How to Make Beef Jerky

Beef jerky. Essentially it is just dried meat with a few seasonings, right? Not always. Have you ever looked at the ingredient list on a package of beef jerky? A few high end brands (like my favorite Trader Joe’s Sweet & Spicy Buffalo Jerky) have what would be considered normal ingredients: buffalo, sugar, soy sauce, paprika, etc. However the majority of jerky available for mass consumption has an ingredient list that sounds like a bad lab experiment: beef, corn syrup, dextrose, hydrolyzed corn and soy protein, caramel color #2- yikes! It is bad enough to make you give up beef jerky entirely. Yet the solution to satisfying the need for a lean and portable snack is not to ship in expensive jerky nor is it to surrender and eat a jerky filled with additives that make your toes curl. The solution is simple- make your own. (more…)

Homemade Tomato Sauce

There is something about a big pot of homemade tomato sauce bubbling on the stove that makes me happy. Whether it is the comforting aroma of slowly cooked vegetables or the acidic taste of ripe tomatoes mingling with garlic and thyme- it just feels like home. (more…)

How to Cook a Fresh Ham or Ham Steak

My love of books began very early in life. I learned to read at age 4 and quickly moved from The Three Little Pigs (which left me terrified of a big bad wolf that I was certain lurked outside my window at night) to Encyclopedia Brown, and by first grade National Velvet. My parents had two black bookcases on either side of the wood stove which heated our house and it was just a few years before my book collection claimed an entire bookcase. Most of my friends lost TV privileges or had to go to bed early when they got into trouble. Not me. I loved to read so much that the most effective form of punishment was to take away books. Dropping an “Oh sh*t” in earshot of my father after throwing a gutter ball at my second grade birthday party landed me with a two week book restriction. Pure misery! (more…)

How to Make Dill Pickles

What happens when a clueless gardener plants 8 cucumber plants in one season? Pickles. Lots and lots of pickles. It was a beginner’s mistake really. Last year I tried growing cucumbers but my soil was poor, the sunlight lacking, and I only watered the plants occasionally. It should come as no surprise that my efforts yielded nothing but a few pretty yellow flowers on sickly vines. This year we vowed to fix our shortcomings and grow something other than weeds. I raised tiny cucumber plants from seed and then planted all eight of them into rich sunny soil. As the plants grew I hoped they would produce enough cucumbers to make a few dozen jars of pickles. Ha! 50 pounds of cucumbers later and I was starting to see pickles in my sleep. (more…)

Rendering Lard

Rendering Lard

This project may have pushed me over the threshold from ‘avid home cook’ into official ‘food loving nutjob’ territory. I have waited weeks to share this experience with you in fear that talking about rendering lard in January would break some cardinal rule of food writing and instantly add twenty pounds to my scale. Now that February is almost past I feel that I can safely talk about how in pursuit of the perfect pie crust I ended up with a massive hunk of pig fat sitting on my counter.
I am going to spare you the photo of the pig fat. It was big, scary, and the terrifying image of 10 pounds of pure fat has driven me to become best friends with my stairmaster. Why pig fat you ask? Well for years I have read that lard pie crusts are a sublime experience, creating a flaky pie crust nirvana that cannot be achieved with mere butter or shortening. Over time I have experimented with all butter pie crusts, all shortening pie crusts, and many combinations of the two. I have searched in grocery stores and online for a source of quality lard with no luck. One store bought package of lard smelled so rank I couldn’t bear to put it in a pie (or anything else for that matter). So after years of fruitlessly searching I came to the conclusion that I would have to make my own. When a local farmer told me that she was butchering a group of premium Berkshire hogs, I signed up to purchase the fat.
As Mr. B and I gazed at the mound on my cutting board we both wondered what the heck we had gotten into. Thankfully I had the reassuring guidance of both Homesick Texan and Not Without Salt in my back pocket, and could march onward toward pie crust perfection. Carefully I cut the fat into cubes, and then placed it in a very large pot with a little water at the bottom. The pot was heated gently until the fat started to liquefy while the water evaporated. Soon, an oddly familiar piggy aroma filled the kitchen. After about an hour of occasional stirring, the fat was completely liquefied and beginning to turn a light shade of brown. Traditionally this process will create cracklings, however I think the fat we purchased was already processed to some degree and did not have anything that looked like cracklings at the end. Once the liquid was strained through heavy cheesecloth, I ladled it into clean jars, let it cool, and then stored it in the fridge.

