Dinner doesn't have to be difficult : Cheddar Grits in twenty minutes

There are evenings when I am tired, so tired, but want something delicious for dinner, homey and warm. This is where cheddar grits come in - specifically white cheddar grits with butter and scallions, a simple, easy dish I can make in twenty minutes. This recipe originates with Real Simple, and it calls for white grits, but yellow grits (aka polenta) work just as well. I know that because tonight I couldn't find white grits, and I went with the yellow grits I had in my cabinet. This will make between two and four servings, depending on who you're feeding. I can eat this twice or three times before it's gone, and if you know me, you know what a thing that is. I'm not much for leftovers, but these are the kind of leftovers I want the next day. I might have these leftovers tomorrow morning for breakfast, with an egg on top ... heaven. Oh, the other great thing about this recipe, it's pretty darn cheap. Three ingredients you may not have in your arsenal already, and three you very likely do, costing less than $10 total. Yes.

On your way home from work grab some sharp white cheddar, scallions, and corn grits (white or yellow).  If you don't have salt, pepper, and butter at home (but  if you read this blog surely you do), get those items too.

Cheddar Grits for a speedy, filling, warm from the cold (and possibly snow!) dinner. 

Get out a one cup measuring cup. A whisk. A cheese grater. A knife and cutting board. And, a pan that holds at least eight cups. Put that on the stove, with four and 1/4 cups of water in it. Bring it to a boil, then add a teaspoon and a half of salt. I just pour it into my palm until I have a little mound, then I throw it in. While that water is coming to a boil, measure yourself out one cup of grits. When you've got salty boiling water, pour in the grits slowly, whisking all the while. Reduce the heat to low, or one or two on the electric stove, and whisk occasionally while you grate one cup of the white cheddar, slice up two or three scallions, and cut a pat of butter into four squares.

Whisk occasionally for fifteen to twenty minutes, until the grits are cooked - if there's not too much water in the pan, they'll start to pull away and look thick when they're finished. This particular batch I made had a tad too much water, which was no serious issue, just made for less chewing, great if you're tired! 

Stir in the cheese, and ladle into bowls. On each bowl, sprinkle sliced scallions, as much as you like, add a couple tiny butter squares, pepper mill it up as much as you want, and enjoy. This meal is so simple, filling, and delicious. And again, breakfast leftovers! --T


Mozzarella: a cheese story

A few Saturdays ago, my friend Nicole and I set out to make cheese. About two hours into the process we realized we had chosen a recipe that would take very near to nine hours start to finish. We promptly abandoned the 180 degree milk, and agreed to try again the following week with a speedier recipe. And so, a couple Saturdays ago, I returned to Nicole's house with six quarts of whole non-homogenized milk from the Noris Dairy, to begin again. 

Did you know that to make cheese it is preferable to use a non-homogenized milk? Neither did I, but yes, it's true. Apparently, the homogenization process blows apart the fat molecules, which is undesirable - this is how you get your milk in the store usually, as it won't separate. Non-homogenized milk will allow the cream to rise to the top, ideal for cheese-making. There are many books on this, in the SF range at your local academic library, should you want to read more. We did our reading in a book called 200 Easy Homemade Cheese Recipes: From Cheddar and Brie to Butter and Yogurt.The recipe we worked with can be found on page 76. Our first process started with a cultured yeast starter, but our second process started with citric acid, a weak naturally occurring acid, which provides the bitterness in lemons and limes. It also makes milk curdle!

This is us pouring diluted citric acid powder into the milk. Once we did this, we brought the milk up to a balmy 88 degrees. Yes, cheese making is very precise and scientific. Then we removed it from the heat. We then added diluted calcium chloride and animal rennet to the milk and let it sit for quite a long time, almost an hour, to wait for the curd to form. Calcium chloride helps the curd to become more firm, and rennet (read everything you do or do not want to know about it here) helps the curds form as well as to separate more readily from the whey.

