Food

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.

Chocolate Chip Cookie

A history. Always especially interesting to me, given that I grew up in a nearby town to Whitman, home of the Tool House. My father spent the latter part of his childhood in the town where I grew up, but went to high school in Whitman, and knew the person behind another Whitman instutution: Peaceful Meadows Ice Cream. I worked for nine months in 1985 just a couple doors down from the Wendy’s mentioned in the article. I was confused, though, because I remembered the Toll House being up route 18 a couple doors from where Wendy’s is now, and I even applied for a bookkeeping job there in the late eighties. Except… if it burned in 1984, that must have been a new incarnation, and I don’t remember the original. Despite clearly remembering Saftler’s, another institution, on the opposite corner, which held out until just recently.

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.

White Chili

I make standard chili pretty regularly. Usually it’s beef, cut up into small pieces, pinto beans, and then all the other things to create the liquid aspect and the flavor. I like it meaty, but it can be mainly bean, get us fed cheap, and be delicious.

When my wife and kids were visiting her family in Oregon during the summer, her brother’s wife made a white chili with white beans, ground turkey, and anaheim peppers. Only one of the kids tried/liked it, but she loved it, despite it being pretty mild.

With no actual idea of the recipe beyond cruising through some similar things online for ideas, I sought to create something similar. I’d figured to use white beans and chunks of chicken breast, but ended up buying a 3 lb pack of turkey. Meat purchases are almost all at traditional supermarkets, based on sales, but Walmart routinely has 3 lb ground turkey packs at a reasonable price. The size is convenient. Sometimes it makes turkey burgers, which one of the kids eats preferentially over traditional burgers. More often these days it makes meatballs, which are delicious and are an excuse to stretch the meat with fillers (preferably Townhouse Crackers, but can include bread crumbs/shredded up bread and heels, or oatmeal). I believe the pack I used for the chili did a small batch of burgers for the freezer, so it was maybe 2 lbs in the chili. Could be remembering wrong, though. (Not an exact recipe, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

I am used to using dried spices, except generally some fresh or frozen onion (I chop up sweet onion and freeze it in a zipper bag for use as needed), and once in a while fresh garlic. The pepper in my red chili comes from red pepper and chili powder. Using a real pepper, and one so mild, was relatively new to me. I was also sensative about “ruining” the white color of the chili by putting in a seasoning that would impart color, as chili powder does.

To start, I lightly roasted two anaheim peppers over burners. Gas stove FTW! (Never used electric and plan to avoid that changing.) The Internet said put them in a paper bag for 10 minutes after that, so I did. Not sure the point, but I didn’t need them yet. When I was ready, I cut them up into tiny pieces, some of which are visible in the picture that will appear below. Those went into oil in a wok-like saute pan, along with some onion and other seasoning. I forget the details, but I may have used a bit of red pepper flakes, and definitely used oregano, a small amount of red pepper, and cumin. The trick is to season the warm oil. I may have let that sit a while, after the initial heating to par-cook the onion and pepper, for that reason. It’d be standard procedure, anyway. Then I cooked up the turkey in the pan, mixing that stuff with it, probably adding more, especially cumin. The idea was even the red pepper in small amounts would disappear into the turkey mix, and cumin wouldn’t change the color at all. I wouldn’t have added the red pepper, but I was afraid the anaheim peppers would not be strong enough, between their mildness and the larger numbers (like six) called for by recipes similar to what I was making with two.

In the meantime, I had done the standard bean soaking with dried cannellini beans. That is, put them in cold water, bring to a boil, turn off, soak, rinse and repeat if desired, or soak a bit longer in cold if desired. I found they soften up faster than pintos. In fact, I loved the flavor and their creamy texture. It will not be my last time using that variety of beans, even if I don’t make white chili again. Which I will. At the appropriate time, I started them cooking at length, getting them nice and soft. A lot less time-consuming than for dried pinto beans.

Anyway, cooked the beans. Cooked the meat mixture. Put the meat mixture into the beans, retaining the bean water. Seasoned some more, though not much. There may have been salt involved. Oh! Garlic. I used garlic powder and garlic salt. Forgot that in the early discussion of seasoning the turkey. Cooked it together to finish it off, since it is imperative the flavors get a chance to combine and settle. I believe I also forgot about cooking the beans in chicken broth, which for me means using bullion cubes in the water.

It was beyond tasty, and not that mild. Not nearly as mild as I’d expected. My wife is amused that our definition of spicy differs. She considered it quite mild. I took several pictures, none of which came out very good. I blame the CFL bulbs. Darn regulators! The color and sheen may not have helped. This is about as good as I got:

Economical Ham

We recently got a Carando spiral ham, on sale for $1.99/lb, after discussing it and, besides other reasons, deciding it was a good value. Any meat for that price is cheap, but the outlay is large when it’s 10 lbs at once.

I make a ham dinner of it. Then it can be used in pea soup, another post entirely (I have been using kielbasa in it), or something I have yet to try making, bean soup. It can make sandwiches. It can go with eggs, or into scrambled eggs. It can be frozen. I find it useful to cut little pieces of ham and put the appropriate amount for scrambled eggs in each of multiple bags in the freezer. It can go from freezer to pan when needed.

The bone can be frozen for future soup.

I love it! My gout, well, that could do without my eating too much ham at once.

Huckleberries

This is a great article on huckleberries, which I haven’t had since I was young. They grew all around my house in the middle of the woods, and were completely distinct from blueberries, which were even more abundant. The flavor really is hard to describe, but so good.

There’s one thing my kids don’t have that I did: An early knowledge of what berries could be picked and eated, and which could not. Though the latter I have worked on as I see berries that qualify.

Storing Cilantro

This year I attempted to grow some herbs, of which the most successful was cilantro. Which at this point is flowering prolifically, in an attempt to become coriander. I started the stuff inside, then planted it in front of my building, for lack of a better place, in not very good soil, in a sunny location. Cilantro thrived, relatively, and a basil plant survived but is tiny. The basil I want to transplant into a pot for the winter. I may do that with cilantro, but it’s kind of tall. In fact, it seemed to have gotten tall and flowered over producing nice leaves, so more of the leaves look feathery than I might have expected.

I don’t have a lot of use for it, in any event. I’ve used a little already. It’s so strong, it goes a long way. I would never have gotten interested, but one time I tried fish tacos. The cilantro on those was so good, I figured I had missed something. My previous experience with it was a jar of dry, part of a big spice set I was giving years ago. The cilantro may as well have been dried grass clippings. No scent. No discernable flavor effect on food. Apparently it is particularly prone to lose flavor when dried. Or so I learned when I searched for info on drying it, finding that freezing is recommended as an alternative.

This morning I picked one stalk, the only one not flowering, brought it in, and trimmed the leaves/small stems off the stalk to freeze. We’ll see what happens, but hey, the same thing has come in handy with onions. Perhaps I’ll do another plant dried, just to see what happens, and let one go to seed – if it can before the frost – to get coriander. I grew coriander once, in my teens, before I’d ever heard of cilantro or been aware anything but the seeds could be eaten. I had no use for it beyond it was an herb and I planted an herb garden. I decided I wasn’t keen on coriander at the time, based on the smell of the seeds and how the scent clung to my hands.

Anyway, in the future I am more likely to buy herbs already started, since it was sketchy starting them from seed. If I do plant seeds, I’ll toss them in the ground outside, see what happens and not expect much, rather than undergoing what proved to be a devastating transplanting process.

I love the idea of fresh basil, but the thing I want the most is fresh rosemary. That sprouted reluctantly, but did not survive. I’ll eventually just buy some in a pot, cutting to the chase.