Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Frugal Food: Mac & Chese Meal

Blogbuddy Michelle reminds me of the lean times I've been through, by myself and with a family. It's hard but good things can come from dregs from the pantry. In a comment on that post she reminded me of a meal I made from the lowly boxed mac n' cheese mix. The kids loved it so much they still ask for it sometimes. (They also ask for my homemade macaroni and cheese alot, so I'm not offended that they like it.) This is really just an el cheapo version of the Hamburger Helper dinner.

Frugal Mac & Cheese Meal

a bit of meat - ground beef, kielbasa or similar sausage, ham, or bacon all work well
1 onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
1-2 boxes of mac and cheese
milk, about half of what the box calls for
whatever extras you have that sound good1
whatever spices will complement the other ingredients
salt and pepper to taste

While the water for cooking the macaroni comes to a boil, brown whatever meat you'll be using along with the onion and garlic. Drain the fat from the meat and set both aside. (If you're using beef and it's really lean, you can brown it in a combination of butter and oil.)

Use the fat from the meat in place of the butter called for in the mac and cheese instructions. Add your other ingredients and spices, and mix well.

1 I usually add some vegetables because that's an easy way to get the kids to eat them. Peas, carrots, or corn are the ones my kids like best in this. Just toss them in the water with the macaroni as it cooks, 2-3 minutes if they're fresh or canned, maybe 5 if they're frozen. Olives are good too, just be careful of how salty the final mix will be if you use green ones. Diced canned tomatoes, drained well, and Mexican spices make a tasty variation. Adding some sour cream or plain yogurt is good too. If you have it, extra cheese can be melted in or grated and sprinkled on top. I can't remember all the cheeses we've added to this, but muenster, havarti, or parmesan are ones that are good.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Have Broth Will Travel

You didn't misread my title and no, I didn't misspell anything. A few days ago I flew from Washington to the frozen midwest, and brought my own broth with me. There's got to be a good story behind that, right? Well, if I can tell it right it might be.

I'm here helping take care of my sister's family for a while. That mostly means cooking, which is why I got invited out. My sister isn't the best cook in the world. She's the reason I believe in wormholes in space. See, one time she invited hubby and me over for dinner and made a pot roast. Somehow she managed to suck all the flavor out of the meat, the gravy, everything. I've had bad-tasting food before, but totally flavorless food was a new experience. Where did all that flavor go? Hubby and I decided that she used a wormhole in space to transport it to another dimension. According to her husband and kids, she keeps that wormhole really busy, nothing she cooks tastes very good. (No, she doesn't know about the wormhole joke, she'd kill us all if she did!)

I love to cook but I also like to be efficient, so when I can I make big batches of things that will save me time later. Vegetable broth is one of those things I like to make a lot of. It's a very easy way to add nice flavors to lots of dishes and veggie broth is so easy to make. I don't like using the broth cubes, those seem like mostly salt to me, and even though salt isn't a problem for everyone with high blood pressure, I like to control how much is in the food I make.

My favorite broth to make is Italian vegetable broth because I make my own spaghetti sauce, and using my broth in it adds so much to the flavor. I don't remember where I found the recipe I use, I've been doing this for so long I don't need the recipe anymore, but I did find one to help me remember since I'm not making it right now. (Which also means no pictures again, sorry!)

Italian Vegetable Stock

Water, about 14 C
unpeeled potatoes, diced, 2 or 3
yellow onions, unpeeled, diced, 2 or 3
green pepper1, diced, 1
celery, chopped, 1 rib
mushrooms, half a pound (or more)
garlic, 6 cloves, chopped
bay leaves, 2
spices2, around 5-6 tsp. total
peppercorns, 4-8
salt, up to 1 tsp.
Assorted chopped vegetables of your choice3, about 2 C

Clean all vegetables well and if needed, removed damaged bits from them. It's fine to use the leaves of the celery and the onion skins, they'll add flavor too (and the onion skin helps give the stock a golden color). Chop vegetables coarsely.

Put all vegetables into a large stockpot. Put in about twice as much water as you have vegetables (you can measure if you want to, but you don't really need to), and add the spices you want. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat so that stock simmers.

Simmer stock uncovered for 45 minutes. Turn heat off. Let vegetables sit in stock for another 30-45 minutes. Strain before using. You can use a colander to catch just the veggie bits, or if you want a clearer broth you can strain it through cheesecloth (I usually don't bother with that, but some people might not like the muddy look of the stock).

The broth will keep in the refrigerator for several days (put in a covered container). For longer storage, freeze the broth.

