Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Major Award!

This caption is lost on our illiterate readers, but they appreciate the photos.
The experience of 'blogging' is still relatively new to me.  I suppose that we've reached a point in our culture where blogging is just another actual verb and does not require the quotation marks, so perhaps I will drop them from here on out.  You'll have to forgive me if I end up using them later; I still remember growing up in a time where no one had a cell phone and we didn't waste time on the internet because there was nothing on the internet to waste time on...and nobody was using it.  Cats were generally less famous.  Looking back now, I'm actually grateful that my own childhood was bereft of these things, though I am beginning to digress from the topic at hand.

So, blogging.  Christa had actually set-up the blog itself.  She chose the formatting and put it together, established the theme and wrote the initial description and first post.  I had assumed that while I would do most of the cooking, she would in fact take care of the technical side of things and do most of the posting.  She is a child of the cellular/internet age...a digital native.  She is also well versed in maintaining a blog, as she has had her own for years, and has kept journals for longer than I have known her.  Thus, as I'm now writing my 20-somethingeth post (and I know that's not many, but as I pointed out I'm still new to this), I just had to take a moment to think about how much more involved I have become in the writing/blogging end of things.  I've never kept a journal, I've never really had any kind of public forum such as this before to express myself, and it seems that I had no idea that it was something that I was missing.  I really enjoy this, and it turns out that this has become one of the many ways in which Christa has brought joy into my life.

Now that I'm actively blogging an really enjoying myself doing so, I have found that I am really generally interested in things like how many visitors actually come here, and who is reading what we have to say.  It's a pretty young blog without any revolutionary content, so that number is still 'not many', and I'm pretty sure that most of them are friends and family.  That's cool, though, because we aren't really trying to reach the world just yet, but to share our experiences with food and share some tasty recipes that are legitimately healthy.  Our friends and families are really our target market in that regard. 

Now, allow me to finally get to the meaning behind the title of this post.  (No recipes today, I'm afraid, but I did make some killer venison pot pies that will be up sometime soon.)  Very recently, an external factor recognized the legitimacy of what we are doing here.  I had written to Pure Indian Foods in order to inquire about obtaining a product sample for review on our site.  They had posted an open invitation to do so on another social media website, so I decided that I had nothing to lose in submitting our little blog for their potential approval.  I had found out about this company for several reasons.  I am a fan of ghee, but the only ghee that I have used has been that which I've rendered myself, so I was curious about trying a prepared product.  Their ghee is certified organic from grass fed cows, so that fit in with my own nutritional ethics.  Additionally, they offer a naturally condensed cane sugar product called jagger, which is essentially pressed sugarcane juice that is naturally evaporated (not separated, not refined; all minerals still intact).  Baking sweets can be challenging with only natural and unrefined sweeteners.  Maple syrup does impart additional flavors, and you can't really bake with raw honey because once it is heated it's no longer raw.  One more bonus - they're actually a local family run business, based out of Princeton. 

We're under no obligation to crack this open, but we will.
I decided that I had nothing to lose by inquiring about sampling their ghee and their jaggery, but I really didn't expect to receive anything.  Call it an exercise in rejection.  However, I was really excited to find out that they had decided to select us to review some samples, and were shipping out ghee and jaggery.  So, it's not a major award, but it felt good to have what we are doing validated in that way.  Of course, I'm also extremely excited to try these out in all kinds of recipes.  Some things I already have in mind, and for others I'm hoping for some feedback from you.  So please, if you happen to be in our core audience, or just wandered in from someplace near or far, I'm hoping that you'll take a moment to leave some suggestions down below in the comment section of what we can do with these two foods; particularly the jaggery as I have never used it before.  I found a couple of rice dishes, and I might also try to use it next time that I make pumpkin pie (which I promise to put up here as a recipe post).  My pie crust is pretty fantastic if I do say so myself.  Which I just did. 

Oh, so I have to add this down here.  Disclaimer: Pure Indian Foods provided me with a free sample of this product to review, and I was under no obligation to review it if I so chose. Nor was I under any obligation to write a positive review or sponsor a product giveaway in return for the free product.

