Thursday, March 30, 2006

Gluten Free Swedish Meatballs

Ilva's recent gluten-free recipes reminded me that I haven't posted one of my gluten-free triumphs yet: Swedish meatballs. What reminded me of it is she uses ricotta cheese in several of her gluten-free recipes, and it's what I use to replace the bread crumbs.

delicious gluten-free Swedish meatballs My daughter isn't extremely sensitive to gluten, so she can give in to temptation sometimes. But the bread crumbs and flour in Swedish meatballs gave her trouble.....and she loves Swedish meatballs so much I was determined to find a totally gluten free recipe. And you know what, I think it's better than the traditional recipe (sorry, Gramma)!

The process of making meatballs without bread crumbs is different than with them, and it took me a few tries to get a good procedure down. The good news is it's a lot easier to work with - these meatballs just don't seem to get tough with a lot of handling, which is good because my children love helping me form the meatballs and they're not pros at it yet.

For the benefit of those learning to cook, I've included a lot more pictures than I normally would. The photos show a double recipe of Swedish meatballs which is probably more than most people would ever need to make (we have teenage boys to feed), so don't freak out when the pictures and the quantities in the recipe list don't match. Amounts are approximate, especially the spices - adjust them up or down to suit your taste.

Gluten-Free Swedish Meatballs - my own recipe, adapted from my Swedish gramma's recipe

Makes about 3 dozen meatballs

1 lb. ground beef, at room temperature
1/2 lb. ground pork, at room temperature
1 medium onion, minced
1 egg, at room temperature
1/4 - 1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
1/2 - 3/4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
8-12 oz. ricotta cheese

oil, for frying the meatballs

2 - 4 C. half and half
1 - 3 T. cornstarch
1/4 C. cool water

Why do I say have the meats and eggs at room temperature? They blend together much easier than when they're cold. Also, I use my hands to mix them, partly because getting the right texture is important, and working with a lot of cold meat freezes them fast!

Place meats in a large bowl and set aside. Mince the onion. It's really important to get very small pieces, otherwise they can fall out during the frying and leave holes in your meatballs.

first step in chopping onions I start by chopping all the onion first. Let the onion's layers help you with this! The first cut is the most important for that - instead of cutting at the onion's "equator" into halves, cut it in half from its "poles", or root and stem ends. It's hard to explain the difference in words, but if you halve the onion equator style, you get two spirals that need three series of slices to turn into chopped onion. The other way takes only two, and it's much neater. The picture shows an onion halved along its poles, and then sliced. Notice that each layer could be separated from its neighbors for near-instant onion slices. It only takes one more series of cuts, perpendicular to the first set, and I've got chopped onion! Holding the onion slices together in the half-onion shape as much as possible makes the second set of slices easier. Once you're done with that second set of slices, you'll have a pile of chopped onion.

Minced onions on the left, chopped ones on the right Once the onions are chopped, I work with a small portion at a time to mince them. Using a chef's knife, with the tip as a pivot point, chop the onions while moving the wide end of the knife in an arc through the pile. Regroup the onions and repeat as needed until all of that portion is uniformly minced. Repeat until all the chopped onion is minced. Mincing does take some time, but for some recipes it's important to do it. Not just for the texture, but also because it helps the flavor of the onion to meld better with the other ingredients.

meats, onion, and egg before mixing Add the onions to the meat in the mixing bowl. Add the egg (remember, I made a double recipe, that's why there are two eggs in the picture); sprinkle the spices over all. In this picture, you can see the difference in the meats; the beef is darker and more cohesive, and the pork is pink and separates easily when removed from the package. Using both meats is very important, to help the texture and the flavor. I don't make any meatballs with just ground beef any more - they just don't taste as good.

blended meats, egg, and onions Using your hands, mix the ingredients until well blended. The motion I use is kind of like kneading bread dough, and although it sounds gross to put your hands into uncooked meat and raw egg it's much faster than using a spoon. As you can see from the picture, the meats are well blended, the onions are well incorporated and you don't see big jaggy chunks of onion sticking out of the mixture. If you do find some like that, just pick them out.

Meatball mixing completed! Add the ricotta cheese. How much you'll need depends upon how far you want to stretch the meat, and how much fat your meat has. You can add some and blend, and add more if necessary; I use the full amount (or very close to it, I usually don't measure). The mixture will be a light pink and quite cohesive. (It reminds me of that scary-looking ham salad my mom used to buy for our lunches when we were kids - is that stuff still made?) The mixture should not stick to your hands.

