Monday, July 6, 2015

Updates, Fun with Quinoa, and Mom

Updates, galore! As you read in my last, much-belated post, I moved out on my own last November. My best friend in the world (above) and I have procured a home together. I moved in with my girl child, my two small, poorly-behaved dogs, and girl child's two rabbits. My bestie came fully loaded with three cats. In December, we adopted a family cat, rounding out our animal count to eight. Ridiculous, I know. But fun. Then we got three chickens: Strips, Ketchup, and Spicy. Then they got murdered by a bobcat in May. Most depressing free chicken buffet ever. But I digress....

My bestie, who I will refer to as Brewsn, one of many derby nicknames, and I are having healthy cooking misadventures. And trying not to eat our feelings when the going gets rough. But, pictured below is a great mix of quinoa, yellow and green summer squash, and mushrooms, heavily seasoned. 
If you're still cooking rice or quinoa in a pot, may I just kindly ask, "WTF for?" The rice cooker has changed my life. AND, we discovered something else--quinoa is much better if you wash it. It comes with a naturally bitter coating on it. If you put it in a bowl of water and agitate it, the water will get soapy looking. Keep doing this and rinsing until it stops bubbling. Then cook the quinoa with some broth (I like organic veggie broth) and some seasoning (Mrs. Dash and I are becoming bosom buddies). In a heavy skillet, I added 2 T. of oil, a package of mushrooms, and a teaspoon of garlic salt. Let the mushrooms brown. Don't crowd the mushrooms!!! (Says Julia Child.) When the mushrooms are good and brown and take them off. Toss sliced yellow and green summer squash with 1 T. oil, salt and pepper, and get your pan pretty hot (medium highish). The thing with yellow and green squash is that they get mushy really fast. So I like to toss them with oil, salt, and pepper, and put them in a hot pan to brown quickly before they starts to feel like baby food. Once that is done, combine your quinoa, mushrooms, and summer squash together. Season to taste with garlic salt, cayenne pepper, Mrs. Dash, garlic and onion powder, paprika, or whatever makes you happy.

In December, we attended the Roller Derby World Cup, which was held right here in our city. So we did that. And it was beyond fantastic. Especially because there is a train that runs from our neighborhood to right by the derby venue, so there was no driving. Which worked out great because we sure didn't need to be.
Team Argentina won my heart. England, whose life-sized cut out of Queen Elizabeth was stolen and held for ransom by Team USA, only to re-emerge wearing Scald Eagle's (this year's Team USA sweetheart) jersey. We all knew Team USA would remain the reigning champs, but they were still glorious to watch. If you have roller derby in your local community, please support these empowered and hard-working ladies by going out to see a bout.
My bestie calls this my "Bro Bag." It is a 6-Pack brand bag that I got through Dana Lynn Bailey's website, where it was customized for her. 6-Pack makes really amazing bags. They're pricey, but worth it.
Sadly, the food at the derby venue was frightful, so on the second day, I carted our own in. We went on down to Central Market, and shoved the bag full of soft Brie, pita chips, chicken tamales, grapes and apples, sushi, rice cakes and almond butter, and so on. Plus filled the sides with home-brewed kombucha. Kind of random, but it was all good throughout a twelve hour day of derby watching. The third and final day, we might have over imbibed a little bit and then spent the rest of the day eating Taco Bell. (Go here to view 6-Pack's entire line of bags: 6 Pack Bags and here to look around at Dana Lynn Baileys blog, Warhouse Gym, and product line. She's one of my gym heroes.)

And then I had to sweat Taco Bell out through my pores at the gym the following two days. Last year, if you recall, I started developing a deep love/hate relationship with the gym. I have remained quite a gym rat, and to learn more, I enrolled in NASM's online course to earn my certification as a personal trainer. For funsies. A girl's got to have hobbies, you know.

My new favorite leggings for the gym. My dad thinks they're so, so gross.
To support all this new muscle growth, we've been trying to go heavier on the protein to maintain our macros (if you're interested, check out IIFYM online to learn how to calculate and keep track of the relationship between fat/carbs/protein you consume--it's pretty eye opening). Ground bison remains one of my very favorites.
Parker James helping me cook bison.
Never having had cats before, it took me a while to get used to having someone hanging out (or hanging over) everything I do. I fought it for a while, but now I am coming to terms with being a crazy cat lady and just embracing the silliness.

