manage to get my point across, quite vividly. (If you're really brave, check out the site for even more vivid entrees!)

Many of your food critics (and I am not speaking of professional food critics here) don't so much dislike what you have prepared so much as they don't like nor want to try new foods. Been that way since birth and you're not going to change them. Some folks wouldn't be caught dead trying snake meat and others wouldn't eat this little guy because of the onions, complaining that they overwhelm the subtle chicken taste. Both are right. It's just an opinion, and a matter of taste.

Teddy Roosevelt Said it Best
Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, was also reknown for his common-sense quotes. One of my favorites, "You have a right to state your opinion; but, inherent in that right is not the right to be taken seriously."

Where would we be without the opinion of others when we're trying to accomplish a goal, whether building a house, learning to drive, or creating a meal. The opinion of others, if given honestly and fairly, helps us grow and perfect our skills. In the kitchen, it is possible to be too heavy-handed with spices and herbs, prepare foods that are too dry or too moist, or, not recognize that pink rice should never be served with bluefish . . . well, should never be served, in my opinion -- but, I digress. If left to our own opinions all the time, we'd stagnate and become quite dull, serving the same meals week in and week out. BUT . . .

There is a big difference between a fair and honest opinion and criticism that is masking a mean spirit or cruelty, the kind of criticism that destroys your will to continue. So, for all you new and returning chefs, let me give you a few hints on what types of opinions to accept and which to ignore when sharing your meals with others and asking for their opinion.

Consider the Source of All Opinions Given
One of the easiest way of working out most problems is to adapt Journalism's 5 W's of good reporting to your criticisms.
  • Who is giving the criticism? A best friend, husband, wife, lover, child, chef, take-out diner? Knowing their background helps you work with the criticism. Most folks are pretty attached to their favorite flavors and ingredients. If your dish is out of their comfort zone, the opinion is just that, something they don't like because it's different. Look for the kernel of truth and use that to improve your dish and ignore the rest.
  • What is the criticism? An honest opinion reflects the majority of tasters and you will learn that your meal is too salty, too bland, too mushy, too crispy, under-cooked, over-cooked -- things that can be fixed over time. But, most people tasting the dish will likely have the same opinion, so you can feel safe in assuming they are right. The lone wolf always finding fault, no matter what is prepared, can be ignored. If the critic blinks rapidly, screws up their face, and says, "bletch," without giving any real reason for the theatrics, wonder why you're trying to please them.
  • When is the criticism given? Waiting until you've been served the same dish four or five times before letting the chef know that there really is far too much sage in the dressing for the average person to eat in a lifetime is the same as waiting until after the party to tell your friend that they have spinach on their teeth. An honest opinion comes no later than the second time a dish is served with the same ingredients and given with the understanding that different people have different tastes.
  • Where is the criticism given? Does the critic wait for a roomful of people to grow silent before shouting, "My God, is this a cat in the casserole! I'm allergic to cats! How could you do this!" Or, do they wait until you can have a private conversation and tell you that there was something unpleasant, something hard to pinpoint, something like, well, a dead cat, on the bottom of the bowl? Honest opinion comes from love and a desire to see someone grow in their interests, not in humiliating them before others.
  • Why is the criticism given? This is the tricky one. If you've asked for an opinion, then it's only fair to accept the opinion. If unsolicited, consider the source and what they may or may not have to gain by either praising your dish to the skies or tearing it apart. Do you trust their judgment about food? Do you trust their friendship? Is it an unbiased opinion? There's nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. Your own instincts should tell you whether the criticism is honest, given in love and support of your interest, or meant to curb your enthusiasm about cooking.
Everyone's Opinion Has Validity in Their Kitchen
We all feel that we can improve anybody's recipes. If you don't believe me, check out the comment sections on cooking sites. A recipe is posted, then everyone says why they did or did not like it -- usually, after they've altered most of the ingredients to their own liking. "I didn't have hazelnuts, so I used corn nuts," and, "I substituted cider vinegar for the white wine and used wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour, and left out the garlic because. . ." Sometimes, in their opinion, the dish turned out better than the original recipe; sometimes, it didn't live up to the hype -- in their opinion.