Forming meatballs Form the mix into meatballs, trying to keep the size as uniform as possible. I think I use about a tablespoon of mix for each meatball, scooping it up and rolling it gently to form an approximately round meatball. If you're cooking solo, I don't recommend trying to form meatballs and cook them at the same time; it's too easy to burn them. Put the meatballs on a cutting board or platter that you can set beside your skillet.

Heat a skillet to medium-high. A cast iron is ideal for this because it browns the meatballs nicely, much better than a nonstick skillet. Add some oil (I use peanut oil because it doesn't add any flavor and has a high smoke point) and swirl to coat the skillet. Once the oil's hot, add several meatballs, leaving room between them. After a minute or two, turn the meatballs to brown a different spot. Continue that process until the meatball's exterior is no longer pink. Don't worry about making sure they're cooked all the way through, because they'll be simmering in gravy and will cook more then.

cooked meatballs being held while more are fried Once they're cooked, remove the meatballs so that you can fry more. Since I use a nonstick skillet for the simmering, I just put them in it. You could also use a crockpot for simmering. If you'll be reusing the frying skillet, put them on a large platter or something that's big enough to hold them all. It doesn't matter if they cool some. At this point, you will probably start to be visited by people who want to sample the meatballs - they smell so good while they fry! Add more oil to the skillet, and allow it to heat up before adding meatballs as necessary to keep meatballs from sticking. If the pan juices and onion bits start to brown too much through the frying, scrape them out and add to the holding meatballs. They flavor the gravy, and you don't want it to taste burnt.

simmering meatballs Once all the meatballs have been fried, pour any remaining pan juices and bits of meatball over the held meatballs. If you're reusing the skillet, clean it and return meatballs to it. Reduce heat to medium-low, and add half and half - more if you want a lot of gravy, less if you don't. Bring to a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, cover the skillet, and allow the meatballs to simmer gently for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. (If you allow the gravy to get too hot, the dairy proteins coagulate into gloopy strands. It will still taste fine - the gravy just won't look very nice.)

thickened gravy for gluten free Swedish meatballs Before thickening the gravy, check the seasonings, especially salt. Add more salt, pepper, or nutmeg as needed to your taste - but don't go overboard, as the thickening will intensify the flavors some too. If you've added 2 C. of liquid for the gravy, stir 1 T. of cornstarch into cool water for a medium-thick gravy; if you added 4 C., use 2 T. If you want a thicker gravy, use a bit more cornstarch. (For a very informative page on using cornstarch as a thickener, see Miss Vickie's all about cornstarch page.) Stirring gravy gently, add cornstarch slurry and allow to cook for about a minute. Remove from heat.

My mom serves her Swedish meatballs with noodles. You can buy gluten-free noodles, but my family likes rice or mashed potatoes better with their meatballs. I usually serve them with a green vegetable or a salad. I don't have a pretty picture of my meatballs plated because I probably would have been killed if I had delayed dinner to take one. The kids love these meatballs.

If you don't need 3 dozen meatballs for a single meal, you can remove some meatballs and gravy before you add the cornstarch and freeze it. After it's thawed, heat gently and proceed with thickening as usual. Make sure you account for the reduced volume of both dishes when you measure out your cornstarch!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Around the World Meme

Ilva of Lucullian delights tagged me, which I guess means I need to answer these questions and then tag other people.

1. Please list three recipes you have recently bookmarked from food blogs to try: Hahahahaha!!! Just three?! I have been a bookmarking fool lately! So I'll list the first three that I remember.
    1: Ilva's Gluten-Free Ricotta and Hazelnut Cookies
    2: The Accidental Scientist's homemade harissa
    3: Orangette's asparagus flan. Evening View, Puget Sound

2. A food blog in your vicinity:
Gosh, we're so far away from civilization that I don't know of anybody really close. Orangette is in is the Gluten-Free Girl. I think The Food Whore is too. Is that close enough?

3. A food blog located far from you:
What I Cooked Last Night, from way down in Australia. I just found the site so I don't know a lot about it, but "'roo bangers" intrigue me and I think his vegetable interview is very funny.

4. A foodblog (or several) you have discovered recently (and where did you find it?)
Finally, a question that allows several answers.....but I've been so busy that I don't have several to give! I just said that I just discovered What I Cooked Last Night, from Cooking Vintage. And from Ilva's travel-blogging about going back to Sweden, A Cat in the Kitchen and Anne's Food.