I closing, another photo for those of you who can't read, or are in fact fantastic readers but also like looking at pictures, or just managed to make it all the way to the end of this posting. 
Gratuitous shot of the aforementioned pot pies and pie crust.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sprouting Grains

It is only fairly recently that I have begun incorporating sprouted grains into my own diet, and now by extension we have both begun to enjoy them with some regularity.  It wasn't really the mystery of the process that had prevented me from attempting to do so in the past, but rather the lack of any real need.  Personally, I don't have a great deal of desire for most breads or cereal grains.  Once I changed my dietary habits years ago, I found that I didn't really miss bread all that much, and that while I have no issues with gluten or any other component of wheat, I just rarely had the desire.  This is not to say that I don't appreciate a good piece of bread (or pizza  or pie crust) every now and again, and I did go through a serious baking kick a couple of years ago where I finally figured out how to consistently produce good leavened breads in my own kitchen, but given my own natural food predilections, I could and do easily go months in between having any baked good or really any grains in general.  The one exception to this is oats; I really like oats and I eat them all of the time (usually soured), but oats are good enough for me and I never grow tired of them.

Christa likes bread a whole lot, though.  She is also generally a big fan of cereal grains and pasta in particular.  It was partially due to this that after putting together a batch of tabbouleh together one afternoon that I started to consider some healthy grain options that we could both enjoy together.  I like the idea of sprouting grains for the same reason that I like to sour my oats - make the nutritional quality greater for the same amount of calories with just a little extra investment of time.

Grains are cheap, too, relatively speaking.  This appeals to me, because quality pasture raised animal products (meat, milk, eggs...) are not.  It's good to be able to make up the balance of one's caloric needs with something that only costs a couple of bucks at most per pound.  I decided to go with hard winter wheat berries, as they were only about $1.50/lb and I thought that we might be able to use them in much the same way as bulgur.

The procedure is very simple, and I'm happy to say that even on my first attempt that I had a great batch of wheat sprouts.  I usually sprout about a cup of wheat each week, which gets us through for a couple of servings.  In order to sprout wheat, or by extension just about any other whole grain, you'll need a jar of some sort with a semipermeable cover that will allow water and air to circulate while containing the grains.  I use an old glass jar that I saved and make a makeshift cover out of a rubber band and some cheesecloth. 
The first thing that you'll need to do is to soak the grains in warm water for about 8-12 hours.  This will rehydrate them and initiate the sprouting process.  You can see below how the grains have plumped up a bit after the initial soaking period.
Now, pour the water off of the grains, rinse again with warm water, drain, and place them in a dark spot (I used my food dehydrator because it is on the kitchen counter already and is quite dark inside).  Any box or even a paper bag would be just fine.  Lay the jar on its side as shown, in order to give the grains room and to allow air to circulate around them to avoid growing mold.
Now, every 12 hours simple rinse off the grains with more fresh warm water, drain, and return them to dark storage.  The rinsing keeps them moist without soaking them (an entirely different process).  Within 2-4 days, depending on the grain and the temperature, the grains will have sprouted.  You can see below how these have just barely begun to sprout.  Note the small white protrusions. 
In another 12-24 hours, they look like this when I do wheat:
This is when I stop the process by placing the sprouts in the refrigerator in a covered container to be used in cold salads (toss with parsley, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar), or steam them and coat with butter and salt, or maple syrup, honey, or anything else that you might put on a hot breakfast cereal.  Use your imagination with these; wheat is a fairly blank canvas (though the sprouted wheat does have a really excellent flavor and texture without the addition of anything else).  The sprouts will keep for several days once refrigerated.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Creamy Potato Bacon Soup

 This soup really is a heavily bastardized version of caldo verde.  I'm very familiar with this fact, as I started out a few years ago making caldo verde, and it has finally evolved into this slightly different version that you see below.  I like the play of the bacon to the potatoes more so than any sausage that I have tried, and a good quality raw cheddar cheese seemed like a natural topping for a soup that already tasted like a bacon stuffed baked potato.

