Experiment

Hollandaise Sauce

Here is the post implied by the ending of the recent herb steamed asparagus post, in which I finally tried making hollandaise sauce almost but not exactly as indicated in this recipe. I had bought two bunches of asparagus, and planned to do this with the second one, just because.

Weird, right? It doesn’t smack of frugality, and I have no reason to want hollandaise, having never, as far as I can recall, eaten it before in my life.

The thing is, the perceived difficulty of cooking eggs and keeping them liquid intrigued me. The idea of mother sauces intrigues me, especially since I rock at sauces and gravies generally. The presumed similarity to making homemade mayonaise intrigues me.

Finally, it’s part of the quest to make variants of plain old asparagus.

So. The recipe. I used 4 yolks, as it said. Most recipes I perused called for 3 yolks. My eggs were extra large, for what it’s worth, not large. I’ve had a goofy little egg separator for 30+ years and, as far as I can recall, have never used it. Until now! For one egg. Which told me doing it with my hands, as I have seen TV chefs do, was vastly better. The gadget was too small, and failed to separate the white as fully or quickly as my fingers. I saved the whites for another experiment, in a cake, since it was my birthday and I am the cook here.

I got about 3 tablespoons of juice from a lemon I had remembered to buy for the purpose, and used one for the hollandaise. See the aforementioned cake for the fate of the rest.

Now, every other recipe I looked at called either for (mostly) a tablespoon of water or (less often) a tablespoon of cream. Or maybe it was milk. This recipe had neither, but I used water anyway, and good thing. I could see it being even better with cream or milk.

I used salted butter. I do not as a rule have unsalted in the house. I buy it if I plan something I know calls for it, and care enough to comply. Some recipes specify unsalted. Some do not. I melted it carefully in the microwave, managing to come out with a complete melt that was no more than room temperature. In just one place I saw mention that sometimes clarified butter is used in hollandaise. I thought that sounded right, so as best I could, I mostly skimmed off the foamy milk solids. (If, like me until relatively recently, you have no idea what is meant by “clarified butter,” that’s all it is: melted butter with the light colored scum you see floating on top skimmed off. It sounds fancier and more intimidating than it is.)

The pinches of salt and cayenne were as directed, though I went very light on the salt, considering the salted butter.

The recipe describes the lemon juice and yolk mixture doubling in volume. I’m not sure mine doubled, though my dubiousness was mooted by seeing that it did increase in volume.

The method described for using a stainless steel pan with a saucepan is great as a makeshift double boiler. Granted, doing this made me pine for a double boiler, and I even found that there are pans sold that come with both steamer and double boiler insets. I checked, since logic suggested the possibility to me.

I would emphasize that pretty much continuous light whisking/stirring is imperative to keep the egg from cooking into solids. It has to cook as a liquid. When it was obviously done, I set the metal bowl into another bowl with shallow, cool water in it. That arrested the cooking process. Shortly after, I changed the water for warm so the sauce wouldn’t get too cold.

I steamed the asparagus with herbs, but less strongly than I had the first time. I thought the flavor would go well, even though the sauce would add flavor and a change of texture profile. That sounds all fancy.

The result?

It was tasty, but too lemony for me. I can’t imagine it is meant to taste that lemony. It was a bit thicker than perhaps is ideal. And that’s with the water the recipe didn’t include! I could have put in a tiny bit more to thin it, but didn’t bother. If I make it again, I would start by reducing the lemon. I would probably use milk or cream instead of water. I might experiment with seasoning the sauce. Heck, I’d be interested in using the basic technique for an eggy sauce to diverge into doing my own thing entirely.

Was it hard to make? No. I didn’t find it tricky at all. I can see how it could go terribly wrong, sure. But I had perceived the making of a sauce in which eggs are cooked liquid to be extremely difficult. Anyone paying adequate attention could do it. Now I know.

Herb Steamed Asparagus

I love asparagus. It’s expensive, except briefly each year, when it’s more affordably expensive. I usually buy some then, having it once or twice a year. One of the kids eats some, but basically it’s exclusive to me. All the less incentive to buy it much.

It was on sale at Hannaford for $1.99/lb in time for Easter, so I got two of the standard bunches, super fresh.