5. Any people or bloggers you want to tag with this meme?
Joe at Culinary in the Desert because maybe it'll slow down his cooking some and I can try to keep up! Shauna at Gluten Free Girl because she's so fun to read. Michelle, The Accidental Scientist because I enjoy reading her blog too. And Anne at Anne's Food - to copy Ilva, because of our common ancestors!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Queenie Rants: Confusing Simplicity and Stupidity

My mom just sent me a link to a news article that has me really mad. How many of you saw this last week? Cooking 101: Add 1 Cup of Simplicity. Here are the first four paragraphs of the story.
At Kraft Foods, recipes never include words like "dredge" and "sauté." Betty Crocker recipes avoid "braise" and "truss." Land O' Lakes has all but banned "fold" and "cream" from its cooking instructions. And Pillsbury carefully sidesteps "simmer" and "sear."

When the country's top food companies want to create recipes that millions of Americans will be able to understand, there seems to be one guiding principle: They need to be written for a nation of culinary illiterates.

Basic cooking terms that have been part of kitchen vocabulary for centuries are now considered incomprehensible to the majority of Americans. Despite the popularity of the Food Network cooking shows on cable TV, and the burgeoning number of food magazines and gourmet restaurants, today's cooks have fewer kitchen skills than their parents -- or grandparents -- did.

To compensate, food companies are dumbing down their recipes, and cookbooks are now published with simple instructions and lots of step-by-step illustrations.

Do these food companies think they're helping people by dumbing things down? I sure don't think they are! If you read through the rest of the article it shows how many words recipes use to tell a cook how to cream something, instead of just saying "cream butter and sugar". It's ridiculous! It makes reading the recipe take longer, it makes it more likely the cook will get confused, and it makes it easier for the cook to think she's done everything right when she hasn't! So she'll either try to make the recipe again and mess it up - again - or she'll say that the recipe is wrong. And she probably won't learn what she did wrong, and how to do it right.

Dear hubby used to laugh at me when I cooked, because I "used lots of tools" and actually timed how long ingredients were whipped or simmered. He thought I was being too fussy, and making cooking harder than it needed to be. But then he ruined a chocolate mousse because he didn't know how to fold ingredients together and he just stirred. Hard. He still thinks I go overboard sometimes, which I probably do because I'm a perfectionist, but at least he asks me questions now.

It doesn't make instructions simple to add words instead of using the proper cooking term. It's dumbing a recipe down. And "step by step pictures" don't always help. How, in a series of still pictures, can a person really get the differences in the motions of stirring and folding? I guess next they'll be putting DVDs in with every cookbook so people can watch and see what they need to do.

Lots of professions have a special language that's like a set of conceptual shortcuts for them. In chemistry, for example, element, ion, and molecule all mean different things. Some nonscientists use them as if they're all synonyms, but that doesn't mean the scientists do, or should! I think of cooking as food science and we cooks ought to make sure our special language is used properly and learned by young cooks. Even though my children don't have a lot of skills yet, they know a lot of the terms, and they know what they're supposed to be doing. And I bet even they understand that it's simpler to say "dice" or "mince" rather than "cut with a knife to a uniform size of __".

I mean, really. If someone doesn't want to learn how to cook properly, aren't there a bunch of Cooking for Dummies books available? Put the stupidity in those books, and use the proper cooking terms in real cookbooks.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Kitchen Quiz: What's Your Secret Weapon?

Orangette recently confessed to a cooking parlor trick or secret weapon she uses. Hers is to add an egg - and like me, she hasn't let the food nannies scare her away from a luscious runny yolk!

If I do anything that's like Orangette's trick, it would be adding Tabasco sauce. That lovely ruddy liquid can add a lot to a dish!

Original Tabasco sauce

Here's a short list of things I regularly put Tabasco sauce in: omelettes; macaroni and cheese; beef stew; basic pasta sauce; some homemade salad dressings; marinades, especially for beef; basic white sauce; cheese sauces; gravies; scalloped potatoes; Italian meatballs; spicy Chinese dishes; Indian dishes that call for chile peppers and I'm out of them.....I think you get the idea!

A small amount of Tabasco sauce will not add a lot of heat to a dish. Especially if the recipe calls for it to simmer for a while. The Tabasco melds with other spices, and adds a subtle brightness to its other flavors. If you want heat, it's easy to do that, just add more Tabasco.