Never mind that they changed the interaction of the ingredients and altered the recipe to suit their own tastes. In their opinion, your recipe wasn't very good. But, that's all it is, their opinion, based on their own personal likes and dislikes. If your critics can pass the 5 W's test, you'll be able to trust their criticisms and feel confident preparing your family's favorite meals while building your own recipe file. And, before long, they'll be asking you for your opinion about their latest recipe.

Saturday, March 24

Solar Sirloin Tips and Rumbledethumps

Not exactly corned beef and collops for St. Paddy's day, but the Scotch in me (genetic, not ingested) always likes to add a little curve ball to the celebration. It also helps to NOT have ingredients on hand to start the old creative juices flowing.  But, I did use a marinade and potatoes and cabbage for my side. No question, plating leaves a lot to be desired but, by then, the Scotch had been ingested and I was hungry!

Marinated Sirloin Beef Tips

Slice 8oz top sirloin, crosswise, in 1/8th inch strips. Remove fat. In medium skillet over med-high heat, saute 1/4 lb bacon until it begins to crisp. Remove bacon and add to marinade.

Marinade: 1/4 cup black coffee, 1/2 cup blackberry merlot, 1 tsp yellow mustard, 1/2 tsp allspice, 1/2 tsp stevia, 1/2 tsp mace.

Saute sirloin tips in bacon, 1 minute per side; add tips to marinade. Cover and set aside for at least an hour. Remove skillet from heat whilst preparing the Rumbledethumps.

Preheat solar oven to 225F.  Use a rectangular casserole or the 4-qt roaster.

Rumbledethumps:  You will need to pare and slice some potatoes, a quarter head of a small cabbage, 1 large sliced and chopped carrot, a chopped medium red onion, and two cloves of rough-chopped garlic. 

Don't even ask what I did with that photo! The potatoes were so big that, after slicing the first one,  I ended up using just one for my sister and myself. Like the old Russian soup, this recipe really grows with each added ingredient! I think the traditional Rumbledethumps were just potatoes and cabbage, but everyone made it their own and onions became a part of the recipe very early on. (I added the carrot to celebrate me Scottish roots, I did, and add a touch of orange to the plate.)

Return the skillet to the medium-high burner and soften the bacon fat to saute the onions and garlic. Wait until the onions begin to turn translucent before adding the delicate garlic so that it doesn't burn. Then, add the carrots and potatoes and stir to blend.

Make a roux from 1 Tablespoon butter and 1 Tablespoon flour. Create a circle in the pan with the ingredients and let the roux soften and melt in the center, cooking the flour for about a minute. Slowly stir in 1-1/2 cups beef broth/water and blend all ingredients until gravy thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste, if using water. Gravy will definitely be wet looking.

Create a separate container with tin foil (or use one of those throw-away mini foil bread pans) to hold the meat in the center of your baking dish. Place marinated sirloin tips and a quarter cup of the marinade in the foil container, and seal.

Surround foil container with ingredients from skillet; cover and bake in solar oven for approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours, until potatoes are fork tender.  As I said before, plating was not top priority, at this point.

Peasant fare, but, oh, so, delicious.  Enjoy with the rest of the Blackberry Merlot!

Saturday, March 17

Hot and Sour Kielbasa Cabbage Solar Soup

If you're like me, you really love a well-made Hot and Sour Soup. In fact, the soup is my litmus test for whether or not I'll be coming back to a restaurant. Nothing is more disappointing than an insipid, lackluster, blah, hot and sour soup. You wonder if the chef even tasted it before bringing it out front. I like when you can feel the hotness coat the throat but it doesn't really burn, just gives you that great feeling of -- well, I don't know what to say, really, it's just wonderful. All flavors are so well-balanced that it's hard to pick them out. When it's blah, it's not only disappointing, it's insulting, and nothing more than meat and vegetables in water. Ptui!

Well, I wasn't trying for the end result, just playing around with what seasonings were on hand, and somehow managed to turn this puppy into an absolutely perfect rendition of a hot and sour soup. Yes! And, not for me, soups with little content. I like to make them into my main course, whenever possible, because I absolutely adore soups. And, yet, I'm not that crazy about stews. (Wonder what that's all about?!?)