To start, get yourself a big sack of potatoes.  I would highly recommend going with a gold potato or even a red potato, as baking or russet potatoes don't really lend themselves well to this recipe.  Below you'll see that I went with some beautiful yukon golds.
Yukon Gold, baby.
Due to the fact that I happened to be in the midst of making a chicken stock while preparing this soup, I scrubbed the potatoes very well so that I could save the skins to add to the stock.  I then set up a peeling station, because 5 pounds of #1 potatoes takes a while to peel.  Once peeled, I put the potatoes into a large bowl filled with cold water and some ascorbic acid.  I did this to prevent them from oxidizing while I was working on the rest of the ingredients (of which there really aren't many).  Some lemon juice in the water, or even just the plain cold water by itself would work fine if you don't have any ascorbic acid or vitamin C laying around.  I did.
My dad used to tell me how much fun he had peeling potatoes in the navy.
Once the potatoes were peeled, I then cut them in half lengthwise and then into 1/4" thick slices.  I returned the slices of potato to the large bowl of cold water.  After that, I chopped this marvelous 18 ounce pack of thick, apple-wood smoked bacon into a small dice.
Bacon has magical properties on the internet, right?
I then tossed the diced bacon into a very large pan and let it brown.
Looking Good
Looking Better.  We can just stop here, right?
After the bacon got crispy, I removed it and placed it in a small bowl to just hang out for a while.  I also drained most of the bacon grease out of the pan.  This bacon grease went into the fridge, where it is still performing feats of awesomeness, such as frying eggs or being slathered all over whole chickens before roasting.  I did leave a few tablespoons of the bacon grease in the pan, and to this I added the drained potato slices.
While the potatoes were frying in the bacon fat...hang on, let me just savor the thought...I poured the liquid that I had used to soak the potatoes into a small saucepan and reduced it in volume to roughly one quart.  I was going to need some extra liquid, and rather than just add water I thought that it would be much more sensible to use the water that was already full of potato starch and any other enrichment that may have leached out of the potatoes while they were soaking.  Once the potatoes had browned just slightly, I poured this reduced liquid into the potato pan.
I also added a quart of rich beef stock for a heavy dose of nutrients and some excellent background flavor notes.  Chicken stock would work very well, too. 
If I can put bone stock into something, I will put bone stock into something.
Once the potatoes were well established in copious amounts of liquid, I turned the heat down and let them simmer while I ate all of the bacon.  Just kidding.  I simmered the potatoes until they were very soft, and then blended them along with the cooking liquid until velvety smooth.  I incorporated the bacon pieces back into the creamed potatoes and poured the whole mess into my slow cooker in order to let the flavors meld together for a few hours at a low temperature.  You don't need to use a slow cooker, but I did so that I could just walk away from the whole operation without fear of having anything burn.
Just hanging out and getting friendly
At some point in time I think that I took a nap.  I undoubtedly wasted some time on the internet.  However, I'm sure that I took a large bunch of lacinato kale that I had washed and sliced the rubs out of the leaves before cutting leaves into fairly fine slices.  I used lacinato kale because it sounds much more pretentious than regular kale.  Regular kale is for chumps, right?  This is a blog about food, so I felt obligated to opt for the fancier version of this robust leafy green.  Feel free to use regular kale when you make your own version, but be sure to tell your friends and loved ones that you used regular old kale because you truly don't give a damn about them.  Meanwhile I will continue to use my fancy kale.

OK, the lacinato is also a darker color and is not as crinkly, so it does look a lot better in soups like this.  That's actually what drew me to it in the first place.  Anyway, shortly before it's time to serve, stir the sliced kale into the soup and just cook it for about 10-15 minutes at most.  It will turn a very mice shade of green and be soft without totally falling apart.  The soup is very rich and savory, and the sturdy green of the kale (lacinato or otherwise) juxtaposes this in a wonderful way.  I elected to top the soup with some freshly shredded raw cheddar cheese, which was very good, or you can omit the cheese and just enjoy it how it is.  I put it into a hot thermos and sent it off with Christa for lunch.

So, in summary:

Creamy Potato Bacon Soup

  • 5 lbs of yellow potatoes
  • 16-18 ounces of good thick cut bacon
  • 1 quart of beef stock
  • 1 head of lacinato kale (or regular kale)
  • cheddar cheese to taste (optional)

1)  Peel potatoes and place in bowl of cool water with some vitamin C (to prevent oxidation)
2)  Cut potatoes into 1/4" thick slices and return to water to continue soaking.
3)  Dice the bacon and fry until crispy.  Remove the bacon from the pan, and reserve all but 2-3 tablespoons of the bacon grease for other projects.  In this 2-3 tablespoons of grease, toss the sliced potatoes to brown.  Meanwhile, reduce the soaking water to roughly one quart in volume.
4)  Once potatoes are brown, add reduced water and beef stock.  Simmer until the potatoes are soft.
5)  Blend the potatoes in their cooking liquid until smooth.  Add the bacon to this and simmer for a few hours to meld the flavors together.  I used a slow cooker for this part of the process because it was just much easier than manning a pot.
6)  Shortly before serving, stir the sliced kale into the soup to cook.  It won't take long for the kale to turn emerald green.  Ladle into bowls and top with shredded cheddar cheese.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Carrot Soup

I like to make simple creamy soups our of root vegetables or squash combined with a meat stock base.  My go-to vegetable is butternut squash in chicken stock, but as Christa is not a fan of that particular gourd, this time I tried carrots for a similar effect.  The addition of ginger plays well with the roasted carrots, and the real cream turns the soup into a velvety meal.