Blueberry Peach Pie-2

After a few weeks had passed (and the image of that mound of fat faded a bit) I decided it was time to put the lard pie crust theory to the test. Mr. B requested a Blueberry Peach Pie, so I opted to use half butter and half lard to achieve a balance of sweet and savory flavor in the crust. As you can see in the photo above, the lard created long streaks of fat in the dough. When heated in the oven, the fat liquefied quickly, leaving thin layers of air throughout the crust. Once cooled the crust looked almost perfect (note: when making a lard crust don’t go big on the edges of the pie, they will fall off in the oven!) With a slice of pie in front of me, I picked up my fork and pressed down on the crust. It shattered with a flurry of flakes sticking to the gooey fruit filling. The crust was tender, slightly nutty, and sweet. It was hands down the best pie crust I have ever made, bringing me very close to pie nirvana.

Crust Shot

If you want to join me in the club of lard rendering food loving nuts, I encourage you to check out the detailed posts by Homesick Texan and Not Without Salt. I would like to try doing this a few more times before instructing anyone on the ins and outs of rendering lard. However with pie crust nirvana now within reach you can bet I will be rendering lard again!

Homemade Vegetable Stock

Homemade Vegetable Stock
I am afraid I have become one of those people. You know, the people who always put the words (preferably homemade) after “stock” or “broth” in a recipe. Those people.

I always read that parenthetical suggestion and rolled my eyes, imagining a Martha Stewart-esque persona with little containers of stock perfectly labeled and stacked neatly in a freezer. I kind of hated that mental person. I mean really, with the amount of chicken broth and stocks we go through I would practically need a dedicated freezer. Not to speak of the time it would take to make all that stock! It is true that whenever we roast a chicken I dutifully make a stock and then soup with the remains. The results of that labor, however, disappear in a matter of days around our house. Soup and stocks never last long enough to freeze.

Homemade Vegetable Stock
But then I fell into a trap. It was a very crafty trap if I do say so myself. When reading the recipe for this chipotle corn chowder in the Canyon Ranch cookbook I noticed that it called for vegetable stock and then gave a page number with a suggested recipe. Flipping the pages I discovered a simple vegetable stock which used ingredients that were already in my fridge and only required an hour to simmer on the stove. With an hour to spare, I quickly chopped up the vegetables, threw them into a pot, and let them simmer. 60 minutes later I strained out the veggies and tasted the clear lightly colored broth left behind (with a pinch of salt). Delicious. Really delicious. As in I had to keep myself from just ladling up a cup of it on the spot and drinking it straight. The light delicate flavors of the leek and carrots blended beautifully with seasonings of marjoram and thyme. It was a vegetable stock epiphany.
Homemade Vegetable Stock
When the stock was used as a base for the chipotle corn chowder, the resulting soup had a light vegetable undertone that couldn’t be beat. Best of all, using an unsalted stock meant I could season the final soup with just enough salt to taste, avoiding the overload of salt that normally keeps my soup-loving ways to a dull roar. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I have now made this stock every week for the past month. I find myself picking up a leek and carrots at the grocery store just so I can come home and make another batch. My freezer does hold a few containers of the leftovers, but by and large we have enjoyed eating a lot of soup. Since it is only January, I have a feeling that this is going to continue for several months to come. If you also roll your eyes at the thought of making your own stock, let the siren song of this recipe seduce you into trying it just once. You never know, it may just turn you into one of those people…

Homemade Vegetable Stock (Printable Recipe)
Adapted from Canyon Ranch Cooking
Makes 9 cups of stock

Ingredients:

1 leek, well rinsed, trimmed, and chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
3 carrots, scrubbed and chopped
5 stalks celery, without leaves (they impart a bitter flavor), chopped
1 cup chopped parsley stems
2 bay leaves, broken into halves
1 teaspoon dried marjoram, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
12 cups cold water

Directions:

Place all ingredients in a large soup pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat and let the stock gently simmer, uncovered, for about an hour.

After an hour, pour the stock through a large colander lined with cheesecloth into a large bowl. Gently press down on the solids with the back of a spoon to extract any remaining flavor and liquid. Discard the solids. Use the stock immediately to make soup, or once it is cool, place it in sealed containers. The stock can be kept in the fridge for 1 week, or frozen indefinitely.