Because I believe in working with my solar oven and not treating it as an adversary within my mainstream world, I have no problem giving foods a jump start. For the short time that you're using a stovetop, or the microwave, you're not burning that many BTUs. (It's when you go past twenty minutes of cooking that it really starts to add up.) And, if your stock pot is thick-sided, why not preheat it with some hot water, at the same time that everything is being done on the stovetop?
Hot and Sour Kielbasa Cabbage Soup
1/2 pound Polish Kielbasa, diced
1/4 green cabbage, chopped
3 large collard leaves, chopped
3 medium potatoes, diced
3 medium carrots, cross-sliced thin
1 medium onion, chopped
7 cups water
10oz chicken broth
2 T soy sauce
3 T apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp stevia (or 2 tsps sugar)
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1    tsp basil
1    tsp parsley

Preheat solar oven to 225F. Use 6qt stock pot
1. On stovetop, bring water and broth to high simmer; add kielbasa and vegetables, return to high simmer, not a boil.
2. Add soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, stevia, salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, basil and parsley. Stir to thoroughly blend. Cover
3. Place in solar oven and let cook for approximately 1.5 to 2 hours. 
4. Remove from solar oven; serve with favorite crackers.

Shared with It's a Keeper Thursday

Monday, March 12

Solar Turkey Necks and Wild Rice

Looking over the past few months' recipes, I seem to have been taking advantage of a run on lesser cuts in the meat department. Well, why not feed the family and save money at the same time? And, what an opportunity to show you how solar cooking creates budget meals that will have your family begging for a second, even, third, helping! Frankly, the neck of the turkey has always been my favorite part and, because no one else wanted it, it was all mine! Let the peasants have the breasts and the legs, I wanted that old tenderloin (heh, heh, heh) and the neck.
My pound package held five necks for just $2.77 and one neck per person is more than enough. This is the perfect recipe to just leave alone in the solar oven for as long as you want, while you busy yourself, elsewhere.  'Though ready for the table in a couple of hours, it's really fantastic after three or four. Tender and juicy, falling off the bone meat, means everyone will have a great time at the end of the meal sucking the last delicious drops from the neck bones while chatting about their day! Oh, yeah, this is not a meal to serve guests in gowns and tuxes; this is for those people who mean the world to you.

Turkey Necks and Wild Rice
1 lb pkg turkey necks (4-5 necks)
1 large carrot, thinly sliced crosswise
2 medium zucchini, sliced crosswise
2 large collard/spinach/mustard leaves (optional)
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsps flour
1/4 tsp ginger
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp allspice
1/8 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp sage
10oz chicken stock plus 6oz water
3/4 cup wild rice

Preheat solar oven to 225F     Roasting pan, lined with collard leaves (optional)
1. Spread sliced carrots and zucchini over collard leaves on bottom of roasting pan.

2. Pour chicken stock and water in a 1-qt measuring cup; add rinsed wild rice. Cook in microwave on high for 5-6 minutes. Stir in chopped onion, garlic, ginger, half the salt and pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and sage. Pour slowly over bottom of roasting pan and level with back of spoon.

3. In large bowl or plastic bag, mix flour and balance of salt and pepper together; add washed and dried turkey necks; shake to coat thoroughly.

4. Heat skillet over medium-high heat; add olive oil and butter. Saute turkey necks about two minutes, turning to brown on all sides; place over rice in roasting pan.

5. Cover and bake in solar oven for 2-1/2 to 3 hours,

until rice is cooked and turkey necks are fork tender, with meat just falling from the bone.

This is comfort food, plain and simple, and, if done right, you will need more than one napkin! Do you have a favorite comfort food recipe?

Wednesday, March 7

Solar Spaghetti with Red Tomato Butter Onion Sauce - Crazy Cooking Challenge

It's another Crazy Cooking Challenge and for March 2012, the assignment is spaghetti with RED sauce. And, spaghetti was the only pasta allowed. Thank the Lord I found one with just three -- count them, 1,2,3 -- ingredients because I had to make it, twice! Oh, yeah, Dumb Bunny, me, didn't read the fine print and used penne pasta for my first attempt. Shame on me. But, I didn't care. With just tomatoes, butter, and an onion, you are transported to another level of gastronomic ecstacy.  Well, actually, just two ingredients, because you throw one away, when it's time to serve -- what could be easier?
This absolutely delicious recipe was found on Deb Perelman's blog called Smitten Kitchen. She is a food photographer extraordinaire, prepares fantastic foods, is NOT a professional chef -- and, does everything in a little New York apartment kitchen! That isn't to say she hasn't been noticed in the blogging world, but it does mean she meets the criteria. Her recipes are within everyone's budget because she doesn't use exotic ingredients and she's tenacious about getting each recipe, just so.  As with other Challenges, I'm sending you directly to her site for an in-depth tale on Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onions and only adding what I did using the solar oven because the purpose is to introduce you to new bloggers and, hopefully, discover someone you want to visit on a regular basis.

