Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Spicy Black Bean Soup with Irish Soda Bread

There's a band out there that calls itself the Afro Celt Sound System. Founded by members of the Pogues (the sometimes folk, sometimes pop, sometimes punk Celtic band), they blend Irish melodies with West African rhythms to create an always interesting musical hybrid. I think that's sort of why St Patrick's Day is such an endearing holiday. The Irish may not lead the world in any particular industry or art form, but they make for a nice mix in everything they do. It's a culture that is easily incorporated into everyone else's.

As Tim Allen once said, the great chefs of Ireland ... now there's a short list for you. The Emerald Isle might not be known for any truly groundbreaking dishes, but a little bit of it goes well with just about everything else out there.

And the same is true for Mexican fare. You can throw a little bit of Mexican spice into just about any culture's offerings and do quite well, and there's a salsa that will accent just about anything from anywhere.

I was getting ready to make our Spicy Black Bean Soup, and this recipe for Irish Soda Bread leaped out at me. Typically we make some guac to go with this soup, but I didn't have an avocado handy, and hot bread sounded good to dip into the soup and soak up the last bit from the bowl. Irish and Mexican ... two great things that go great together.

And, in keeping with our recent theme, a very economical meal. The soup features one of the all-time great utility players, the chipotle pepper in adobe sauce. You can score a can of these for right around a buck, and you only need 1-2 peppers per dish, so we're looking at 10-20¢ for a major spice upgrade. The soup features about $1.50 in beans, $2-4 in sausage (depending on brand), $1.00 in chicken stock, and pennies for spices, for 5-6 bowls. And the bread costs you about $1.25 in flour, brown sugar, butter, baking soda, and butter milk.

Quick digression ... Mexican spices are one of the great deals I've found in this part of the country. I have no idea whether everything we have in Colorado is available nation-wide, but we are never in want for jalapenos, cilantro, or other produce staples. I can get a 1.5 oz bottle of McCormick's oregano for around $3, or an 8 oz pouch of Mexican oregano for $1.50.

Spicy Black Bean Soup

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1½ teaspoons minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
1 canned chipotle chili, seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 15-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 12-ounce package smoky cooked sausage, such as andouille, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons lime juice
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Sour cream and lime wedges for serving

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add onion and cook over moderate heat until softened—about 3 minutes. Add garlic, chipotle chili, cumin and oregano and cook until fragrant, stirring occasionally. Add beans and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, partially cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Coarsely crush some of the beans using a potato masher.

Meanwhile, cook sausage in a large skillet over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Add sausage to the beans, along with the lime juice and cilantro.
Season with salt and pepper and simmer for 2 minutes. Serve with sour cream and lime wedges.

Irish Soda Bread

I halved the recipe here so that we wouldn't have too many left-overs. The half-size made enough bread for four.

1.5 cups of all-purpose flour
1.5 cups of whole wheat flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp baking soda
2-3 Tbs of butter, chilled*
1 cup buttermilk**

* put the butter in the freezer until your ready to use it, then slice it into tiny slivers, then rotate and slice again.
** or one cup whole milk with one Tbs white vinegar or lemon juice (mix well then rest for 5-10 minutes)

Preheat the oven to 425º. If using a baking stone, preheat the stone as well. If using a heavy baking sheet, line with parchment paper or lightly grease.

Mix the flours, sugar, and baking soda until uniformly mixed. Add the chilled butter and work it into the flour with a fork until the butter nearly disappears — about half-pea sized pieces. Make a well and mix in the buttermilk, stirring very gently until the liquid is gone.

Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured cutting board or counter top and knead for 10-12 turns. Then shape the dough into a ball about twice as wide as it is tall. Place the ball onto your stone or baking sheet and mark it with an X (any sharp knife will do, about 1/2 inch deep). Bake for about 35 minutes.

It's the Little Things

Lunch has been an obstacle lately. We're trying so hard to brown bag it, but it's winter time, so we're eating a lot of soup and stews, and they're just not the same microwaved, in a cubicle, without a fire going and dogs sleeping at ones feet.

Sandwiches ... just not doing it for us. Especially after we discovered the
bánh mì, which has raised the bar so ridiculously high as to what a sandwich can be.