You might be wondering where a person gets things like animal rennet and calcium chloride. I found ours at Kookoolan Farms, in Yamhill, Oregon. That place is awesome. So anyway, after roughly an hour of biding our time, chit-chatting, and do other various things, we looked at our pot, and it appeared we had cheese curd.

We were to wait to cut the curds until we achieved a "clean break", or the ability to slice through the curd and have it stay separated. We cut it lengthwise, width wise, and then rather haphazardly, crosswise to the bottom of the pan. We waited five minutes, and the curds became very separated from the whey. They seemed soft, but not too soft. We brought the curds to 106 degrees over the course of twenty minutes, stirring constantly ... cheese making is rather exacting ... and after bringing them to temperature, we turned off the heat and let them sit for another twenty minutes, while once again stirring constantly. It got kind of ridiculous after a while. Then, finally, five minutes of just sitting. We rested our arms. Following the stirfest, we drained the curds from the whey.

We thought things were looking good! Don't those curds look good? So we let the curds drain, then pressed them into the cheesecloth to make a large mass, which we were supposed to cut then stretch in a hot salt water solution we made.

Sadly, that's the last picture I have. Because following this, we attempted to stretch the cheese in the (searingly hot) salt water solution, and it wouldn't stretch. Nope, it just felt apart. We learned, far too late, we should have tested the pH, that we needed it more acidic to stretch properly. The troubleshooting section noted that we might try again after a day of leaving the cheese in the fridge, but quite unfortunately, the next day we both had a mass of something that was hard as a rock, and probably dangerous if thrown. So, there was no trying the stretching again, as we are not bodybuilders. So alas, a failed cheese making attempt, it was. However, this was a great learning experience ... Nicole and I are both skilled cooks and bakers, but we just didn't have a large enough body of knowledge about the science of cheese to make it work the first time. So, lesson learned: you don't always get it right the first time around, but the idea of making our own cheese is too cool to abandon. So, we'll try again. Soon. And we'll get it right next time. Promise. We might even take a class. --T


Tuco's treats

 Tuco left us late on Saturday night. Tuco loved me so well that when my mom came to visit he got in between us to protect me and wouldn't leave my side. He was steadfast in his protection, his care. It is a gift to be loved in such an uncomplicated way, and that is how Tuco loved us all. Especially Alex. He loved Kristen, Paul, Matt, and so many other friends, and we all loved him. Just by being himself he brought us all great joy. We were lucky to know him. He loved these peanut butter treats I made him. I would roll them out and cut them in the shape of a heart. Why not, in honor of Tuco, make these treats for your friends' dogs, or your own. I promise they will love them too. Tuco, you are greatly missed. 

2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup oatmeal
1 cup plain peanut butter (no sugar, no salt)
1 egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water

In a big bowl, mix all ingredients together, and pat out onto a surface, about 1/2" to an inch thick. Cut into heart or other dog loving shapes and place on a cookie sheet - they can be close, because they won't spread. Bake at 350, 20 minutes on one side, then flip and bake 20 minutes on the other side. Remove from the oven and let cool a few hours or even overnight. Wrap them up and take them to the dog you love.

Rest in peace Tuco. I hope your loving soul makes it way into another puppy, so someone else gets to experience the love that is you.


Summer is Coming

I know this because the grape tomatoes taste so sweet. I cannot wait to pull them off the vine. I think there are grape tomatoes planted this year; I hope. Grape tomatoes are versatile. They can be eaten raw, be roasted, sauteed, fried ... well, I guess all tomatoes ... but yum, grape tomatoes. I just had an idea about battering and frying grape tomatoes - I just might try it - sort of like tempura, with tomatoes. Who's with me on that deliciousness? Anyway, in this case, they are sauteed in oil and smashed, for an incredibly easy meal which is perfect for late late spring, nearly summer. 

The origin of this recipe comes from Real Simple, many years ago. I like it because it requires no real measurement, is very easy, and is good for an entry level cook or a learned chef. I make this recipe for one or two people. Double-ish it if you are feeding more. 