Normally I steam it. When I was young, there was no steaming. You put veggies in water and boiled them into submission. I might still be doing that if my uncle hadn’t gifted me a small steamer pan some sixteen years ago. Asparagus can also be roasted/grilled, or can be sauteed/stir fried. I tried the frying pan with lots of butter and some seasoning method last year. It was good, though could have stood some improvement.

I started out planning simply to steam it, going medium-old school. Then I had an idea!

I put half the asparagus from one bunch into the steamer basket. I sprinkled that semi-liberally with tarragon, dill and celery seeds. I added the other half of the asparagus. I topped that with smaller amounts more of dill and tarragon, plus some black pepper and a little salt. Steamed until done as normal.

The asparagus smelled great cooking as a result of the herbs. Might not have hurt that it was exceptional asparagus, not at all bitter. Better still, it was fantastic! Normally I would slather asparagus with butter, maybe some salt and pepper, but it stood by itself, infused with seasoning in the cooking.

The choice of herbs was purely what sounded right to me, not a recipe or something I’d read. Your mileage and herb choices may vary. I mean, not everyone has tarragon or dill on hand! I’m blessed with a crazy big collection of seasonings. The tarragon was part of a gift pack of Penzey’s herbs, or I might never have bought any even now. I’ve found limited uses for it. I can be good on eggs, obviously with certain veggies, and the best thing I’ve done with it before the asparagus, in making potato soup. The dill I use more regularly. I am not a fan of dill or sour pickles. Sweet for me! However, it’s good in certain gravy applications. I make something I call faux Stroganoff, or a scrambled hamburger flavored the same, and dill is an important component. The sub for it, which I actually used before I had any dill, was a tiny amount of caraway seeds. I found those imparted a robustness to the gravy flavor. But I digress.

Highly recommended. I used the same method for the second batch of asparagus I made, but less heavily seasoned, and that’s a different experiment and post…

Baked Beans

In the past several weeks, I have twice experiemented with making baked beans. These are something we had homemade when I was a kid, but that I have never made. I started by looking at recipes.

I can’t take seriously any recipe that starts with canned pork & beans or even canned baked beans, notwithstanding that in younger, single days I made a darn good chili based on Campbell’s pork & beans. These days I focus on what I can make from inexpensive dry beans.

The first recipe I used came from a friend I first met in seventh grade, who turns out to be distantly related, as we are both Howland descendents. The identical recipe can be found online, as the classic Revolutionary War era savory Boston baked bean recipe. For my friend it is her mother’s Howland family recipe. I will distill it below, after I comment about it a little more.

The objective for me with baked beans is for them to be cheap. Tasty, too, of course, but the ingredients should not result in spending much for the amount of food obtained. Salt pork (bacon, in some recipes) was a huge surprise, and not frugal.

For my first attempt, I did want to follow a recipe exactly, so I went looking for salt pork. I assumed this would be tough, having never noticed it in store. Nope. Walmart had it. Hannaford had it. Market Basket had it. Once I looked, there it was, large amounts. It came in small packs for something like $3.49 for 12 ounces. I pointedly bought navy beans, as they seem to be a favorite, though you can use whatever. My friend’s grandfather liked them with lima beans, which seems odd to me, to say the least. I like lima beans (she hates them), but have never had them dried and can’t picture them in baked beans.

I made a recipe-free attempt of my own a couple weeks ago, using pinto beans, no meat product at all, and substantially different everything else. I know this is going to run long, but bear with me and I’ll tell you what I learned from that adventure before the end.

Classic Howland Baked Beans

Soak 1 lb of dry beans over night in enough water to cover them generously. Par boil until fairly soft. Drain and rinse.

Put 1 large chopped onion and 1/4 pound salt pork in the bottom of a slow cooker or bean pot. Cover with the beans. Sprinkle beans with 1 teaspoon dry mustard, 1 tablespoon salt, and 3 tablespoons of brown sugar. Add 6 tablespoons of molasses, and boiling water to cover.

If you don’t want to soak beans overnight, it’s OK to use the quick soak method, but it is important to par boil the beans until tender and rinse them well. If they are not tender enough to start, the molasses will make them like marbles no matter how long you cook them.

Pea beans or navy beans may be used, or another variety if you prefer.