That bison became the above pictured bison chili, which I packed in my bro bag with a spinach-quinoa salad (drizzled with pomegranate balsamic vinegar) and a Granny Smith apple. That is one of my very favorite lunches.

Another favorite of mine is protein pancakes. I mix 1 1/2 T. baking soda in with one large scoop of protein powder and about 2 t. oat bran. Mix well. Add in 2 eggs and mix. It will look like a science experiment gone wrong, but the resulting french toast/pancake combo is really good. I started making these when I still had some Herbalife pumpkin spice protein powder, and they were AMAZING. I am all sadness until the fall arrives and I can get more. Now I'm using vanilla-flavored powder, and it's working fine. Add some walnuts or pecans or blueberries for a little something extra. I usually eat half and save the other half for an afternoon snack. Drizzled with honey or maple syrup, these are awesome. But if you're running out the door like your hair is on fire like I frequently am, pop one in the toaster and fold it in half over a slice of turkey bacon. Excellent car food.

But we're not always virtuous. Sometimes we shit the bed and eat our feelings, and it usually looks like this:
Trashcan Nachos
Trashcan nachos. My dad started this tradition. You start with a giant jelly roll tray of corn chips. Smear them with refried beans or layer with black beans. Add any meat (we usually do ground beef, but you can do grilled chicken, shredded pork, sauteed shrimp, etc... It's all good. Use up leftovers here!). Cover with cheese and bake until the cheese melts really well. The trashcan part is all the condiments you set out to let people decorate their section with. Sour cream, salsa, chopped cilantro, avocado or guacamole, pickled or fresh jalapenos, chopped white or green onion, tomato, sriracha mayo, whatever. One must-have is San Marcos chipotle salsa in the can. You can get this at most grocery stores. Just make sure you get the sauce not the chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. I know it's in a can, which I am usually against. But the flavor might just change your life. Or your Tex-Mex food. Which is pretty much one and the same at my house. Glorious.

And I've done lots of fun stuff with girl child, like Mommy-kiddo yoga, also glorious. She is loving living in the house of crazy derby girls and animals. I frequently caught her doing homework with two rabbits, a kitten, and a chicken in her room before the chicken slaughter. I never thought I would live in a household where I frequently exclaimed, "Is that damn chicken in the house AGAIN?"

Another exciting event, for those of you who know me, is that Fred the Asshole died in January. I broke my left ankle playing roller derby pretty severely a little over three years ago. Once I really started lifting, the hardware started giving me trouble and keeping me from running, so I had it out, and OH MY GOD. What a difference! I didn't realize how much that metal sucked until I was free of it. It also helped that I was working out a lot before the surgery and went back to the gym for upper body six days after surgery (it's not huge surgery). The rehab was incredibly fast, and there's no more daily pain and swelling.

Fred's guts.
A few months after Fred died, and much to my great delight, I was asked to make birthday cake for my oldest friend's wife. My dear friend, Tippy, and I go all the way back to sixth grade (and this one time, at church camp...), and I was so excited and honored to make birthday cake for her sweet wife. Here's how that went down: On the left, a pink champagne cake with pink champagne frosting. Sounds fab, but it was least popular of the evening. It came out a little heavy, which might have been a user error. I suck at baking. Sue me. On the right is a lemon-blueberry cake with lemony cream cheese frosting and candied lemons on top. Yum. In the middle, and most popular of the evening, was a BOX MIX dark chocolate cake that I doctored to make more moist (the original instructions call for 1 cup water, 1/3 cup veg oil, and 3 large eggs-I use one cup of milk--raw, whole milk here--and add 2 extra T. of oil. Bake at 325 rather than 350, and start checking it will a knife 5-7 minutes BEFORE they recommend it will finish) and added cinnamon and cayenne pepper to. I added the same to the STORE BOUGHT frosting, threw some strawberries on it, and everyone died for it. I may never slave over homemade cake again. Possibly because I am a shitty baker.
Birthday cake that didn't suck.
But the party was lovely, there was grand food, and I didn't ruin the birthday girl's big day. So there's that.