To make this soup, you will need the following:
  • 2.5 lbs of carrots
  • 10 cloves of garlic
  • 4 or 5 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 1 quart of chicken stock
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • 1/2 of a large white onion
  • 1 cup of heavy cream (preferably non-homogenized grass-fed)
  • 1 cup of ginger infused water*
  • herbes de provence
  1.  Peel the carrots and chop into large rounds.  Place them in a baking dish along with the garlic and rosemary.  Drizzle just a little bit of olive oil on top, and put them into a 375F oven for an hour to roast.  Discard the rosemary afterwards and put vegetables aside.
  2. Dice the onion very finely and saute in a large saucepan with about a tablespoon of butter.  When the onion is very soft and translucent but not browned, pour the stock into the pot and add the roasted vegetables and herbes.  Simmer this gently until the carrots are soft and mushy.
  3. Take an emulsion blender and begin to liquify the contents of the pot.  At this time, add the ginger water (it will help to increase the volume of liquid while you are blending).  Once the soup is smooth, turn off the heat and use the blender to incorporate the cream.
carrots, garlic, and rosemary all ready for the oven

After blending all of the ingredients, it's ready to serve.

That's all there is to it.  The soup is warm, creamy, and just a little bit sweet, however the sweetness is cut by the ginger which is in turn mellowed slightly be the cream.  Pack it in a hot thermos to take for lunch with a couple of hard boiled eggs, enjoy a steaming cup of soup on a cold evening, or just pour it on your lap.


*Ginger infused water:  Take a finger of ginger, peel it, and dice if up into very small cubes.  Place it in a heat safe container (I like to use a thermos for this as it holds the heat longer) and pour 2-3 cups of boiling water over the ginger.  Let it steep for several hours.

I was thinking about using this for my desktop wallpaper...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Fried Shrimp

Fried might conjure up the image of some butterflied shrimp tails covered in breading and then deep fried in some frightening trans-fat laden vegetable oil and served with a lackluster side of mediocre tartar sauce and a lemon wedge.  Well, if that's the image that came into your mind before you saw the photo above, I'm here to set the record straight, because this is how you do fried shrimp. 

It's fast, it's easy, and if you have never had shrimp this way it will probably change your opinion on this humble crustacean.  The ingredients are few, but quality is especially important here.

Start with some large whole shrimp.  Whole shrimp!  Don't just buy the tails and call it a day.  The body is where all of the flavor is, so get about a pound (depending on how many you are serving) of very fresh whole shrimp from your local merchant of choice.

You'll also need some quality rendered leaf lard.  I render my own from a local farm that sells the hard kidney fat from their whey and acorn fed pigs.  The rendering process takes a little while, but it is very easy and you can produce a lot of lard and store it in the freezer for a long time.  Lard is excellent for frying because it is heat stable, does not impart any flavor, and makes food incredibly crispy.  In fact, I eat the entire shrimp when cooking them in lard (head, body, tail, shell, legs, eyeballs..everything).

Wash the shrimp under cool water and pat dry.  Toss them with seasoning of you choice (I used a paprika and celery based mixed seasoning from my favorite local spice shop for these, but salt and pepper are great as well).  Heat about 1/4" deep layer of lard in a stainless steel or cast iron skillet and add the shrimp carefully into the oil.  Take care not to crowd them; it is better to cook them in several small batches than to overload the pan.
Cooking time really depends on the size of the shrimp, but fortunately they have a built in cooking indicator.  When you see that the shrimp have turned pink just a little bit more than halfway up their sides, flip them over and cook for a few more minutes until the entire shrimp is pink and crispy.  The meat should be cooked through but not tough, and the shells will be so crisp that you can eat these whole (and I suggest that you do at least try it for full effect).
Simply remove from the oil and serve hot.  This is serious 'finger food', so keep your sides simple.  Some broccoli or even brussels sprouts would make a good pairing.
Everything on this plate is edible; from the crispy shells to the tasty guts

Saturday, February 16, 2013

First time...not always a charm.