The traditional way of baking this recipe is in the oven all day, or over night at a low temperature. Use a covered bean pot. Remove the lid toward the end of the baking time to allow the top to brown and to evaporate some of the liquid.

I went a little heavy on the salt pork when I made this, using half, or 6 ounces, rather than 4 ounces. Just as well, since I did not find another use for the remaining salt pork before it needed to be tossed out, making for expensive beans. I used only part of a very large, sweet onion. I may have cooked the beans less soft before baking than I could have, but they were soft enough not be a problem. Then I promptly forgot that precaution, which does not seem to be included in other baked bean recipes, or in the responses on forums where people ask how to avoid their beans being too hard. Old beans? No.

We liked but didn’t love the result of the above recipe, but it had obvious potential. By “we” I do not mean the kids. I did like the salt pork in it, and would love to try that or bacon in the future, but in an otherwise modified recipe.

The next time I made baked beans, I experimented. I winged it, and used the pinto beans I already had on hand. Chili made with those is a staple here. We have it perhaps every two weeks. The exception was the time I tried making white chili, based on nothing more than a description of what my wife had had when visiting family in Oregon. For that I used dry cannellini beans, which had a great flavor and smooth texture. But I digress.

I can’t remember clearly what I used in the pinto batch of baked beans, but my objective was a sweeter flavor, albeit still centered around molasses. Which, incidentally, I also had to buy in order to make the first batch. For some reason, I had thought molasses was far more expensive than it turned out to be. It has the benefit of long shelf life. Not to mention one container of it covering a number of batches of beans or whatnot. Haven’t yet explored the whatnot angle.

The most important lesson od the pinto baked beans involved remembering to cook them soft before baking. They did indeed come out “like marbles.” It was edible, but not the texture I want from my beans. It made up for it somewhat that the beans were so utterly imbued with flavor and transformed, but no more chewy beans for me.

I’m afraid I don’t remember the details. However, I used some onion, as with the other recipe, chopped smalled and layered bottom and middle. I used plenty of molasses, layers of brown sugar, plenty of dry mustard, salt, and a spritz of maple syrup. Not that spritz is the right word for something of that consistency, but just a little, a couple drizzles. I may have used a touch of vinegar, too, and I might not have remembered that except for the hard bean issue. When I saw what had happened and was near the end of the cooking, I tried adding a wee bit of baking soda in case that would help. It naturally foamed up from the acidity. I had the anecdotal impression that it helped ever so slightly, but that could be illusory. At any rate, if it did, it wasn’t enough. I had forgotten the need for uncovering the beans at the end, but wound up doing so because there was too much liquid. That was an additional reason I kept cooking them longer than I had expected. Despite what the original recipe says, I found it didn’t need all day. Just a few hours.

Next I will try making them less sweet than the second experiment, but with beans cooked into submission ahead of time. They were delicious, and went fantastically with a burger or bread and butter, but less brown sugar would have improved them. If I can have some on hand anyway, perhaps from a sale, with the rest to be used for a different meal, I’d love to add some bacon.

I’ll try to remember to post about what I do and how it turns out.

Baked Ziti

I had never made baked ziti. I had only had it when others made it, now and then. The kids had never had casseroles of any kind. Between wanting to try making new things and adding variety to the parade of meals, and thinking that casseroles might be some low cost menu items, I had wanted to spring casseroles on them. Baked ziti seemed like a good, passingly familiar place to start.

Having never made it, I had a misconception of what the dish entailed. My metal image was make meat sauce, make pasta, mix them together, put them in a casserole pan, throw some cheese on top, bake. I found myself thinking that it was pasta, but cooked redundantly.

Wednesday I looked at recipes online. They vary, but I was surprised to learn that many include ricotta cheese. I had never cooked with ricotta. While I happily ate completed lasagna when my sister or mother made it during my latter youth (until my father left, we never had things like that), I always thought the ricotta mix during the process looked disgusting.

I was also surprised it called for mozzarella cheese. Weirdly enough, I had already bought a pound of that. My oldest wanted to try it, since she loves string cheese. I had thought some of it could go on top of the ziti, since I knew I wanted cheese on top. My daughter hated it. I was shocked. It’s delicious! Nothing special; Market Basket store brand whole milk mozzarella. My perception of mozzarella had always been that it’s almost completely bland, and is used on pizza due to its melting properties. Having tasted pre-shredded mozzarella did nothing to change that notion. Having tasted mozzarella cheese sticks, fried and not, didn’t do enough to change that perception, though now I can see why they taste better than I’d have expected.