And right as everything was settling into a comfortable groove, my sweet mama found out she had a golf-ball sized aneurysm in the center of her head. The next week, in mid-May, she had a craniotomy to clip off the artery feeding the aneurysm. Life with Mom is a lot different now as she rehabs.
Me, Mom, and my sweet sister.
So there are a lot of new normals to grow accustomed to at my house right now. Some are fun, some are bittersweet, and some are outright hilarious. My love/hate relationship with food continues, and I'm learning all about cooking food for Mom's required soft mechanical diet. I hope to continue to regale you with more tales from a single girl's kitchen soon!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Italian Christmas!!

Hello, my darlings! I'm sorry for the long absence. Sadly, my bacon-loving husband and I are no longer a thing, and it's been a difficult journey to get out on my own. There is still a long road ahead, but I hope that ultimately this will be healing for us both and help each of us to be a stronger, more whole individuals.

But enough dreary news. I'll start catching back up on my culinary (mis)adventures, starting all the way back at Christmas.

This year, lo and behold, my father said he wanted a traditional Thanksgiving, but that my sister and I could do WHATEVER WE WANTED for Christmas dinner. My dad is a serious traditionalist, so this was a really big deal. And my sister and I were cautiously excited, as he had said the same thing last year and then recanted right before Christmas. But ten days or so out, and he was still maintaining we could do what we wanted.

We decided early on that we wanted to do an Italian Christmas. That was about as far as we got for three weeks or so. Then, in the week before Christmas, we were exchanging frantic texts of this nature (yellow is Kari Ann; blue is me):

So finally, on the 17th, about two days before I went to the lake for Christmas, things reached a fever pitch. I'd just gotten home from the gym, was 20 minutes late for work already, but it was just time to pull the trigger on a menu. So I pulled down Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, Lidia's Italy, from my shelf, picked a couple of recipes, and made some up. I texted this menu to Kari Ann:
  • Baked fennel with proscuitto (Lidia B.'s)
  • Polenta (Lidia B.'s) with braised egglant (a mutt dish we compiled inspired by Lidia's)
  • Risotto with black peppercorn beef (Beef recipe is Lidia B.'s; the pairing was ours)
  • Fresh pasta with brown butter sage sauce (pretty basic things I'd already cooked before)
  • Tiramisu (from the lovely Diana's secret recipe)
My sister was dubious, but I was late for work. We divvied up the grocery list and met up at the lake.

On Christmas Eve, amidst my girl child's clamor to open "just ONE present!! Please!!" and the hoopla of my mother's birthday party, I made the tiramisu and then sort of lost interest due to the massive amount of shrimp, scallops, and lobster my dad made for Christmas Eve dinner. So come Christmas Day, we had lots of cooking to do.

We put on the beef, which is a roast cut into two-inch chunks and put in a big pan with an obscene amount of red wine, minced garlic, and peppercorns and simmered for about three hours.

Sadly, I can't bring myself to disclose Ms. Bastianich's recipes (don't be mad; I'm a lit professor, and plagiarism and copyright are legit things to me), so go snag a copy of your very own.  

We did have to add more wine and some water to the pot to keep the beef moist. Even then, we did decide that next time, we might leave the roast whole as it cooked and then top it with the red wine-peppercorn sauce after slicing it. Either way, it was really good over the creamy risotto (which we emptied a bottle of white wine into while cooking). It was a boozy dish. Sue us.

Then I made polenta with bay leaves so it could mold in a pan and be cut and baked into crispy goodness before lunch, and we started the balsamic reduction for the eggplant.

Top is beef, bottom right is polenta, and bottom left is balsamic vinegar with a little sugar. 

Next up was pasta! I have a funny little pasta maker, and I used Lidia's recipe of 3 cups flour (I subbed out one cup for semolina flour), 3 eggs, 3 yolks, 3 T. olive oil, and 1/4 cup ice water. If you've not made pasta dough, it's really easy. Sift your flour into a bowl. Make a little well in the middle, and dump in the eggs, oil, and a pinch of salt. Use a fork or your hands to work it together. At this point for me, it's usually a grainy mess, and not sticking together at all. This is when I look at my sister and whisper, "We're going to ruin Christmas, aren't we?" But really, it's okay. If the dough isn't coming together at all, add some ice water until it does. If it's too wet and just sticking to everything, add a bit of flour. I usually work it into two balls because they're just easier to manage. They should get fairly elastic and hold together well. Wrap each ball in Cling Wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. When you take the dough out of the fridge, let it warm up a bit and cut each ball in half to work with.
I love this pasta machine.
Some people are willing to hand roll out pasta dough with a rolling pin. I am not one of those people. Nor am I really even willing to use the hand crank that came with my pasta roller. The secret to really good pasta is to roll it through each setting several times (doubling it up periodically) before using the specific noodle attachment you want. That's a lot of rolling, but to each your own.