Earlier this week, I decided to try my first attempt at making naturally lactofermented vegetables.  These are something that we have both been eating more of lately, in the form of sauerkraut and pickles, but the only non-pasturized naturally fermented vegetables that I have been able to find commercially available are confined to these two options.  There is only so much kraut that one can eat, and pickles don't go with everything (though Christa would probably disagree with me on that last point).  Given this, and my desire to prepare most of what we eat from as close to scratch as possible, I want to become more familiar with the art of natural fermentation.

Lactofermentation is a fairly straightforward process (so I say).  Food is submerged in liquid, either the liquid naturally occurring in the food that is released during chopping and crushing, or a solution of brine that prevents the growth of undesirable bacteria until the beneficial microbes have a chance to dominate the environment.  Once these desirable microbes have colonized the food, they produce lactic acid which in turn prevents spoilage and the growth of dangerous microbes.  The process also increases the available nutrients of the product being fermented, and preserves it naturally while giving the whole shebang a tangy flavor that many people (ourselves included) enjoy.

Carrots would be my first foray into the world of home fermentation.  Why carrots?  Well, not only are they colorful, tasty, and...ok, to be honest with you I had nearly 5 pounds of carrots in my refrigerator and I was starting to run out of ways to use them.  One can only make so much carrot soup (which is delicious and will soon have its own post), and my latest renditions of carrots-in-everything were getting kind of old.  So, my muse was a giant sack of carrots, and I was compelled by little more than the shear quantity of them at hand.

I got my recipe for fermented ginger carrots from Nourishing Traditions, which is an interesting cookbook.  The recipes are firmly founded in solid nutritional concepts, but to be honest with you many of them lack a do I put this...most of the ones that I have tried don't really come together all that great.  It is a wonderful source of inspiration, but I am convinced that the author is not a cook by trade.  Again, I like the book, I have recommended it, but I think that a lot of the recipes need some tweaking - this is fine, as I rarely follow a recipe to the letter after the first time that I have tried it (and sometimes not even on the first attempt).  Oh, so these carrots.  That's what I was trying to tell you about.  The recipe called for 4 cups of shredded carrots, a tablespoon of salt, some ground fresh ginger, and some liquid whey.  I happen to have had all of these available.

I pounded the carrots as best as I could after shredding them and mixing them with the salt and ginger.  Carrots are rather hard, and they didn't produce much liquid of their own.  I added the prescribed amount of whey, packed the whole deal into a VERY clean one quart mason jar, and then proceeded to pound on the vegetables with the large handle of a jar scraper, since I do not own a dedicated vegetable tamper.  I needed to add a little bit more whey in order to ensure that all the carrots were submerged entirely, but finally I sealed up the jar and placed it in my food dehydrator on the kitchen counter.  I put it in the dehydrator so that it would be dark....effectively it served as a very expensive box.

Bubbles!  I am god of the pickles!
Three days later, and upon inspection of the jar I saw bubbles.  Bubble!  Success!   The little microbes had been hard at work, producing gasses and lactic acid.  I was on the fast track to becoming a master of fermentation.  The sky was the limit, and I thought of all of the relishes and pickles that I would soon be turning out in quantity, and where I would put my huge cucumber garden in order to satiate Christa's unending desire for pickles of all kinds.  I would need to start growing cabbage, too, and of course the mason jars weren't going to cut it.  I began trying to figure out in my mind whether a 10 quart or a 15 quart stone crock would be better suited to making sauerkraut for our purposes.

And then, I opened the jar to try my delicious pickled carrots.  Ok, first of all I should have expected the top of the jar to blow off like a jack in the box when I loosened the retaining ring, but it still caught me completely by surprise when it hit the ceiling.  Expletive deleted.  I performed a smell test.  So far, so good!  Then, when I grabbed a fork to sample some of the carrot relish, I was treated to this sight.
Yech!  So, maybe not a pickling deity. 
Slime.  Slick, clear, slime.  It was as if the carrots were suspended in mucous.  Some quick research led me to believe that some undesirable bacteria had colonized my carrots and turned my dreams into a pile of gooey snot.  I have since read that using grey salt (which I did) may be inadvisable, as the moisture can sometimes harbor unwanted microbes that may be introduced into the fermentation.