My children were scandalized when they started paying attention to cooking, and saw me adding it to so many things. They wailed that they don't like spicy things (which isn't entirely true). I told them that some of their favorite meals have Tabasco in them....and they tasted them, and sure enough they liked the food! That taught them an important lesson about ingredients and the final flavor of a dish.

A while ago I got wild and bought a bottle of chipotle Tabasco because I love that smoky, warm flavor and wanted to be able to add it to more things, especially Mexican recipes. Well, I love it so much I was putting it in and on top of everything! Enchiladas, scrambled eggs, tacos, hamburgers, steaks....I used it in things too, but it became a condiment to me. My small bottle of chipotle Tabasco is almost empty now, and I can't find a store around here that sells it. So sad!

Here's a picture of all the Tabasco flavors made right now:

all flavors of Tabasco sauce

Left to right, they are original flavor, jalapeño, garlic pepper, chipotle, and habañero. I haven't tried any flavors besides original and chipotle.....the habañero is tempting though.

So what's your kitchen secret weapon? I'd love to learn more ways to add taste and variety to my food! If you answer this question on your blog, please leave a comment here so we can find your good ideas, and encourage other people to answer the question. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

That Kind of "Cooking" is SOOO Hard

I've been thinking about this all last night and today, and I think the only way I'll get over it is to tell somebody about it.

Yesterday I made a very nice dinner to celebrate the first day of spring. The main course was a pasta sauce with eggplant. That took extra time and work because it was cooked separately, and because eggplant tastes better if salt is used to draw off its liquid. Before starting that I made a layer cake, kind of a difficult one that took longer than it should have because I copied the recipe down wrong and didn't realize it until I'd started mixing ingredients and ended up with gluteny goo. So I had to throw that batter out and start again. The buttercream frosting I made for it also takes a long time. Not the best planning I've ever done, but it was a special dinner, so that's okay.

While I was cooking the pasta my youngest stepson came into the kitchen to ask when dinner would be ready. He must have noticed that I looked tired (I'd been cooking for about seven hours straight at this point!), because he patted my shoulder and told me that he thinks cooking is hard, too. (We recently started a policy that everybody takes a turn cooking dinner. Both of us parents have offered to teach anybody how to cook anything we make, or to help them with new recipes.) What does youngest stepson almost always cook when it's his turn? He grabs a frozen lasagna, turns on the oven, and tosses it in for a couple of hours. If he works really hard he opens a bag of salad greens and pours them into a bowl.

I guess steam didn't come out of my ears when he said that about cooking being so hard, but it's a good thing he walked away before I could remind him that some mammals have been known to eat their young.

Tomato Pasta Sauce with Eggplant - adapted from the recipe in Mediterranean Light

1 eggplant, about 1 pound, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (quantity to your taste)
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes, roughly processed in a blender or processor to small chunks
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
salt, about 1/2 tsp (to taste)
pepper, about 1/4 tsp or to taste
sugar (optional)
1/2 tsp. dried thyme or to taste
1/2 tsp. dried basil or to taste

Place eggplant cubes in a colander and cover well with salt, tossing to coat all cubes. Place colander in a bowl and allow to drain for 30 minutes. While eggplant is draining, preheat oven to 450°F. Using some of the olive oil, grease a baking dish; set aside.

In a large saucepan with a heavy bottom, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Sauté onion until golden and add garlic for last minute or two of cooking. Pour in processed tomatoes, then stir in tomato paste. Add all seasonings except basil to taste. (Use sugar if the sauce is too acidic for your taste; I never use it but I hate the taste of sweet tomato sauces.) Reduce heat and simmer while finishing the eggplant preparations.

Rinse eggplant thoroughly and dry well. Place in greased baking dish, add remaining olive oil and toss well to coat. Cover dish (if it doesn't have a lid, aluminum foil crimped tightly will do) and bake until tender, about 30 minutes. Add cooked eggplant to sauce, check seasonings, and continue to simmer. Add basil just before serving.

Prepare spaghetti to your taste. Pass pasta and sauce separately, and offer grated parmesan cheese to top sauce.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Make Your Mise en Place Work for You

Too, too busy since returning home! One of these days I might catch up!

One of the nicest results of my visits to my sister's family is that her oldest daughter got interested in cooking, and has been emailing me with questions. I've been trying to explain the idea of mise en place to her, which is hard since I can't show her very easily and since I know she doesn't have a lot of the equipment she needs to do it well.