Homemade Marshmallows

Homemade Marshmallows

Forget sugarplums. Visions of marshmallows have been dancing through my head. It started last year with images of bouncy fluffy marshmallows, created by Deb at Smitten Kitchen. I mentally filed away the concept as one I wanted to pull out when temperatures started getting into cozy single digits. Then the idea popped up again just after Thanksgiving, when Allie at ScrewedUpTexan created a stack of pillowy beauties. I could resist no longer.

After sifting through many different recipes, I settled onthis one, recommended by Deb, and hunted down the ingredients. Corn syrup, gelatin, peppermint oil…these ingredients are not often found in my kitchen, but I trusted that when making candy I should set aside my feelings about corn syrup and dive in.

Making the Sugar Mixture

The steps were simple to follow and it was a lot of fun watching the sugar and gelatin meld into a fluffy voluminous mass. (Although be forewarned- hot gelatin puts off an odor that I found rather nasty and Oscar found fascinating).

Making Marshmallows

Stiffly whipped egg whites are folded in and before you know it you have a bowl full of sticky marshmallow cream. Thanks to a brilliant tip from one of Deb’s readers I sprayed down my hands and spatula with cooking oil before transferring the sticky mixture to a pan. This meant that I only ended up with marshmallow stuck to a few places rather than creating a disastrous web of goo (which we all know would have happened to me!)

Dipping Marshmallows in Chocolate

Just for fun, I also melted bittersweet chocolate and dipped half of the marshmallows into it, finishing them with a sprinkle of crushed candy canes.(Mark Bittman, just published an excellent article and video on how to temper chocolate.)

Homemade Marshmallows

The plain marshmallows were light as air, with a bounce and softness which quickly convinced me that making marshmallows from scratch is worth the effort. However, my favorites, were the chocolate dipped marshmallows. Bittersweet dark chocolate balanced out the sweetness of the marshmallows perfectly. Sitting by a crackling fire with marshmallows melting into a mug of hot chocolate was the perfect way to spend a snowy afternoon!

Marshmallows-3

Homemade Marshmallows (Printable Recipe)
Adapted from Gourmet, December 1998
Inspired by: SmittenKitchen and ScrewedUpTexan

Makes About 60 Marshmallows

Ingredients:
Approximately 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
3 1/2 envelopes (2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup hot water (about 115°F.)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites*
1 teaspoon peppermint extract (or vanilla)

Neutral-flavored Spray Oil

Optional Topping

6 oz Bittersweet Chocolate
2 Candy Canes, crushed into 1/2″ fragments

Directions:

Spray a 13x9x2 baking pan with oil until the sides and bottom are well coated. Pour 1/4 cup of powdered sugar into the pan, and shake it around until the pan is well coated with a thin layer of the sugar.

Place cold water into a small bowl, and sprinkle gelatin over it. Let the mixture stand to soften.

Place a medium sized heavy saucepan over low heat, and add granulated sugar, corn syrup, hot water, and salt. Stir the mixture with a wooden or silicone spoon until all the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil, without stirring. Continue to boil the mixture until it reaches 240°F on a candy or digital thermomenter, about 12 minutes. If necessary use a pastry brush dipped in water to brush any sugar crystals stuck to the sides of the pan back into the mixture.

While the sugar mixture is cooking, place the egg whites into a mixing bowl and beat until they start to hold stiff peaks. Transfer the egg whites to a clean large bowl and set aside. Clean out the mixing bowl and beaters and scrape the gelatin mixture into the bowl.

When the sugar mixture has reached 240°F, take it off the heat and pour it into the gelatin mixture. Stir well, until all of the gelatin is dissolved. Beat the mixture on high speed until it turns white, thickens, and has almost tripled in volume, about 6-8 minutes. Gently add in the egg whites and peppermint extract and beat together until everything is just combined.

Spray a spatula and your hands well with oil. Carefully scrape and pour the marshmallow mixture into the prepared baking pan. Use your hands to gently press the mixture down into the pan in one flat layer. Sift 1/4 cup of confectioners’ sugar evenly across the top of the marshmallows. Chill the uncovered pan for at least three hours, until the marshmallows are firm (you can leave them chilled overnight).