I use this in my homemade spaghetti sauce as I said, and usually add some red wine too. You can use it as a nice base for all kinds of soups, or use it instead of water in your recipes. As long as your stock's flavor is balanced (not too strong with an herb or one kind of vegetable), it would be a good substitute for meat stock to make recipes vegetarian.

How did I transport the broth while flying? Well, I store my broth in canning jars. Usually it's still hot enough that as it cools, the lid will seal, although I don't trust this to be genuinely canned stock. (I'd love to find a recipe that could tell me how long I would need to process this to really can it.) I freeze alot of it too. So I crammed all my clothes and stuff into my carryon bag, and for my checked baggage, I took frozen pint jars of broth and wrapped them really well. I also poured tons of packing peanuts into the box and wrote "FRAGILE" all over it, plus arrows and "THIS SIDE UP". They made it just fine, and stayed mostly frozen too.

1 I hate the taste of green peppers and never use them in my stock. If you want you can substitute other peppers. I like yellow and red ones and they add a nice flavor.

2 It's mostly the spices that make this an Italian stock. You can add whatever you want and to suit your taste, but you should remember that the flavor is supposed to be mostly vegetables, not herbs. I like a combination of thyme, oregano, parsley, and sometimes basil or rosemary, and I usually use dried herbs because that's what I have on hand. If you use fresh herbs, use less of them, and use less of the stronger flavors, like basil and rosemary unless you want those flavors to be strong in everything you use the stock in.

3 You can tweak the flavor of the broth however you want with these vegetables. I like to use carrots and extra mushrooms - and usually different kinds of mushrooms, like button mushrooms and porcini or portabellos. Fennel, spinach, or chard are good too. If you want to use broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, or similar veggies, don't use much of them because their flavors are so strong you'll end up not being able to taste very much besides them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Kitchen Tip: You Can Make Baking Powder Yourself

It's been a zoo around here lately! Which means I haven't been very good at keeping up with shopping, or doing my usual preparations before I start cooking. You know where this is leading.....yep, I was in the middle of making a cake yesterday when I discovered I didn't have enough baking powder.

Luckily, I remembered that I could make it myself, and that I had the recipe in my computer files. It was still there, I had all the ingredients, and it worked great in my cake. Here's how you do it.

To make baking powder, combine 2 parts cream of tartar with 1 part each of baking soda and corn starch. Store in a cool, dry place in a tightly-sealed container.

I use the empty baking powder tin, just dump everything in, stir a bit to break up any lumps, and then put the lid on and shake it well. I've seen cooks at other blogs complain about how expensive cream of tartar is, but Penzeys sells it pretty cheap.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Product Review: IKEA Cookie Sheet

I don't know why, but I have a hard time finding good cookie sheets that I like. What's so hard about making such a simple piece of kitchen equipment? I have only one baking sheet that I like, and I almost always need more than one when I'm doing anything.

Now that I finally live in a more civilized part of the country, that is with good stores nearby, I've been looking forward to finding out what all the IKEA fuss is about. A few weeks ago, business in Seattle gave me an opportunity to visit their store. Wow! A huge store, with all kinds of things. Since I had the younger kids with me, I didn't browse as much as I wanted to, I just looked at the kids section and then went to the kitchen section. After a lot of looking and thinking, and mental figuring of the household budget, I bought two PROMPT cookie sheets. Here's the picture from IKEA's web site.
Ikea cookie sheet

I figured they'd be good for baking things, plus handy for candy making. I liked the raised lip on one edge that makes grabbing it with an oven mitt on easier, and that it's only on one edge. Sometimes I need a sheet that doesn't have sides, especially all the way around, and I thought these sheets would be just right for my needs.

They aren't. They're too thin, they bend whenever I pick them up. I noticed that when I was shopping, but I thought with some weight on the sheet it would be more stable. It's less stable. I made a bunch of truffle centers and put them on a sheet to go in the refridgerator and nearly spilled them all over the floor when I got them out later. To avoid that problem you need to grab two sides of the cookie sheet and then be very careful not to wiggle your hands too much or the sheet will flex.

Last night I baked some pizzas for dinner and used the sheets for the first time in the oven. The flexing was even worse! When I looked in the oven to check on the pizzas, I could see the sheets arching instead of staying flat. That made trying to get the pizzas out of the oven, on a nonstick sheet, a real challenge. The pizzas slid down the sheet and made a mess on my oven mitt, and the sheet wobbled and wiggled and I fought to keep the pizza on it as I turned to slide the pizza onto a cutting board. I almost didn't make it! And all I was doing was turning halfway and taking one step, from my oven to the cutting board built in to the kitchen counter!