It's started me thinking about how much I push my kids to do something the way I do it instead of letting them figure out the way that works best for them. You'd think I'd know better since I'm the only lefty in my family and my mom tried to get me to do everything her way, but some habits are just hard to break I guess. Here are some of the things I do to make my cooking as easy and fun as possible.

- Since I'm lefthanded I set things up to work from right to left when I'm cutting up vegetables. Everything flows much better for me that way.

- When I'm getting ready to cook, first I get out all the ingredients to make sure I have enough of everything (okay, I almost always do this!).

- Then I start measuring things out. I don't have a lot of small containers, so when I need to add several spices to a dish at once, I measure them all into one container.

- I organize the dishes by my main work space (mixing bowl, sauce pan, or whatever) in the order I'll need to add them to it.

- If the dish requires some time to cook or sit at some point, I do my mise en place up to that point and then while it's cooking I use that time to finish setting everything else up and starting on cleaning. (For me this means fewer mistakes, since everything isn't ready and waiting to be dumped in!)

- I put the containers of ingredients away immediately after measuring out what I need. That makes it very easy to figure out where I left off if when I get interrupted.

- When I'm putting more than one ingredient in one container, I try to place them in separate piles so that I can see what's in the container, which makes it easier to tell where I left off when I get interrupted.

- I also get out, organize, or set up the equipment that I need for an entire recipe before I start cooking.

Don't be afraid to try different things that you see or read about other people doing. It might work better for you, it might not, but you won't know unless you try. If you have a small kitchen you might not have room to do all I do. Be flexible and creative, and you'll find a way that works for you!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Making Candy Without a Thermometer

I wanted to make some praline candy for my sister's family today, but she doesn't have a thermometer. I remember seeing my mom make candies without using one, but she didn't let us help her with that so I wasn't sure what she was doing to tell if the candy had cooked enough. After a couple of minutes online, though, I found exactly what I needed, the cold water candy test. This page is so great because it doesn't just give temperatures for the stages, it tells you what's going on and how your candy should behave. And there are videos so you can see how to test your candy!

My kids love to help me cook, but they focus on how things taste and smell. I keep telling them it's important to look at what you're cooking too, and to pay attention to how it feels. I'm glad I found that page, because it's part of a big section that will be great for teaching them all kinds of things!

My pralines turned out right, I think, it's the first time I've made them so I'm not sure. They're tasty, at least. I need to hide them (I want them to find the tin of candy after I'm gone) before I eat them all!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Cheesy Pasta That's Almost As Good As Sex

After writing about el cheapo mac and cheese, I remembered an old favorite, pasta spirals with gorgonzola cheese. My sister has the cookbook it's from too, so I went to the store and got some cheese and made this for my lunch. I forgot how wonderful this is! Lemon, garlic, green onions, and cheese make every bite a flavorful party in my mouth. The texture differences are good too. I gobbled as much of it as I could, with my toes curling and eyes rolling back in my head with each bite. Then I hid the leftovers and finished them for breakfast. It's. That. Good.

Everybody knows to buy good cheese in blocks, and to crumble, grate, or chop it yourself so that you get the most flavor from it, right? Okay then. Here we go with Fusilli with peas, carrots, garlic, and gorgonzola, from The Best 125 Meatless Italian Dishes.

Dried fusilli or other spiral pasta, 10 oz.
Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled, 3 oz.
Fresh lemon juice, 2 T.
Olive oil, 1 T.
Garlic, 3 cloves, minced
Salt, 1/8 t. or to taste
Pepper, to taste (freshly ground is best)
Carrot, diced small, 1 large
Peas, frozen or fresh, 8 oz.
Green onions, minced, 2
Lemon wedges, at least 1 per person

Bring lightly salted water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add pasta and cook until it's done to your liking, adding the diced carrot for the final 3-5 minutes of cooking time, and the peas for the final 2 minutes if fresh, or 1 minute if frozen.

While the pasta is cooking, mash together the cheese, lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt, and pepper until somewhat creamy but not smooth.

Before draining the cooked pasta, remove 1/4 C. of the cooking water and stir into the cheese mixture.

Drain the pasta, and immediately combine it with the cheese sauce and green onions in a warmed serving bowl. Toss until the cheese begins to melt. Serve very hot, on warmed plates, with extra pepper and lemon wedges.

The cookbook says this serves 4 people as a main course, but it won't if I'm one of those 4! If you want a vegetarian meal just add a good salad. To use this as a side dish, I like to grill chicken breasts in olive oil with a bit of garlic, and splash lemon juice on them too.

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