Sift a thin layer of confectioners’ sugar on top of a large cutting board. Take a thin knife and run it all around the edges of the pan. Gently invert the pan over the cutting board and carefully, ‘peel’ the marshmallow layer out of the pan onto the cutting board. Use a large knife to trim the edges into straight lines. Dip the knife in confectioners’ sugar as necessary to help prevent sticking. Evenly cut the marshmallows into 1″ cubes (or your desired size). Sift the remaining confectioners’ sugar into a big bowl. In small batches, toss the cut marshmallows in it, to coat all sides and eliminate sticky edges. Store the marshmallows in an airtight container in a cool place (not the fridge) for up to a week.

Optional Topping

Place a double-boiler over medium heat and bring the water to a gentle simmer. Place bittersweet chocolate into the top, and stir until it is evenly melted (do not exceed a temperature of 115 degrees). Use tongs or your fingers to dip the top of a marshmallow into the chocolate. Set the marshmallow with chocolate side up on a rack or plate. Sprinkle with crushed candy cane. Repeat until you have coated as many marshmallows as you desire.

Smoked Pheasant

Smoked Pheasant Salad

My body is still recovering from Thanksgiving. My droopy eyelids and tired feet are not from long hours in the kitchen and lots of wine (though they could be). Instead the sag in my step comes from spending several days hiking at full speed through waist high switchgrass in pursuit of elusive pheasants. You see whenever my family gets together we don’t just sit around, oh no, we get out there!

Smoked Pheasant-7

My brother and Oscar walk through a harvested corn field

Smoked Pheasant-8

Thankfully the weather was unseasonably warm and birds were everywhere. I followed Oscar through grass and cornfields, found hidden ponds and watched him find scent trails. I couldn’t have been happier. The thrills of hearing a rooster cackle and the whoosh of wings taking flight were matched by the joy of joining my entire family in rigorous all day hikes through open countryside.

Smoked Pheasant-9

Hunting birds creates a strong connection to the outdoors and forms special bonds between hunters and their dogs. You find yourself with a heightened awareness of everything around you. Each movement, each sound, each smell, takes on new meaning and relevance when you are out in the field. It has been wonderful to introduce Mr. B and Oscar to this experience and watch as they both fall in love with it as much as I have.

Smoking the Pheasant

At the end of the day, when you are exhausted, covered in mud and full of stories for the dinner table, a recipe is needed to highlight the effort and flavor of the pheasant. This simple method of smoking pheasant lets the delicious dark meat flavor shine through, while softening any gamey notes with a touch of hickory smoke and sugar. Once smoked the pheasant makes an excellent appetizer set on top of cream cheese, pepper jelly, and a cracker. It also can elevate a spinach salad to a sophisticated entree. Or, it can send Mr. B into a happy chorus of “mmmm” if placed inside a Monterrey jack quesadilla with avocado.

Smoked Pheasant



– We interrupt this essay on the wonders of smoked pheasant with a public service announcement –

When opening a hot grill, always, ALWAYS open the lid s-l-o-w-l-y.

Just before placing our Thanksgiving turkey on the grill, I whipped up the lid to check on the coals. As I opened it, I spotted flames coming up the sides and heard a big “Whoosh”. Standing there blinking from the heat, I thought, “Wow, I haven’t seen it do that before.” Then I realized that something didn’t feel quite right. The acrid smell of burned hair filled the air and a sudden fear clenched my stomach. Tentatively I reached up and touched the top of my head, “Crunch”. Not good. I looked down at my fingertips and saw little curls of hair fall to the ground. Gasping I ran inside to the nearest mirror. Staring back at me was a face with white eyebrows, withered eyelashes and an unusual fuzz around my hairline.

Smoked Pheasant-11

Thankfully I had just showered and the rest of my hair was still wet and pulled tightly back. This kept the damage to a minimum. However you can be darn sure that for the rest of my life I will open that grill lid with the slow motion skills of an action figure. I recommend you do the same!

– And now back to the smoked pheasant –

Smoked Pheasant (Printable Recipe)
Adapted from the Little Chief Smoker recipe book

Ingredients:

2 whole Pheasant breasts
1/2 cup Salt (must be non-iodized)
1/2 cup packed Light brown sugar
4 cups Water

3 cups Hickory chips
Aluminum foil

Brine:

Use a large plastic bowl and mix salt, sugar, and water together with a silicon spatula or plastic spoon. (All implements used in brining the pheasant must be made of plastic, silicone, or wood. No metal.) Add in the pheasant breasts and cover with plastic wrap, pushing down to eliminate any air pockets. Place the bowl in the fridge for 8-12 hours.