From your pantry: olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic
Buy: one pint grape tomatoes, long skinny pasta like angel hair or thin spaghetti, which let's face it, is pretty much angel hair, basil, and possibly some grana padano (possibly my very favorite hard cheese) if you're up for it, it works well on top but isn't crucial

This dish takes literally 8 minutes to prepare, plus the 10 minutes to wait for the water to boil. Dinner in 18 minutes people. I love dinner in 18 minutes. 

Start your water. Salt it. Cover it. Let it come to a boil. In the meantime, grab a couple / few cloves of garlic depending on your garlic flavor preference and slice thinly into discs. Wash your tomatoes in a colander. Use this colander later to drain your pasta. Wash your basil, and dry it between a couple paper towels.

A few minutes before your water boils, pour some, and by some I mean enough to heavily cover the bottom, olive oil into a saute pan. Heat this over medium heat - about 5 or 6 on an electric stove. While that's warming up, add your pasta into the pan and set your timer. When the oil is heated, add the tomatoes. They're going to sizzle, snap, and otherwise make you believe those crazy kids are setting off fireworks in the neighborhood again, but fear not! It's just the watery tomatoes getting all hot and bothered and popping. 

Give your pan a swirl to keep them moving, which will also prevent them from popping and simultaneously leaping out of the pan. It happened to me, look in the picture, I'm not lying. Once you start hearing them pop, grab a metal spatula and start smashing them. This is fun, kind of like bubble wrap, but with tomatoes. 

At this point, your pasta probably has a minute or two left. Reduce the heat to 1 or 2 (low), and add in the sliced garlic. Also throw in a pinch of kosher salt (maybe half a teaspoon or so) and a few turns of your pepper mill. Give it a stir and let it come together. 

Now drain your pasta and put it in a pasta bowl or other serving dish. I really like pasta bowls though - bought four this year for the first time, and it's quite the improvement, especially for serving very saucy pasta dishes, which this one definitely is. 

Finally, tear up maybe 6-10 leaves of basil into pieces (the perfection is in the imperfection), and stir them into the tomato sauce. Pour onto the pasta. If you're up for it, add some freshly grated grana padano, but maybe save that for a time when the tomatoes themselves are less superb. December, perhaps. I love the simplicity of ingredients but enormous flavor of this meal.


My chocolate chip cookies

There are so many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chocolate chip cookie recipes out there, this one is mine. It's derivative, as I suspect many are, of the Tollhouse recipe. That recipe is a great place to start. Actually, if you have never adjusted a recipe before, I think this is the one I would start with. There are so many elements in the recipe which can be altered, which makes for fun (and often successful) experimentation. 

People love these cookies. I'm still seeking an elusive taste that I had once in a chocolate chip cookie in 1991 - seventh grade science class. I will never forget that mundane moment made forever memorable. That cookie had a rich molasses-y flavor to it that I haven't figured out yet - but I'm not finished trying. Here's where I'm at right now, a cookie that spreads a bit, is chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside edges.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

The ingredients are all standard: butter, white and brown sugar, vanilla, eggs, flour, baking soda, and salt. Plus, of course, chocolate chips. Buy these things. Get out your measuring cups and spoons, a large bowl, your hand mixer, a cookie sheet or two, and foil. 

Ingredients, in order of adding to the bowl: 