So I rolled and rolled and rolled pasta, and put it on my rigged system pictured below (I swear I washed those hangers).
Rigged Pasta Dryer

If you've never made home made pasta before, it cooks REALLY fast. Wait until you're very nearly ready to eat to cook it. You'll need a pot of rapidly boiling, salted water with a little olive oil in it. You can literally dip the pasta in and remove it about three seconds later. Be careful. I got all excited, and in the interest of getting all the pasta in at the same time while someone was talking to me, I stuck my whole left hand into the pot of boiling water. Christmas fail. 

For the brown butter sage sauce, I just gently warmed up a stick of good butter in a skillet on low heat. When it just barely began to brown, I added about 8 good sized sage leaves, chopped. Remove from the heat, add 1 T. lemon juice and a pinch of salt and toss with your lovely homemade pasta. Garnish with fresh sage leaves and fresh grated Parmesian cheese.

Anyway, moving on, we started our eggplant caponata (minus the celery. I hate the celery). We sliced our eggplant (about 2 big ones or 4-5 small ones) into rounds and heavily salted it to let it drain for about an hour. Then, Kari fried it in a skillet of very hot oil and put in on paper towels to drain. Meanwhile, she had reduced the balsamic (about a 1/2 cup) and 2 T. sugar, added 2 T. of tomato paste and 2 T. of water to the sauce. In a pot, she added a bit of oil and the onions to cook. When the onions were almost translucent, she added in the eggplant, the sauce, diced capers (about 1/4 cup), and sliced kalamata olives (3/4 cup). Let it simmer for about 10 minutes. 

We served this over the baked polenta. After the polenta sat in a bowl long enough to take that shape, I turned the polenta out onto a cutting board and sliced it into one-inch thick squares. I put the squares on a jelly roll pan, brushed them with thyme-infused butter (sounds fancy--it's not. You just melt butter in a pot with a big fistful of thyme in it. Let it sit for at least five minutes before you remove the thyme), and put them under a low broiler until they crisped up. 

I have a great set of reindeer china from Pottery Barn that we always use at Christmas. We generally fight over this place setting.

Everything came out great, and my dad pronounced the day a success!! 

So, sorry for the Christmas post in June. I clearly suck as a blogger, but now we can all start planning well ahead this year? Right?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Clean Eating, Part Deux!

My inner fat girl tries to take over and become my outer self pretty much every single day of my life. It's not that hard for me to go to yoga and to the gym to lift, but it is a big struggle for me to not undo all that hard work through a lousy diet. (See my post on food addiction here.) I'm having to retrain my brain a bit that healthy eating is not all about deprivation and discomfort. It's about loving myself and getting smarter about my love for food.

This Labor Day weekend, the challenge is to hang out at the lake house and still eat clean. This will be a bit easier because it will just be me, girl child and mom rather than the entire crew. Let's see how it goes. Call it practice for the next trip or two.

I knew that Mom was planning a spaghetti dinner for Friday night. Challenge accepted.
My mom makes the best meat sauce. Ever. Her secret is to mix ground beef and ground sausage and to add minced garlic at the beginning, middle, and end of cooking. She also adds minced garlic, garlic salt, and butter or oil to the pasta as soon as it is drained. Sometimes I make the pasta fresh. However, in the spirit of getting lean and heart healthy, I just couldn't do it this time. I've been murdering myself at the gym, and it's painful to throw that away on a plate of pasta. So, I got a spaghetti squash, microwaved it, and replaced the buttery pasta with squash. A basic substitution that I am certainly not the first to do, but one that made me feel good and allowed me to have Mom's awesome sauce. Because my mom is awesome sauce.
Another difficultly I have at family gatherings is the snacking. At the lake, we snack and snack and snack, and there's a giant pantry full of all things #badformyass. Clearly, processed chips are a poor choice. However, these quick refrigerator pickles are fantastic for satisfying that craving with minimal calories and as much or as little salt as you choose to put in the brine. I made some fresh ones Friday morning just for this trip and hauled them down with me to share.