I think I paid $5.99 each for the two sheets, that's more than the web page says. Even at the listed price of $4.99 the sheets aren't worth it. They're too flimsy. I need sheets that can be managed with one hand, and I couldn't find a way to manage this sheet even with both hands on it.

I wish I could recommend another brand instead of these IKEA ones, but the other baking sheet I have, which I love, I bought at a Salvation Army store years ago and it doesn't have a brand name on it. It's shiny (aluminum?) and sturdy and has sides all the way around, and it bakes my cookies beautifully. It's not a nonstick pan, and I like that too. Wish I could find another one like it.

I bought that pan when I was single and living in an apartment with a tiny kitchen. Even then I did alot of cooking and baking, and I learned a good trick for cooling down my cookie sheet in between batches of cookies. After removing the freshly baked cookies, I turned the sheet upside down over the kitchen sink (not letting it touch the sink, of course, that would get germs on it) and ran cold water over it. Very carefully I used my sponge to spread cold water all over it, without getting the baking surface wet, or my oven mitt either. Then I wiped it with a towel, just enough to stop the dripping, and it was cool enough to scoop more cookie dough on without it spreading!

So my first experience with IKEA kitchenware wasn't that great. I'll probably give the store another try someday. Alot of their things are very pretty.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Dream of Being a Chocolatier is Dead, I Think

I've been doing alot of research on starting a business making and selling candies from my home. I want to do this for many reasons, but I don't think it's possible. I was looking through Washington's laws and unless I have loads of money for special equipment and permits, I don't see how I can even try. And I don't have loads of money (hello, the reason for starting a business is to try to make money).

This is really depressing. I had no idea that the government controls so much of what people can do.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Preparing a Kitchen for a Power Outage

What a weekend! A big windstorm came through our area (I saw a news report that said the closest town to us had reported the highest winds in all of western Washington) and knocked our power out. Not once, but twice. The second time was for over 16 hours. We weren't prepared for it but managed okay. Next time we'll do better.

Our house is entirely electric. Electric stove, electric heat, water pumped from the well to the house by electricity. We don't have a backup generator, so we ran out of water pretty fast thanks to the teenagers who didn't think about how the water gets from the well to the house and used what was available to flush the toilet several times. But, we have a Brita water filter pitcher in the refrigerator, and it was pretty full. That plus milk, juices, and soda meant nobody got thirsty. I'm going to save up a few empty milk jugs, clean them well, and fill them with water. I'll use some as drinking water (I'll put just a touch of chlorine bleach in them to make sure nothing yucky grows in the water) and some will be for "flushing" the toilet when it needs it and for cleaning hands and things.

The house has two wood stoves that are meant to help heat the house. We didn't buy any firewood, but with alot of smaller trees blown down it was very easy to scavenge some wood from our property. That kept the main part of the house warm enough. Having some real, seasoned firewood on hand would have been better, and probably would have made for a hotter fire. That's on hubby's list to take care of. We need to get an axe too, so that we can chop the larger trees into suitable sized logs.

The stoves aren't made for cooking on, and without real firewood I don't know if my attempt to boil water on it in our teakettle was a good test. It didn't work, but a saucepan of water did get hot enough to produce some steam. That got used for warm drinks. We could have warmed up canned goods on it, but I don't know about real cooking. So, I need to dig out our propane cookstove so that it's at hand if we're without electricity again. I need to buy extra propane cylinders for it, too. We have long forks for campfires around somewhere, so once I find them I'll put them by the stove so they can be used for cooking in the wood stove.

Any time the power goes out our first rule is "No opening the refrigerator". After our electricity had been out all night, I opened it once, to get out a few things I thought people would like to eat for breakfast, snacks, etc., and those things then stayed out. I got out the Brita pitcher, the milk, some already-cooked sausages, and a couple of jams (for PBJs). I think a couple of people sneaked in to the fridge, but since they were sneaking they did it fast, and it stayed cold enough to keep everything okay. The one thing I was concerned about was uncooked Italian sausage I had gotten out from the freezer to defrost, so as soon as the power came back on I cooked it thoroughly just to make sure it didn't spoil. It was fine. Nothing in the freezer defrosted which was good too. We were lucky though. We should probably buy a generator big enough to power house essentials for several hours, and have our coolers ready to hold food and ice in case of a really long outage.

Before an emergency is the best time to get prepared, of course. Like I said, we were lucky on several counts this time. Next time we'll be better prepared (and I've already talked with the older kids about not needing to flush away every little bit of pee when the power's out). I hope my story will help you prepare your kitchen for an extended power outage.