I dumped the contents of the jar into the garbage can.  Fortunately it was only a single, small test batch.  I'm not discouraged by the process, either.  While it can be easy to get caught up in the moment, it's not realistic to expect perfect results the first (or second, or third) time that we try something.  They may not even be edible.  This applies not just to pickled carrots, but to pickled cucumbers, or any recipe, or any new skill or hobby.  It's one of those 'life lessons' that you hear about and hope that you recognize when they happen.  Don't let a single failure stop you from giving it everything you've got next time around, and recognize that you'll probably make mistakes along the way, whether you are trying to make carrot relish or paint your house or find that one right person to share your life with.  Let it go and focus on the now.

That's all.  Nothing tasty to share with you today, but hopefully one day I will have some good recipes for pickled something-or-other.  Until then.


Friday, February 15, 2013

Venison and Barley

 Sometimes it pays to cook all of the components of a dish together, especially if it is a slow cooked meal.  However, other times it is preferable to cook a dish such as this in separate stages in order to get the most out of each component of the recipe.  This works better as the latter.  The use of a slow cooker and cooking in stages makes the actual active cooking time fairly short and spread out.

  • 3-4 lbs of venison leg roasts, cut into large chunks (or any other red meat)
  • 4 cups of beef stock
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 10 cloves of garlic, whole
  • 2 cups of barley
  • 1 pound of mushrooms (shitake and crimini) 
  • Fresh rosemary 
1)  Start off by browning the meat in a large pan with some tallow.  Any red meat would be fine, I used venison because I have a freezer nearly filled with it.  Beef, lamb, horse, goat, or any other red meat would work just as well for this.  Transfer the now browned meat to a slow cooker and add the onions, garlic, and stock.  Cook this on low overnight (or for 8-10 hours).  Remove everything from the slow cooker except the stock and reserve.
Put the meat, onions, and garlic in the refrigerator for now.
2)  Par boil the barley in a large pot of water.  I always partially cook barley before I put it into a soup or a stew because it has an ungodly capacity for liquid absorption.  In fact, this dish was going to be a stew, at least conceptually.  While you are doing this, clean the mushrooms and cut into a rough dice.  Add them to the stock along with the rosemary and the drained barley.
mushrooms float; barley sinks
3)  Cook the mushrooms and the barley for another 8-10 hours in the slow cooker.  The barley will probably have absorbed all of the stock from the pot, and you will have only a mix of barley and mushrooms.  I feel like no matter how much stock I would have started with, the barley would have just sucked it all up.  This is fine, really, as all of the flavor and nutrients of the beef stock have been incorporated into the barley, which in and of itself is pretty bland.  Remove the rosemary at this time, unless you enjoy picking little sticks and hard leaves out of your teeth later. 
the stock has been completely incorporated into the barley and mushrooms
4)  Shred the venison and add it back into the slow cooker along with the onions and garlic.  Stir everything together and allow the meat to heat up.  Plate into a heated serving bowl.  Rosemary makes a good garnish.  You can pour some more heated stock over this when you serve it if you'd prefer a more soup-like presentation.  I served up the first batch as pictured below, but later on I ended up adding anther quart of stock cut with some water just to have more of a soup...the barley absorbed most of this liquid, too, when I put those leftovers in the fridge.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cookie Dough

These aren't really cookie dough...if you bake them, they will not turn into cookies.  However, they taste remarkably similar to actual chocolate chip cookie dough, but are composed of fuit, nuts, and (gasp) some actual chocolate chips. 

This is way more than a serving size

I know that I got the inspiration for a date/nut based snack bar from somewhere on the internet that I cannot remember at this time and I apparently forgot to bookmark it.  However, I tweaked this one a bit, and I'm sure that the place that I first read about it didn't invent it, so I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. 

Ingredients are as follows:
  • 2 cups whole medjool dates, pitted
  • 1 cup whole almonds
  • 1 cup whole pecans (or crushed if that's what you have; it really doesn't matter in this recipe)
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 2 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup finely shredded coconut
  • 1 tsp real vanilla extract
  1. Put the dates, almonds, and pecans into a food processor and process them until they begin to look like a coarse paste.
  2. As the mixture starts looking pasty, pour in the coconut oil, coconut, and vanilla extract
  3. The contents of your blender should be a paste by this point in time.  Dump out into a bowl and stir in the chocolate chips.  It would be tempting to just throw the chips into the food processor and let your handy dandy kitchen gadget do all of the work.  Don't.  It will pulverize your chocolate chips, and the resultant heat of friction will also melt them and just make a big mess.  Yes, I am speaking to you from experience at this point.
  4. Press the mixture into a baking dish lined with a sheet of wax paper.  It doesn't have to be a baking dish, as you won't actually be baking these.  It could be a serving dish, or a platter with high sides, a large tupperware container, a firm hat, or a pair of long as you can easily remove the bars from the container once they have cooled down and become firm.  Once that happens, pop the sheet of "dough" out onto a cutting board and cut into portions.  I wrapped them in foil for easy transportation.
I'd sell out my own brother and sisters to a stranger in a sledge for a tray full of these.