I don't water bath or pressure can these because I go through them pretty quickly, and I can't abide a soggy pickle. To make your own pickled okra, cucumbers (get the long English cucumbers individually wrapped in plastic or the short little pickling cucumbers. Regular cucumbers don't hold up as well), or carrots, you just need to make a brine and have some glass jars handy. In a non-reactive pot, combine water, vinegar, pickling or kosher salt (the anti-caking agent in table salt is not so good for pickling) and whatever seasoning you like. You can choose between white or apple cider vinegar (I like white for dill pickling and apple cider for other variations). I like some dill, red pepper flakes, and bay leaves in my standard pickle. You can play around and see what you like: juniper berries, rosemary/thyme, etc.... Heat your brine and stir until the salt dissolves. I like to make a big batch, so in my pot, I combine 6 cups filtered water, 3 cups vinegar, 1/2 cup (or less) pickling salt, and my spices. Heat the brine until the salt is all dissolved and remove from heat.

Your brine can cook your pickles. For a hard veggie like carrots, I add hot brine to soften them a bit. I like a crispy cucumber pickle, so I wait until the brine is room temperature to pour it over the cukes. You can also tuck onion, garlic cloves (they may turn funky colors, but are fine), and hot peppers in with your veggies. You can also use this recipe, minus spices, for jalapeƱos.

While you wait for your brine to cool, pack your jars. Pack 'em tight so your pickles don't float to the surface. Use glass jars. When your brine is at the desired temp, pour it over the veggies. I let mine sit on the counter, lid off, until they reach room temp before I put the lid on and refrigerate. If you have left over brine, put it in a jar and save it for when you have some veggies that need saving. You can also reuse the brine a few times. When it starts getting cloudy (usually after about three rotations of veggies), throw it out and start over. The point here is that you can make yourself a really fantastic, healthy snack that is super inexpensive and made to your own preferences. I love to keep brine ready to go in the fridge so I can just toss in some veggies and have a brilliant snack or something tart to add to a meal (they're best after they've sat for at least two days).

On to the Saturday night challenge: burgers. Dammit. I love a good burger, and I know there would be big, fluffy buns (don't make rude comments here), tons of cheese, and four varieties of chips. Damn. What to do?

So I made carrot fries. They're actually good! I cut carrots into match sticks, tossed them with 1/2 T. olive oil, two minced garlic cloves, and a pinch of garlic salt. I baked them at 350 for about 15-20 minutes until they were tender. Very garlicky. Yum. 
As for the burger, I went bunless and cheeseless, but I added avocado, pesto, and some mustard with some of my pickles. I didn't even miss the other stuff!
Instead of chips, I went with the carrot fries and some cabbage (I sauteed the cabbage with smoked paprika, garlic salt, white pepper, and apple cider vinegar--lots of flavor!).

Sunday morning breakfast is a serious thing at the lake house, regardless of the holiday. Usually, my dad makes omelets filled with ham, buttery cooked mushrooms, sour cream and cheese served with bacon and/or sausage and English muffins and/or orange rolls. Plus mimosas if we're good girls! Sigh. So here's my take. I fried some eggs with just a light spray of olive oil based non stick spray and tossed some shrimp into the pan as my treat (I pre-seasoned the shrimp with garlic salt and pepper).
I was really hungry, so I had the pan heat a bit high and my eggs got a little browned, but I didn't even care. I ate my shrimp and eggs with last night's carrot fries. YUM.
Beach snacks are always tricky. Usually we raid the pantry and pack all manner of processed salty and sweet things, processed lunch meat sandwiches, soda and booze (on the weekends that girl child is elsewhere). For this trip, Mom and I hard boiled some eggs and took a bottle of Tabasco for seasoning. I mixed some Fage plain, non-fat yogurt with a packet of stevia and a small palmful of chopped mango. It was fantastically crisp and refreshing when we'd been under the sun for a bit. We also made some peanut butter sandwiches on Ezekial bread and took some local honey to drizzle on top. Water and tea instead of soda and one alcoholic drink instead of five. Who knew the beach doesn't really wobble at the end of each trip?
My reward for all my good efforts? On Monday morning, I made my Mom a special breakfast that her mom used to make. Homemade biscuits, sausage and gravy, and eggs scrambled with a bit of bacon grease. This is the cooking that goes back to my roots, and a girl can't live on protein and veggies all the time (85-90% of the time, yes). So here was my Monday yum I shared with my mom and girl child.
I hope that you and yours had a safe and happy holiday weekend!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gardening, Watermelon Lemon Mint Jelly, and Pickled Watermelon Rind

So, now that I've finished this crazy degree, it seemed like the time to put in a garden. I've half-heartedly yearned for one for years, especially since I started canning. Yearning in earnest this year, and egged on by my apartment-bound best friend who also loves to garden, I finally did it!