OK, so Thursday I stopped at Hannaford for ricotta so I could make baked ziti for supper. Bottom line: Success! Main lesson learned: Use less cheese next time.

Per usual, I followed no one recipe. Many of them call for sausage. That would be fantastic, but I had ground beef. I cooked the ground beef, slightly seasoning it, and got rid of most of the excess oil. That was perhaps 1.5 lbs before cooking. I added a jar of Francesco Rinaldi, my favorite sauce as well as the lowest cost name brand in jars. Unfortunately, the one jar left on the shelf was tomato and basil. I’d have preferred meat flavored or original for this. I added a small can of tomato paste to extend it and to modify the flavor of the sauce. A small can of generic tomato sauce would have been better. I adulterated the sauce with seasoning and brown sugar, so it wasn’t much different from what we would normally have on pasta.

Meanwhile, I cooked two boxes of ziti with lines. That was intentionally extra, to save some plain pasta for kids who wouldn’t want the baked ziti. I used something approaching 1.5 boxes in the actual casserole.

In keeping with many but not all of the recipes I had perused, I layered the bottom of a deep stoneware casserole pan (thank goodness for gifts or I’d not own something that nice) with the sauce. Not half. It took well over half to make an acceptable layer. On that I put some chunks of mozzarella and cheddar. The amount of cheddar used was modest. The amount of mozzarella was most of a pound.

Per some of the recipes, but not all, I mixed 16 ounces of ricotta with the ziti. I also mixed in a bunch of small chunks of mozzarella. That went in on top of the meat sauce layer, filling the casserole almost completely.

I dabbed the rest of the sauce onto the top of the ziti, sprinkled a generous amount of parm cheese on it, and completed it with more mozzarella and a lesser amount of cheddar.

It baked at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, in keeping with one of the recipes I’d referenced. It looked fantastic, but in retrospect could have used a bit more time for a crispier top.

The two kids who tried it liked it, though one of them picked out the meat. I thought it was great, but it lost a lot of appeal when it cooled down. The wife thought it needed more cooking time and less cheese, but really enjoyed it. As leftovers, the flavor actually improved. It’s tasty cold, and was better nuked hot than it had been fresh.

I’ll definitely make it again, as modified. Now I need to figure out what to make with the leftover ricotta. It was almost as cheap to get 32 oz as it would have been to get 16 oz, and I wasn’t sure just how much I’d actually need.

Poor Kids

Using the other half of a large pack of kielbasa, yesterday I made “kielbasa and cabbage.” This was inspired by my grandmother having served that now and then. It was kind of an alternative to boiled dinner.

I included a cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and seasoning. I loved it. Two of the kids wouldn’t touch it, even though all three kids love kielbasa in the form of sweet & sour, and one of them loves potatoes and carrots. The one who tried it liked it OK, except I gave her just a bite of cabbage and it apparently had a piece of red pepper flake or something else strong in it. Two of the kids have eaten salad at school that included cabbage along with lettuce, so they weren’t as weirded out by cabbage as they might have been. Just by it being cooked.

The wife has yet to try it. She snacked too close to supper, too much to be hungry. She enjoyed the smell, though.

Powerless Cooking

This article is almost so devoid of details to be not worth linking, but it does give food for thought and discussion. I can’t help wondering what in the world the photo is that looks like stacked dutch ovens, each containing charcoal. I also can’t help thinking it’s rather convenient that civilization is so intact and accessible, and money so freely available, that copious amounts of aluminum foil are handy. Guess that’s a good thing to stock up on, then.

Most of us have cooked rough to some degree, at some time, with varying degrees of success, and the point of possibly needing to do so unexpectedly is a good one, even if you have nary a prepper bone in your body.

I took my kids camping two summers ago and they were horrified by the idea of burgers cooked over a fire, potatoes cooked in foil in the coals, and even the corn on the cob cooked the same way. That last they had reason to spurn, since it was burned enough in places to taste burned. The potatoes were delicious, as were the burgers, but I was stuffed, having to eat all of it myself. They had no interest in hot dogs over the fire, either, and one of them didn’t care for marshmallows. Weirdo.