Oh, so the chocolate chips that I bought happened to be organic.  Fancy, right?  I almost mentioned that in the ingredients, "your chocolate chips must be organic, or this whole recipe will be a giant bowl of fail".   I don't really have a firm stance on the benefits of organic chocolate chips, as I have not done much research on the topic.  I didn't even buy organic chips to be hip and/or cool.  I bought them because they were available in the bulk bin of my grocery store, whereas I would have otherwise had to buy an entire bag of 'regular' chips.  Since this is not an ingredient that I keep on hand regularly, I opted to just purchase a cup of the fancy chips, which I'm sure I ended up spending as much money on as I would have if I got a whole pound bag of the non-organic.  /rant


Monday, February 11, 2013

Rendering Fats

Tallow and Lard

Tallow and lard are two fantastic cooking fats, each with their own unique properties.  While it takes a few hours of fairly passive work to produce these kitchen staples, you can easily make enough to last for a year in one kitchen session.  I think that it's a shame that both of these fantastic ingredients have fallen out of favor in so many modern kitchens.  Whether for browning meats, sauteing onions, baking pies, or the beginnings of an incredible gravy, there are some instances when you really can't substitute for the originals.  By making your own from known sources of animal fat, you'll also be able to compliment your diet with a fantastic array of healthy lipids. 


Many of the recipes that we post here do in fact call for either lard or tallow as a minor ingredient, so I think that it would be worthwhile not only to talk about the applications of each, but also why we use them and go over a simple step by step of how you can keep your own kitchen stocked with both.

To start, why should we go through the trouble of producing either tallow or lard, and for that matter what exactly are they?  Both are the rendered forms of animal fat from either cattle (tallow), or pigs (lard).

Tallow on the left; Lard on the right

Tallow is mostly composed of heat stable saturated fats (55%) and monounsaturated fats (40%).  The small amount of polyunsaturated fats will have a favorable ratio of close to 1:1 omega 3 to omega 6 if you source your beef fat from pasture raised cows.  Tallow is naturally resistant from going rancid.  The fats from pasture raised cows also contain natural levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).  Food fried in tallow has excellent flavor and tends to absorb less fat than that fried in vegetable oils.    Anytime that I want to impart some subtle, almost beefy flavor to a food such as when browning meat, or cooking onions, or making gravies, tallow is my first choice.

Lard is actually made up mostly of monounsaturated fats, but like tallow contains a healthy compliment of saturated fat as well, including the antimicrobial palmitoleic acid.  Lard is softer than tallow when chilled (tallow is hard and nearly waxy, while lard tends to be very firm like butter).  Lard also imparts no flavors to the dish, but will make anything cooked in it exquisitely crisp.  Sometimes I will rub lard on the skin of a chicken before roasting, but it's also fantastic for frying shrimp, cooking potatoes, and as a must-have ingredient in pie crusts. 

For more details on the actual fatty acid contents of both tallow and lard, I would refer you to this excellent book:  Know Your Fats

The advantage of rendering your own lard and tallow are that you can be very picky about the animals that you select when buying the fat.  "Garbage in, garbage out" applies here, and if you want to heave healthy fats, much like healthy meats, you must choose animals that have been fed and raised properly.  Even pasture raised, grass-fed beef fat from the small-scale farm near me where I buy most of my meat from runs only about $3/lb, so it is well worth the investment.  Through rendering the fats, they become easier to work with (rather than cut off a slab of fatty tissue, you can scoop out the desired quantity from a jar) and also last longer in cold storage (the water and proteins and other bits that might rot have been removed from the fat). 

All that being said, it is time to produce some rendered fats.  The following example uses beef fat, but the same process applies for pork fat, lamb fat, or even butter (which would yield ghee).