This year, the timing really worked out because we had this giant live oak that shaded the whole backyard, and half of it fell over, leaving the bare patch you see below. There was some (minimal) landscaping back here, but between the enormous fallen tree, the guys who cleaned the tree up and the guys who rebuilt the fence, there wasn't much of anything green left. So we decided raised beds were the way to go. We stripped the remaining landscaping and tilled up half the backyard. (Much to my husband's amusement, he came home one day to both of us in cammo cargo short and sports bras, tilling like mad.)
Then we built a compost pile and six 4x8 beds. This may have been overly ambitious, having never had a garden, but whatever. I'm lucky that there wasn't a bunch of grass to kill off, and the soil was in pretty good shape, as the previous owners were organic gardeners.
My best friend took on the task of starting our seedlings at her apartment. While this began as a highly organized endeavor, it didn't end up that way. Between having to restart some seedlings that died and her boyfriend sort of rearranging them, we wound up planting four beds of we-don't-really-know-what-we're-planting-so-SURPRISE! Always an adventure around here. It's been sort of like Christmas around here seeing what's going to sprout up next. I saw a green bell pepper yesterday poking up amongst a bunch of cucumber vine. I didn't even know we had planted bell peppers.
Above is the start of some baby plants: a squash plant  (top left), a stevia plant (top right), and what I later discovered to be watermelon (bottom left). Little did I know that the squash and watermelon would try to take over the WORLD. The below shot is about three weeks later.
Oddly, my squash has approximately one million blossoms on it, I have SEEN bees on it, and yet there was no actual squash happening for the first few months. We needed squash marriage counseling. I watched some You Tubes on how to hand pollinate the squash, but I couldn't find any girl flowers to use the boy flowers on! We have a gay squash. While I'm totally okay with that, I may need to plant a straight one so I can get some squash. However, all the boy flowers have made for some lovely stuffed, fried squash blossoms. UPDATE: 7/10-I found ONE round, green squash growing! And some girl flowers!! 
I also found my first watermelon! It's about the size of a grapefruit, but I'm pretty excited even though it's getting harder and harder to contain the watermelon vine. I've gotten several tomato cages to try to tame the squash and watermelon vines, but they're barely making a dent in all this crazy growth.
This funny fellow is a black Hungarian jalapeno. We have about four of these plants scattered about the beds, and they're very mild. Plus, they look cool. I'm not sure yet what I'll do with these. 

We also planted cherry and heirloom tomatoes (see my post on pickled fried green tomatoes here) and LOTS of rosemary to keep the bugs away. I think I have a cucumber vine (we'll see), AND I discovered a green jalapeno plant (I think). When I graduated last November, my lovely colleagues gave me a pot with rosemary, sage, and thyme, all of which are happily thriving, along with sunflowers (for my honey--he loves to have sunflowers in the house. He has an affinity with Van Gogh, but I'm hoping we can skip the whole ear situation), stevia, three kinds of mint, some purple speckled lima beans, dinosaur kale, strawberries, regular jalapenos, and chives. So kind of a motley collection now that I can identify most of it. 

Good Lord. Some of what we'd planted has withered away (the green beans in particular seemed unable to withstand the full sun). Some is barely limping along (poor basil), and some is going NUTS. However, I'm learning a lot for next year.
Here's a pic of yesterday's harvest. I just went out to clip a few things, no big deal. Then I cut into this watermelon. Holy Moses. If you haven't had juicy watermelon still warm from the sun, you must endeavor to have this experience soon. So I went out and got two more. Then I had a lot of watermelon to deal with. So guess what? Watermelon-Lemon Mint Jelly and Watermelon Rind Pickles happened.