Solar Spaghetti with Red Tomato Butter Onion Sauce  is my adaptation of this incredibly easy sauce. Deb calls for a 28oz can of whole tomatoes and a whole onion, cut in half. As you know, I dehydrate straight from the garden for that garden-fresh taste and that's what I used. Six slices of dried tomato equaled one Early Girl tomato (approx. 10 ounces), so I used 24 slices for rehydration in 24 ounces of warm water. (I know. I know. Simple math says it should be 30 ounces, but I wasn't looking for extra liquid and knew that this would do what I wanted it to do.) One tablespoon of dried onion equals one medium onion. I wrapped the onions in two layers of cheesecloth secured with a rubber band, leaving enough room for expansion, and let it sit in 2 tablespoons of warm water until all liquid was absorbed. 

Because my tomatoes hadn't been skinned, the rehydrated tomatoes were run thru the processor to prevent 'strings' in the finished sauce. The tomatoes were returned to the tempered measuring cup, along with the cheesecloth sack of rehydrated onions, and zapped in the microwave for 4 minutes to get things started and reduce any temperature drop in the preheated solar oven.

I stirred in the 5 tablespoons of butter after pouring everything into a 4-quart roaster, added the cover and cooked it in the solar oven for approximately 1.5 hours. The sauce was pretty thick, by then, but still needed a bit more reduction because I hadn't cooked it uncovered, letting excess moisture escape. Final reduction was done, stovetop, in under five minutes, in a skillet over medium-high heat. I squeezed the onion sack between two wooden spoons to get every last drop of goodness before discarding, and added a touch of salt.

When done, this sauce is smooth, silky smooth, and unbelievably delicious.  I sprinkled a bit of parmesan cheese over top and added a few sprigs of fresh Italian Parsley that didn't know it was winter time and has been happily growing in the herb garden. So easy. Please give it a try.

And, if you have any leftover, this sauce is perfect for dipping, well, anything! Something I discovered, quite by accident; yup.  Yes, those are leftover KFC wings on a paper plate! Trust me, this is dangerous territory.

As always, I hope you'll visit the other Challengers and leave them some comment love, too. I know you'll find new sauces to try for your spaghetti dishes, BUT, you'll be able to use any pasta you want because it's your kitchen -- and, you're in charge!


Saturday, March 3

Solar Potatoes and Onions au Gratin

Vegetables done au gratin can be very impressive, even though they are very easy to prepare. Never able to leave well-enough, alone, I just had to add onions to the potatoes and came up with a very tasty dish.

This is a case where the vegetables are at odds -- the potatoes are dense and the onions are not, so we have to balance the cooking process. Give the sliced potatoes a head start with a 2-minute zap in the microwave before layering them in your casserole. It's not cheating; it's what a multi-tasking cook does!

Potatoes and Onions au Gratin
3 medium red potatoes, thinly sliced
2 medium onions, thinly sliced crosswise
1 tsp salt
1/8 tsp black pepper
1.25 cups chicken stock
1 small can evaporated milk + 1 can hot water
1 tsp powdered cream
1/8 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp parsley
1/2 tsp dill leaves
1/2 cup shredded cheese of your choice

Preheat solar oven to 225F. Lightly grease casserole.  Alternate layers of potato and onion in casserole, starting and ending with potatoes. In large tempered glass measuring cup, blend liquids with herbs and spices; zap in microwave for 2 minutes; pour over potato-onion layers. Cover and bake in solar oven for 70 minutes; uncover, spread shredded cheese over top; return to solar oven and bake for an additional 45 minutes or until top is golden brown and potatoes are fork tender.

Do you have a special au gratin recipe?

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