Two sticks butter (1 cup) - don't use margarine (does anyone these days?) or shortening. Yuck.
1 cup packed brown sugar (freshness matters! old brown sugar is dried out brown sugar is dried out cookie blech. Sometimes, I use a mix of light and brown and sometimes I don't. Do whatever you wish.)
1/2 cup white sugar
1 and a 1/2 to 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (real vanilla people.)
2 room temperature eggs. I don't know why room temperature, I just like them that way. I feel like they help my batter fluff up.
1 rounded teaspoon baking soda. Why rounded? Baking soda is what causes browning / crisping in your cookie, and I like a cookie that's brown with an edge crispness. Ever baked cookies that were floury blahness? You left out the soda. I've done it, I'll admit it. It isn't pretty. 
1/2 tsp salt - kosher salt, crushed a bit to make a finer flake. I think you can taste the salty delicious difference.
2 and 1/4 scant (every measure should be less than the full cup, or just partially fill the 1/4 cup) cups all-purpose flour. Fluff up that flour with a whisk before measuring. Really, or else you'll have a seriously floury, heavy, gross like your aunt who can't cook cookie. (For the record, I have no aunts who can't cook that I know of.)
A bag of your preferred chocolate chips. I tend to buy Tollhouse, but also like Trader Joe's and Ghiradelli. Those flavors all differ just slightly, but I think the melt is pretty much the same. Use what you like.

Preheat to 375.

Now that butter you just bought? You want it soft, even almost melty. Why? Because melted butter causes spread, and to me, spread in a cookie is a grand thing. I don't suggest liquefying the butter, which might give you too much spread, but here's what I would do: leave the butter out for the afternoon to soften completely on its own, or put one stick in the microwave in its wrapper for 15 short seconds. It will be very soft, but not liquid. 30 seconds to liquefied, just so you know.   The other stick you can soften just slightly, or also do the 15 second thing. The softer your butter, the more spread in your cookie. At least, that has been my experience.

Throw that soft butter in your bowl and beat it with your mixer for a bit on a medium high speed. Add in your brown sugar and beat the heck out of it. Then add your white sugar and beat it again. Use a spatula to get the unincorporated ingredients off the side of the bowl (do this with the mixer off). 

Beat for quite some time, with love, because that matters. It really does. Any time I feel rushed and could care less about my cookie, it tastes like crap. Caring about what you're baking is half the battle to deliciousness. So, now you have a fluffy butter sugar mixture. Add your vanilla, blend. Add your eggs, and beat the heck out of it once again. I think the more you can aerate the batter the better, just like with a cake. Some might disagree, but I like lots of lightness in my cookie. 

Some people might tell you to sift your dry ingredients together before adding them to the batter, but I say no! Why bother? That's a lot of work that seems not entirely necessary. It is in some baking recipes, of course, but not with these cookies. So, having said that, add your baking soda and beat, add your salt and beat. Then, add your flour, one cup at a time, and beat. So, one cup flour, beat. One cup flour, beat. 1/4 cup flour, and you got it, beat. Make sure all your flour is off the bottom of the bowl and in the batter, you might want to employ your spatula at this point.

 Notice the lovely subtle variations in these batter stages.

Put that mixer down at this point. Stir in your chocolate chips, then make sensible drops onto your cookie sheet. 

For the record, some people suggest refrigerating your batter overnight to allow the dough to achieve a richer flavor. I've done this and have not found it terribly different, but by all means, give it a shot and let me know how it goes! Bake those cookies at 375 for about 10 minutes 30 seconds (I find the first batch takes longer to bake than subsequent batches, but I reuse a hot baking sheet, so that's likely why) and when the cookies come out of the oven, promptly remove them with a thin spatula to foil, which you have laid out on your counter. I think this matters, I don't know why. I feel like I get a better bottom of my cookies by letting them cool on foil. Maybe there is science to this, but I am way too tired to look that up tonight. When they are cool, wrap in foil and distribute to friends and family. Hope you enjoy these, I always do. - T


Potato Leek Soup :: This is Simplicity

The best thing about potato leek soup, besides its simplicity, is its malleability. You need only four ingredients, plus salt and pepper. Four ingredients! Those four ingredients can be added in different amounts to produce slightly different soups.

Get yourself to the store and purchase anywhere between five and eight leeks. Grab two (large) or three (medium) baking potatoes. Buy a box of chicken (or vegetable, if you're so inclined) broth - you'll need five or so cups, maybe a little more. You probably have butter, but if not, grab that too, preferably unsalted. I'm a fan of unsalted butter for all cooking and baking - for smearing on bread is a different story. For garnish, get a couple slices of bacon from the meat counter and some scallions from the vegetables area too.