I’d like to experiment more, even if I cook for one and they eat PBJ, but never went camping this year. For that matter, I wanted to experiment, kids participating, in matchless ways of creating a fire if needed. They aren’t woodsy as I was, growing up surrounded by woods, but even I never got beyond a magnifying glass and sun for fire starting. It didn’t help, back then, that I had it drilled into me not to build a fire because there was dread of forest fires, and there was active observation for same from local fire towers. The current suburban firepit rage seems stunning to me, after that. Not that it stopped me from having some of the best hot dogs I have ever had, cooked in a camp pan over a small fire on a cranberry bog road, but that’s not as rustic as going pan-free.

Perhaps next time I’ll take my cast iron and see what I can conjure up over a fire. Maybe the kids will even try it.

Pea Soup

I have mentioned pea soup a couple times recently, but without writing about it specifically. This is an oversight, given how much of a favorite a new variant on it has become here. I regularly make sweet & sour kielbasa, which needs to be another post if I haven’t done so already. The ideal amount for five of us with little or no leftovers and nobody being disappointed is one and a half of the standard size kielbasa packages. That leaves half of one, or close to it.

My wife grew up on pea soup that was nothing more than peas and chicken broth. She doesn’t mind some ham and the associated flavor, but can’t bear to eat it if there is too much. This tends to happen when I use an entire leftover ham bone. She also prefers disintegrated peas, as you get easily when using split peas. My grandmother always used whole peas. Oddly enough, I don’t remember the peas being much beyond disintegrated, but when I tried whole peas it was nearly impossible to cook it enough for that texture, so my memory must be fuzzy. By the same token, I remember my grandmother’s pea soup having substantial chunks of ham (and ham fat), and that’s what I tend to expect. Anyway, I found I prefer split peas, so that is what I always use. Speaking of my grandmother, and to some extent my mother and sister, it always seems strange to me when I make something I remember fondly as something they made, but mine blows theirs away. I recognize now that my grandmother was a workman-like cook of minimal seasonings, certainly good, sometimes beyond good, but working within a limited range, tastes, and even a limited level of interest.

The solution to extra kielbasa and the need for less meat in pea soup is to cut the remaining kielbasa into small pieces and use that in a pea soup. I start cooking the peas in chicken broth (with chicken bullion cubes) in one pan. In a small frying pan I cook some chopped up onion (keep some frozen for purposes like this) in butter, along with the kielbasa. I also tend to add a sprinkle of red pepper flakes, getting their zing into the oil, and maybe some dried thyme. I finish by adding some broth, simmering slightly, then dumping the whole thing in with the peas. I season the soup further as needed, and at some point I grate in a carrot or three. Cook until it’s as done as you like, though we normally eat at when it’s all the way disintegrated. This tends to be in the house as a lunch or supplemental food, as opposed to being served as a meal, though a couple of the kids do actually eat it.

Bean and Ham Soup

The cannellini beans were so good in the white chili, I wanted to use them to make a soup with a ham bone from a spiral half ham. I’d frozen the bone and residual meat for that or a pea soup.

Not much to tell. It was a lot like making pea soup, including my addition of grated carrots and the use of chicken broth and seasonings like celery, thyme, onion and a bay leaf. The big lesson learned was that there was way too much ham, and ham flavor in the broth, for a single bag of beans (16 oz). If I do it again, I will use two bags of beans and/or save some of the ham broth and meat for a pea soup on the side. The wife prefers her pea soup minimally hammy, so I could have made a double of the bean and a single of pea soup out of what I had to work with.

I thought it was delicious, if a bit strong on the ham. Made my gout twitch slightly without actually flaring. I’ll happily make it again, or make a single soup of the beans with a modest amount of ham or other meat.

My second daughter fell in love with the beans as of this soup, so is begging me to make the chili again, as she no more than tasted that. I could see just eating them as a side, or using them as something different in a burrito, or as a twist in a traditional chili.

Growing Herbs

As much as an experiment for the kids as for practical reasons, I bought seeds and attempted to grow rosemary, savory and cilantro. I could barely afford the seeds, and have no place reasonably available outside. When I unearthed an old bag of potting soil from where I’d stored it, I finally planted a few seeds of each in three old tea cups. Not exactly ideal.