Begin by thawing out the fat that you have obtained, if necessary.  At this point, the material that we are referring to as 'fat' is actually a collection of lipids, connective tissue, water, blood vessels, and possibly some bits of muscles as well.  The goal is to extract only the lipids (fats) from this mass of animal fat.
several pounds of hard beef fat from a local pastured cattle

 In order to expedite the rendering process, it is necessary to increase the surface area of the fat.  do so by cubing the fat into 1/2-1" pieces with a sharp knife.
Place the pieces of fat in large stock pot and add just enough water to barely cover the bottom of the pot.  While not entirely necessary, starting out with the water in the pot will help prevent browning or burning of the fat.  This is not something that we really want to cook or impart any such flavor to.
Place this on the stove and turn on to medium low.  The water in the pot should just begin to simmer, and the fat should not fry.  If that fat starts frying you have the heat up too high.
Eventually, the fat will warm up and begin to soften.  Some of the actual fat itself will begin to melt out of the chunks, along with some water.  The liquid that begins to accumulate in the pot is a mixture of water and liquid fat.  Again, make sure that the heat is kept low enough so that you don't end up frying any of this.

After about an hour, perhaps longer, the chunks will have shrunk quite noticeably and the liquid will probably be bubbling away.  While the chunks of tissue will begin to get darker, ensure that the fat isn't frying by observing to see if there is any smoke.  The bubbles forming should be solely from the rapidly boiling water that is now escaping your pot.  This operation will take a couple of hours, so don't try to rush it by burning or frying your tallow.
Once the fat chunks have reduced in size considerably, it is time to begin straining out the liquid.  I recommend using a coffee filter, as cheesecloth really isn't fine enough to capture all of the little particles that are going to be suspended in the liquid.

 Eventually the pieces of fat will have given up all of the liquid that they can and will begin to get much darker.  When this point is reached, stop the rendering process and either drain and reserve the little tissue nuggets or discard them.  Some people like saving these to add to soups, but personally I have not had much luck with that.  Transfer all of the filtered liquid to a very clean pot and bring the temperature up to 250F.  If the liquid does not bubble, it is pure fat and the rendering process is over.  If the liquid bubbles, it is merely the remaining water boiling off, so hold the temperature fairly constant until the bubbling ceases.  Don't overheat the tallow or you may potentially burn it once all of the water has boiled off.
liquid tallow looks almost golden in color

Liquid tallow from grass fed cows will have a yellow to amber appearance.  The fat tends to accumulate vitamin E, CLA, and beta carotene that are lacking from grain-fed feedlot cattle.  It will be yellowish to slightly off-white once cooled.  Leaf lard (below) should be almost totally clear.  It will solidify to a snow-white solid once cooled.
liquid leaf lard, poured into jars and cooling down

Store a little of your rendered fat in a glass container in the refrigerator.  The remainder can be jarred and put into the freezer for long term storage, or you can even pour it into muffin tins and then freeze the little fat pucks in vacuum bags until you need them. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sautéed Brussels Sprouts

Our meals might seem very animal-centric.  This is because they are; I make sure that Christa and I both eat a variety of wild game, fish, pasture raised beef and chickens, and most of their organs as well.  We eat soups and sauces made from bone stocks, and regularly enjoy good eggs, milk, yogurts, and cheeses. 

That's not to say that we don't have plenty of fresh plant matter daily - we do, both cooked and raw.  It's just not typically as glamorous, so I'm less apt to blog about it.  This post is about some vegetables.  Nice, leafy vegetables, cooked quickly that make a great side dish to just about any hot meal.

So, without further ado, here's a surefire method of preparing Brussels Sprouts.  (That's Brussels Sprouts, not brussel sprouts)

  • ~1 dry pint of Brussels Sprouts; cleaned and halved
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced into coins
  • 1 T of good butter
  • 1 T of olive oil
  • Salt and Pepper
  1. Melt the fats together in a skillet that has a tight fitting lid (leave the lid off for now).  
  2. Add the garlic and toss quickly.  As soon as it begins to brown, place all of the Brussels Sprouts cut side down into the hot pan.  Do not disturb them for 4-5 minutes while the cut sides brown.
  3. Toss the pan to flip the sprouts over (they don't all need to flip, don't worry about that) and then pour just a small amount of hot water (roughly 1/8 cup) into the pan and put the lid on.  Steam the sprouts for another 5 minutes to cook them through until they are tender.  
  4. Remove the lid, boil off the water, toss once more to coat everything and plate the garlic and sprouts in a warmed bowl. 
They make a fine summertime side dish for shrimp and vegetables.