Talk about easy: you need a sharp knife, potato peeler, long spoon, soup pot, and cutting board.

Dice your leeks, white part only. Don't fret if you get a little of the greenish part, it won't hurt. I cut mine down the middle to create two half domes, then slice those again down the middle, then slice in half inch increments to make a large dice. Peel your potatoes and slice them thinly. They'll probably turn brownish from oxidation in the open air. The browning is caused by oxidation; if you want your potatoes to stay white, put them under cold water. They'll have to sit for a while anyway, so you might as well. While you've got the cutting board out, slice your scallions, and finally, dice your uncooked bacon. 

Melt between one and two tablespoons of butter in a large soup pot, over medium heat. Add your leeks and cook them, stirring them frequently, on medium until they are shiny and fairly translucent. It's very important to watch them and stir them, because a browned leek is a burnt leek is a bad leek is a let's go buy some more leeks and start the soup over. So this leek saute will take about twenty minutes. 
When your leeks are soft and shiny, add in about five cups of your chosen broth - for me, the choice will always be chicken. Then add in your potatoes. See, this is incredibly simple. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a high simmer (not crazy boiling, but some bubbles) and walk away for about a half hour. Actually, only walk away for about twenty minutes, because you want to cook your diced bacon at some point then remove it to a paper towel to drain. When you're done with that task, the potatoes should be soft and beginning to break up. At this point, salt and pepper to your liking. I like a lot of freshly ground pepper in my soup. I throw in a small palmful of salt - it's probably a teaspoon or so. You can always add more later if need be. 

Transfer the soup to a blender or food processor (in batches! learn from my mistakes!) and process to your desired consistency. I like mine very smooth, but some people prefer a chunkier soup. You could probably use a potato masher and do this by hand if you wanted more texture. 
Top with scallions and bacon and appreciate how something so simple can be so incredibly delicious.


Red Beans and Rice (It's gray, it's chilly, this is bright and spicy)

It's nearly the end of March, and though we had a week of very lovely and mild weather, more normal weather has resumed - blustery, rainy, and gray as can be. There is hardly a striation in the clouds, it's that gray. I don't know if I can use striation in that previous sentence, but I did anyway. Anyway, it's kind of depressing, but to cheer myself, I make things like red beans and rice. Some will look at this recipe and call me a blasphemer of the south because this recipe uses bacon instead of sausage or ham, but I really love it this way. Unfortunately, I have no idea where this recipe originates from, though my best guess is that it's from a newspaper in either Chicago or Greensboro. It's a recipe I've had for quite a while, and makes for a delicious, satiating meal. Even better, it improves with age, and you can eat the leftovers for two days straight, or rather I can eat the leftovers for two days straight, which is a personal record, as I generally tire quickly of the same anything.

This is a fairly simple meal to make, though there's a lot of prep work involved ... do it ahead of time and you can pretend you're a television chef, adding prepped bowls of this and that. Sadly, no sous chef is going to do the work for you, unless you have a helpful kid around, or a partner who owes you a favor.

You will need a large (4-6 quarts) heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, cutting board, knives, bowls for holding your chopped stuff, and a shot glass for measuring out your Tabasco. Believe me, it's much easier than trying to shake it into a measuring spoon.

Go to the grocery store and in the vegetable area, grab two small peppers, one red, one orange or yellow, or get fancy and get all three colors, but use half of one yellow and one orange with the red.  Also buy one bunch of scallions (aka green onions), a large yellow onion, and a garlic bulb.

At the meat counter, buy four slices of thick sliced bacon. You could buy a package of bacon and use that, but I really prefer the thickness here, plus I find the skinnier bacon more challenging to dice while raw. Don't go too lean on the bacon, the fattiness is a good thing for coating the rice.