The results so far: rosemary never even attempted to sprout. Savory sprouted, but put out shoots so long and sensitive they promptly died back down. Cilantro seems to be coming forth robustly enough to survive, and a handful of plants sprouted. I’ll need better conditions for it to transplant into, obviously.

Anyone have experience growing these or other herbs inside? Or outside?

In reality, I once grew cilantro, before I’d ever heard of cilantro, in the late seventies, outside the kitchen door of the house where I grew up. I grew it as coriander, and learned I found the smell of the coriander seeds disgusting and tenacious on my hands. It, mint, and parsley, if I recall correctly, all grew like weeds, no problems at all. At the time, it was a matter of curiosity. I was into gardening then, but not cooking.

I’m dubious as to the value of doing this for any kind of savings. Not without a yard and an herb garden. And not as compared to dried, bottled, commercial product when comparing just money and effort. Maybe not even compared to fresh, which I have never bought and used.

I had some dried cilantro for a while. It smelled like dried grass and seemed to add nothing to food. I wondered what the fuss was. Until I had some fresh in fish tacos and it was delicious.

I’ll probably keep it to this and not much else, but I’d be intrigued to try growing some others eventually…

Eggless Tempura-Style Chicken

My brother recently mentioned having made tempura-style orange chicken, which led me to look online to find out what exactly tempura was, since I’d not to my knowledge had it before.

I learned that tempura is Portuguese-inspired Japanese, foods fried in a very thin batter coating. I recently tried a batter coating for strips of chicken and ended up replicating, except for having seasoned the batter, Chinese restaurant chicken fingers. The kids loved it, and I figured the batter was a way to stretch the limited amount of chicken.

Usually tempura is made with eggs, flour and cold water. The cold matters to the chemistry, much the way hot presumably mattered in my recent test of a faster flour tortilla recipe. The egg apparently doesn’t, because I found it is possible to make tempura without it.

I’ve learned that the best way to arrive at recipes or adaptable inspirations for dishes that contain no dairy and no eggs is to include “vegan” in the search. It seemed kind of odd to search for vegan tempura, but in addition to its most common use in seafood, tempura is also used for vegetables, which I look forward to trying. I’ve had that kind of thing in a restaurant, if not by that name, with cauliflower, squash and broccoli.

Here is what I did…

2 Cups flour (Too much, for 3 chicken breasts, could halve it or use more chicken, or whatever you’re using this on.)

2 Cups cold water (I put ice cubes in it ahead of time.)

2 Heaping teaspoons baking powder

1 Teaspoon or so of salt

A little oil – maybe a tablespoon or so.

Season as desired or not at all. I used a bit of red pepper, a dash or so of garlic powder, and a bit of black pepper.

I deiviated from strictly tempura by crumbling some Ritz crackers fairly fine and dipping one side of most of the pieces of chicken in it. I also considered using oatmeal similarly.

No deep fryer here. Enough oil in a frying pan, nice and hot, to be able to cook one side then turn it over.

I cut the chicken into very small strips and chunks, the better to cook fast and go with the lightness of the batter.

I put the dry ingredients in a bowl and mixed them together with a whisk. Then I poured in the water and oil. Started with half the water and mixed, then the rest. You might watch how it seems and back off or add to the amount of water. Stirred it thoroughly. It bubbled a little and looked a lot like pancake batter. I ended up just drowning all the pieces of chicken in the batter, pulling each one out and putting them in the pan one at a time in two batches. I ended up frying a small patty of batter and crumbs from the batter that was left on the crumb plate. That was yummy and suggests possibilities.

This is very much a keeper. We inhaled it. On one of the recipes I saw for vegetable tempura, it said serve and eat immediately lest the batter get soggy. With the chicken I’d also say eat it sooner than later, because it isn’t as good in texture after it sits a while. Tastes good though. The vegetable tempura recipe also said dredge in flour before dipping in batter. I can see that being useful for veggies. Chicken worked without. Would it have worked better with? Not sure.

Since I have never had tempura in a restaurant, and in fact the only Japanese restaurant food I’ve had is noodles, I can’t compare. Even if it’s not “real tempura,” it’s so good I can’t wait ti try it again.