This weekend was supposed to be a catch-up time for me, but without electricity for my computer or my stove I didn't get anything caught up. So now I have more things added to my list! But I have two big cooking sessions photographed and just waiting for me to have time to write them up. I won't tease you any more than that!

So, how was your weekend? (I'm too sad about it to talk about the Seahawks.)

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Buying and Caring for Cast Iron Skillets

Michelle, the Accidental Scientist asked me for some information about buying cast iron. My answer got so long I decided to make it a post instead of a comment!

There are lots of ways to clean and season cast iron, so if you aren't already using it, don't be intimidated or afraid. It's easier to handle than most modern cookware (especially nonstick skillets) and is very durable. And if you wash or scrub off the seasoning, so what? You can just season it again!

I got all my old cast iron from flea markets and auctions. Some of them were in good condition and still seasoned, they just needed to be washed before I could use them. Others had some rust or other problems. There are lots of ways to , but what I did was put them in the fire when we were burning yard trash. The high heat burns off everything! After they were cool enough to handle, I washed them well, and seasoned them in the oven. (Here's some information on how to , plus a way to clean it using lye. I think she goes overboard on handling the rust, though.)

The best old cast iron is from Griswold, and also Wagner. There's alot of it still around and it can be found cheap because lots of people don't want Gramma's old, heavy skillet, they'll sell it for whatever they can get. Old cast iron is becoming more collectible too, so you can find it in antique stores where it's usually more expensive. (If you want to keep the antique value of an old skillet, you probably shouldn't use the heavy-duty cleaning methods that get rid of all the old blackened stuff on it, but I'm not an expert on antique iron.) People are now making reproductions of the old cast iron, but the quality is very different and the markings are too (today's laws usually require markings that old pieces don't have).

If you're going to try garage sales, auctions, or flea markets, be patient. Know what you want (size, shape, griddle vs. skillet etc.) and look for good iron. A little, or even moderate rust by itself is okay, it can be cleaned up pretty easily. Rusty skillets are usually cheaper than ones in better condition. Don't buy any skillet that is warped or cracked or has deep gouges in it for cooking. I don't like ones that have rings, because they can make the skillet heat slower and less evenly.

A used skillet will probably be seasoned at least a little, if it hasn't been allowed to rust. But that doesn't really matter, because it should be cleaned first. Before using mine, I always broke my rule about soap never touching cast iron, because you never know what's been in it or who's touched it, and I'm picky about food safety and hygiene. So I washed them well with a soapy sponge and hot water, rinsed them and dried them with a paper towel. I always use a paper towel because iron can make kitchen linens brown and gross looking. Then I season them by putting some oil all over them, just a light coat or it'll get sticky, and putting them in a warm oven for a while. Some people recommend just 225 F. for seasoning iron, I use 350 F. because it's a little faster.

The oil soaks into the pores in the skillet as it heats, and that's what creates the nonstick finish. (Soap dissolves oil, that's why it's a no-no after the skillet has been cleaned and seasoned.) Too much oil just sits on top of the iron and gets gunky. If you don't think you used enough oil, put a little more in and pop it back in the oven. Or fry something in it, that adds to the seasoning too. If you use my cleaning method after cooking, you won't be undoing the seasoning either.

If you want to look around before buying, eBay is a great place for looking and learning. For example, this seller apparently thinks that this skillet was made in 1891, she says it's in "great shape for its age". But think about it, are there stamps besides "1891 original"? I haven't seen any. But Wagner made skillets way after that year. Why don't other Wagner skillets have a similar stamp with a different year? Why would it have seasoning instructions stamped into it too? (I have one of these skillets, I use it for frying eggs. It's smooth and works great, I just don't think it's antique Wagner Ware.) Or this one, a Wagner Ware box but an unmarked skillet. Wagner skillets have unmistakable stamps. Here's what the Wagner logo looks like.

Wagner Ware cast iron logo

This auction shows an old Wagner skillet that needs some TLC. It's a big skillet, which is partly why its price is high.

Griswold also stamped its skillets. Here are the two logos I've seen most.

Small Griswold cast iron logo

Larger Griswold cast iron logo

This one looks like a good Griswold, I don't know why nobody bid on it. But I'm not an expert. And if you're thinking of buying cast iron from eBay, I hope I've convinced you to be careful if you want old iron, and don't forget to check the shipping charge!! Cast iron is heavy, it may cost more than the price of your skillet to ship it to you!

If you aren't interested in the antique value of old cast iron, don't worry so much about whether it's marked or unmarked. As long as it's smooth, and in decent condition, it'll be a good skillet. Just don't pay antique prices for it! I bought my old square skillet at a yard sale for $5 and it's an old Wagner. That was a few years ago though.

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