You will also need two 15 ounce cans of red beans. Not kidney beans or chili beans, these are just called red beans, you'll find them in the bean section.

Pantry staples you need are a cup of long grain rice, two cups of chicken broth (if you only have one can, which is just over 14 ounces, you could always use water for the last two ounces ... but I always use all broth - also, I always use low sodium broth from the store. I'm sure if you made your own that would taste super awesome, but who has time for that? At any rate, I figure I can always add salt later if I need to, but regular sodium broth might be too salty to begin with, at least for me.), Tabasco, and salt.

Really, I'm not kidding when I say prep before you get started. There are a lot of things to chop up:

Chop the two (or one and two halves) small peppers with a good kitchen knife; mine looks like of like this. I like mine kind of large, but some people might prefer more of a dice. What's the difference you might ask? Read more here. I had a small pepper languishing in the fridge, so I chopped it up as well. Set aside in a bowl.

Rinse your knife (do this before you chop anything new, and your cutting board too), chop your onion to the same shape, or smaller if you prefer. Set aside in a bowl.

Slice 1/4 cup's worth of green onions. I make the slices pretty skinny, about a 1/16 - 1/8 inch. Set aside, or put in the fridge, because you won't use these until the very end.

Chop a clove of garlic (I use two, because I do love the garlic), and add it to the onion bowl.

Finally, chop your four slices of bacon. I do this by stacking two pieces of bacon on top of each other, slicing lengthwise down the center, then chopping 1/2 inch pieces. You'll see why the thick cut bacon is the best, when you are suffering at the cutting board with your skinny bacon. Learn from my experience.

Measure one cup of long grain rice. Measure two cups of chicken broth into a pourable container. Shake a tablespoon of Tabasco into the shot glass. I'm pretty sure a Tbs is about half a normal sized shot glass. That's what I always use. You can always add more later. Just a note if you think it's not enough: I find that the next day, the rice has soaked up more of the Tabasco, and it tastes quite a bit spicier. Be forewarned, wimpy spice people. Measure 1/2 tsp salt and set aside. I use sea salt in this recipe.

Finally, drain and rinse the beans in a colander.
I think you're ready to get cooking.

Cook your diced bacon in the pot over medium-high heat (7ish on the electric stove) until it's crisp. As you probably know if you've ever cooked bacon, it will produce its own cooking oil - or grease, as some might say. Watch it and stir it now and again so the bacon doesn't stick. When it's brown and crisp, take the pot off the heat and remove the bacon a paper towel on a plate to drain. Use a slotted spoon or something with holes to do this, because you want to keep the grease in the pot. If it seems like a ton of grease, you might want to pour some into a jar. I guess I usually have about one tablespoon, maybe one and a half, of grease in the bottom of the pot after I remove the bacon.

Put the pot back on the medium (6-7 electric) heat, and add the onion and garlic. Cook this for five minutes and stir it often - you do not want your onions / garlic to brown - they'll be shiny from the grease, and that will be awesome. After five minutes, make sure your salt, broth and Tabasco are in reaching distance, then stir in the rice. Cook this for two minutes and stir CONSTANTLY, just like with risotto.

After two minutes, add the salt, broth, and Tabasco. Stir, then bring this to a boil over high heat (8-9 electric). When it comes to a full boil, reduce the heat to low (1-2-3 electric). Cover the pot and simmer for 15 minutes. This is when your rice absorbs the broth.

After the 15 or so minutes, take off the lid, and add in the peppers, beans, and bacon. Now you see why such a large pot is so important. Stir everything to combine, and cook another five or so minutes, until your rice is tender. I find I usually let it cook on low maybe 10 to 15 minutes, because I like the peppers to soften up a bit too.

Take off the heat, and stir in the scallions you previously chopped. Holy goodness. This is SO good. One of my favorites, and really very simple work to create something so delicious. Enjoy. Preferably with a beer.

Hey, good news. The sun just came out.