Remove pheasant from the brine and rinse it very well in cool water. Pat the meat dry with paper towels, and set it on a rack to dry. Let dry for an hour.

Smoke:

Pre-heat a smoker or grill to 150-200 degrees, with indirect plates over the grill (if using). While the grill is heating soak hickory chips in water. Add hickory chips into the heated grill, and then place the pheasant breasts, bone side down, onto the grill. Close the lid and smoke the pheasants for 3-4 hours, or until they reach an internal temperature of about 150 degrees.

Pre-heat an oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the middle. Remove the pheasant from the grill and wrap the breasts tightly in aluminum foil. Place the foil wrapped meat onto the oven rack, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the meat from the oven and let cool before unwrapping the foil. Once the pheasant is cool enough to handle, carefully slice or shred the meat as desired. Pour any juices accumulated in the foil on top of the meat. If the pheasant is wild caught, look for any signs of shot and remove it as necessary. Chew gently!

Eat:

To serve the pheasant, spread cream cheese and a pepper jelly on top of a cracker and top with pieces of shredded pheasant.

Alternative uses include spinach salad, quesadillas, or even folded into a pasta carbonara.

Baking Bacon

Baking Bacon

With the holidays now in full swing, it is not unusual to find myself with a house full of guests and the need to quickly pull together a breakfast for the crowd. Certain that I am not the only one faced with this challenge, I want to share with you a method for cooking bacon that is my lifesaver in these situations.

Baking Bacon

Gleaned from an episode of Alton Brown, this brilliant technique isn’t revolutionary but it works beautifully for a crowd. Quite simply, you place bacon strips on a rack that is set inside a rimmed baking sheet (to catch the grease). You place the entire thing in a cold oven, turn it on to 400 degrees, and bake for 15-20 minutes, until the bacon reaches your preferred level of crispiness. The bacon drains for a few minutes on paper towels, and that is it.

This method frees up the stove top for eggs, pancakes, or anything else you feel like cooking. It also keeps all of the grease mess confined within your oven, making clean up a breeze. If you really want to spice things up you can even make a maple and black pepper bacon variation. However the best part is that you can bake a few pans at the same time, ensuring that a large quantity of bacon is ready at once and everyone can get it while it is hot!

Sushi from Scratch

Sushi

The official line: The November 2009 Daring Cooks challenge was brought to you by Audax of Audax Artifex and Rose of The Bite Me Kitchen. They chose sushi as the challenge.

Making sushi at home was a true challenge. Not because the technique was difficult or the flavors were unfamiliar- the rolls actually came together easily and we love sushi. The challenge came in finding fresh sushi grade fish when you live in a small town 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean. For a girl who once seriously considered becoming an oceanographer, I somehow ended up about as far away from an ocean as possible! After searching high and low and even online for sashimi grade fish, I finally gave up and decided to get creative. Cooked shrimp and a can of quality dungeness crab were my pinch hitters and surprisingly they delivered an enjoyable albeit unauthentic sushi dinner.

Sushi-3

Sushi-7

The first and longest part of any sushi recipe is preparing the rice. A bag of short grain sushi rice is rinsed several times, drained for thirty minutes, and then carefully cooked with kelp leaves to infuse flavor. Once the rice is cooked, it is mixed with a sauce of rice vinegar and sugar, while you gently turn and ‘fan’ the rice for about 10 minutes. My arm wanted to fall off just thinking about fanning rice that long, so I pulled out my trusty hair drier and turned it to the cool setting. This worked like a charm, creating a beautifully glossy sushi rice.

Sushi-5

Making Sushi

Once the rice was ready to go, the rest of the steps were pretty straightforward. With Mr. B’s assitance I toasted sheets of nori, spread out the rice, and then layered cucumber, crab, green onion, and avocoado to create rolls. Cooked shrimp were perched happily on little mounds of rice ‘nigiri’ style with a dab of hot wasabi underneath to bump up the flavor. As we sat down to enjoy our first round of sushi I was surprised at how happy I felt to be sitting at home with sushi. I have become so accustomed to only enjoying sushi when traveling out of town, it was really a treat to enjoy it at home in my socks and with Oscar trolling for crumbs.

Sushi

So if you happen to find yourself days from the nearest ocean or just want to try making sushi at home I encourage you to set aside an evening and give it a go. Even using cooked ingredients, the results may surprise you! Detailed recipe instructions and accompanying photographs can be found at The Daring Kitchen.
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