I've seen recipes for watermelon rind pickles in my canning books for a while, but generally, grocery-store bought watermelons don't have enough rind to really work with. You're looking for the green flesh in between the outer skin and the pink part. One of the watermelons I picked was not quite ripe yet and still had quite a lot of rind, so I decided to check out this whole rind pickle situation. Most recipes advise to trim off all the pink, but the pink bit I left on was very firm. 
Cut the rind into whatever size/shape makes you happy.
While this recipe is very loosely based on Liana Krissoff's recipe in Canning for a New Generation, a great cookbook I talked about in this post.  I decided to make refrigerator pickles because I can't abide a soggy pickle. To avoid soggy pickles when processing, you have to use pickling lime and rinse and rinse and rinse it, and I just wasn't that gung-ho today. So I mixed up a brine of three cups white vinegar, three cups filtered water, one course chopped lemon, 1 3/4 cups sugar, a half a handful of whole allspice, one star anise, and one tablespoon of candied ginger. I brought this to a boil until the sugar was melted and added my rind to the mix, stirring the pot off the heat. I covered the pot and left the pickles to marinate overnight.  
The next morning, I removed the anise and allspice, brought the whole thing back up to a boil, and turned off the heat.
Before the second cooking. 
When the mix cooled, I funneled it into a quart jar and popped it in the fridge. These pickles are a really interesting sweet-tart treat! I think they would be great chopped into a salad, served along side something rich that needs some acid to cut it, or with a sandwich. 
On to the jelly. After I had filled a sizable container of watermelon to eat (I'm the only one at home who will), I decided some jelly was in order. I had about 4-5 cups of watermelon that I chopped and put in a sauce pan with two cups of sugar. Let this simmer until the sugar melts and the watermelon starts breaking down. I used a potato masher to help break up the flesh, and that also released a few yellow seeds I had missed so I could fish them out. When the fruit was quite tender, I ran the whole pot of liquid and fruit through the blender (I probably should have let it cool a bit first. I'll be cleaning sticky watermelon goodness off the ceiling for a bit). I added two tablespoons of lemon juice to ensure acidity and 1 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla to the mix.

Because I am total crap about sticking to recipes, I ordered some ph paper. To make sure a product is safe for water-bath canning, it needs to be at a ph of 4.6 or less. Any higher, and whatever you're canning needs to be pressure canned. Most canning recipes are carefully tested to determine what method needs to be used in the canning process. Because I like to fiddle, I wanted to ensure I wasn't going to poison anyone, especially because I'm fond of giving my canned goods as gifts. So now I go all mad scientist and test any recipes that I don't strictly follow (which is basically never).
When my jelly mix passed the test, I added in three tablespoons of standard pectin, brought it to a boil, reduce the heat, and added in two tablespoons of lemon mint from the garden. I processed this in a water bath for ten minutes. Yum! I'm always a bit tense to see if my jelly will actually set up, but this one did beautifully!

The last part that I saved from my watermelons were the seeds so I don't have to re-buy them next year. You can't plant hybrid watermelon seeds (which is usually what you get with store-bought melons), but mine aren't a hybrid variety. So I saved all the good, plump, black seeds (no cracked or yellow ones), washed them, and let them dry on paper towels. When they were dried, I put them in envelopes and in an airtight jar in the pantry. They're supposed to be viable for up to five years.
I'm really in love with my silly garden, and I'm excited to start planning for next year! Do you garden? What do you grow? What's your favorite thing to grow, whether it's on a patio, in a garden, or in pots in the kitchen window?

Up next, adventures in stevia. My stevia plant is gigantic, and I need to prune it and start preserving it soon!

Recipes follow...

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Pork Belly Smack Down--Happy July 4th!

Happy, happy July 4th! I hope you all had a safe holiday. I'm currently rubbing refrigerated aloe all over myself while I try to rehabilitate my liver, so ours was clearly a good time.

But about the cooking competition: this holiday, my sister and I chose pork belly as our cook-to-the-death ingredient, much to my husband's delight. Up to this point, I'd never cooked pork belly (which is basically a big slab of bacon before it's cured and cut). I went to the Asian market the Wednesday before the lake trip to get a small portion of pork belly to experiment on (again to my husband's delight). It was a total, epic disaster. I tried a couple of different variations of marinating it and scoring the skin and then proceeded to cook them all beyond recognition (poor husband was not so delighted). Charred crackling, anyone? So I was good and truly nervous. I sat down and looked through all my cookbooks, trying to find a different method of preparation. Sadly, all my favorite cookbooks let me down. Is everyone but me just born knowing how to cook a damn pork belly?!?

I was also thinking about the balance of the overall dish. Everyone likes a good mix of creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty, and acidic in a composed dish. I wandered out on Wednesday to water my silly garden while I was thinking this over, and then I spied several green heirloom tomatoes. Aha! I knew then that I wanted to do a fried green tomato, but with a kick.
So I made up a brine of water, apple cider vinegar, rice wine, brown sugar, sea salt, peppercorns, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds. I put everything in a large saucepan and stirred it until the salt and brown sugar melted. I let it cool almost completely before I poured it over my sliced tomatoes so as to not cook them. They still needed to be fairly firm on Friday so I could bread and fry them. I had no idea if this whole pickled fried green tomato thing would work.
But it did! When the rest of the meal was nearly ready, I drained the tomatoes, coated them in flour, dipped them in milk, and then dredged them in a breadcrumb/cornmeal/flour combination before frying them in clarified butter.

But back to the pork belly. After Wednesday's abysmal failure, I had no clue what to do. Thursday rolled around, and it was time to get my groceries, get packed, and head to the lake. I still had no clue how to fix (don't laugh at my vernacular here) a good pork belly! The girl child and I went to Hirsch's Meat Market (a great local butcher shop near Parker and Alma in Plano, if you're a Dallas-ite), along with every other person in DFW who was looking to stock up on meat for the holiday. However, while I stood around for half an hour, waiting for my number to be called, I saw it! The perfect glaze (confirmed by the gentleman in front of me who purchased 25 pounds of ribs, three pounds of liver, and six pounds of tongue. I decided he was a legit source).
Right on. We were in business. So here's how the belly went down. I didn't score the tough skin layered over the fat because that just made a mess, but I did puncture it several times with a sharp knife after I seasoned it with salt and pepper so some of the fat could render out. I heated the biggest pan I could find (as I had a five-pound slab of pork belly) to about medium high, and hefted it, skin side down, into the hot pan to sear and render. Into another deep pan (oven safe with a lid), I poured one quart of chicken stock and added some pepper as well as a handful of fresh thyme and rosemary from the herb garden. While the broth warmed on a medium-low heat, I pulled off the belly when it was dark golden brown. With a great show of strength (see me flexing as I had to use two giant grill forks to move this ridiculous piece of meat?), I wrestled the giant belly into the broth, skin side up, and put it in a 325 degree oven to cook for a little over an hour. When both the fat and meat below were nice and soft, I glazed the skin side with my glaze and took it out to the grill for a last good sear to crisp up the skin. (You could also do this under the broiler). Let it rest for about 10 minutes or so before serving.
While the pork belly was cooking, I made some cheesy mashed potatoes. Nothing fancy. I just peeled and cut five baking potatoes, put them in a big pot of cold water, and brought it to a gentle boil until I could easily pierce them with a fork. Drain and put them back over the heat, shaking the pot, to burn off any excess water that will make your potatoes watery. I added about 4 T. of butter, 1T of sea salt, 2/3 cup heavy cream, 1/3 cup milk, and 1/2 cup chunked up cheddar cheese. As I added these ingredients, I tasted a lot to see if I liked the level of creamy/salty/cheesy. Keep in mind that the pork belly and tomato will have an element of salt as well, so don't over salt.

To really appreciate the final product, you had to get a bite with potatoes, pork belly, and tomato all together. It actually worked out really well, much my shock.

My fabulous competitor, my sister, made pulled pork belly tacos (with an agave nectar glaze) served with grilled pineapple and poblano peppers. YUM! Her dish was way prettier than mine.
By a very narrow margin, I won our fourth of July competition, which was a delightful mess. We (my spouse, sister and BIL, mom, daughter, and about ten friends) all spent the day at the lake (on the beach, not the boat. I hate taking the boat out on holiday weekends) eating bratwursts, drinking beer, and floating. We trooped into the house crazy hungry, sunburnt to a crisp, with sand in all our crevices, and proceeded to cook for two hours. Madness. But fun madness. I'm very grateful to live in a place where I can spend the day on the water with friends and family. Happy birthday, America! Or, as my friend Bloody Gaga says, 'Murica. And she says it while wearing a trucker hat with 'Murica airbrushed on it, gold hot pants, and while embracing an Elvis impersonator who smells of Axe, but that is another story....

Recipes follow the break here...