And then M. threw out egg salad as an idea the other day. Since we're trying to watch our food budget a bit more closely, egg salad sounded like a winner. A dozen eggs are still right around a buck in these parts, so at a dime an egg, egg salad makes for a nice option.

But I've never quite gotten the recipe down right. It always seems like it takes way too much mayo to make the powder dry yolks edible between two slices of bread, resulting in a cholesterol bomb of a meal.

Then I discovered the secret to egg salad: the simple process of correctly boiling the eggs. I had always used the dumb guy approach to boiling eggs: bring the eggs to a boil, take them off the heat, then forget about them for half an hour or so. The eggs are for sure cooked the whole way through when you do it that way, but you get those Sahara-esque yolks with the gray outer layer that fall apart like Lot's wife when you look at them wrong. But like most things in life, the difference between the lazy dumb guy's approach and the correct approach is just one or two degrees of execution that gets you a completely different result.

And it turns out that if you boil the eggs correctly, it really doesn't matter what else goes in the salad. Celery is fine, salt and pepper, maybe paprika, maybe not, maybe mustard or dry mustard, maybe onion or onion powder, maybe cilantro or parsley, maybe a whole lot of things. But when you boil the eggs the right way, the egg whites and yolks come out so creamy and delicious that it doesn't matter what else goes into it.

Correctly boiled eggs:

Put your eggs in a sauce pan and cover with cold water, at least an inch of water above the height of the eggs. Now bring the water to a boil over high heat. You can cover first, but if you don't have a glass lid, make sure you're checking the water, because the second it starts to boil, you need do three things.

1. Turn off the heat
2. Cover the pan
3. Start your timer. I've found that 8 minutes is the magic number, but we're at altitude here, and 7 should work for you flat-landers.

While the timer's ticking down, get a bowl large enough for all of your eggs, fill it with cold water, and add a handful or two of ice cubes. Then, as quickly as you can once the timer goes off, transfer the eggs to the ice bath to stop the cooking. They can sit there for 3-4 minutes while you're getting out your cutting board and mixing bowl and whatever else you want to put in there.

Stopping the cooking via the ice bath creates the creamy smooth yolks that are worlds apart from mass produced grocery store deli counter egg salad. And because the eggs are so creamy, you can get by with a little bit less than a tablespoon of mayonnaise for every four eggs. And the only difference between the correct method and the dumb lazy guy method is one more step (the ice bath) and a little bit of attention to detail. So, there you go, yet another reason not to be a dumb lazy guy.

The Kids Are Alright

The Winter Games are on. I'm not sure if the Winter Games are significantly different than the Summer Games in this aspect, but I find myself marveling at the kids who are performing on the international stage. There are so many teenagers out there who, despite their youth or maybe because of it, are the masters of their universe, the top dogs in their particular field. The figure skaters, snowboarders, aerialists have freshly printed driver's licenses, and still need their folks' permission to see most of the shows at the local megaplex.

So the kids must be alright, then, yeah? If teenagers can compete in the Olympics on a regular basis, then they must all be in tip-top shape, right? Well, that's the dichotomy of our fitness-obsessed culture. Everything that we have learned about nutrition, exercise, and athletic performance has made the top 1% that much better, but there doesn't seem to be much of a trickle-down effect. While more and more kids are making it to the elite ranks of their sport, fewer and fewer kids across the board are getting the recommended levels of exercise.

And maybe it's only an illusion that even the top 1% of kids today are doing better. It might very well just be that marketing and advertising makes these kids more noticeable. After all, Jim Ryan broke the 4 minute mile mark as a 17 year old back in the '60s, and forty years later, the record for the high school 1600m is pretty much right where it was in his day. High school track and field records are not improving at the same rate as elite records are, anecdotal evidence that even the best of the best aren't that much better than their grandparents were.

I'll leave it to the Freakonomics folks to break down the numbers over the years, but I think it's a safe assumption that our kids could use a hand in putting down the remote, the Wii, or the cell phone, and lacing up their running shoes and beating the pavement. And this initiative from out First Lady is a good start.

(Hat tip to One Ordinary Day.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Car Talk" for Foodies

If you're not catching the Spilled Milk podcast, then you're missing it.

(I think Yogi Berra said that first, not sure with regards to exactly what.)

Only Matt and Molly can make braising sexy, can make folks draw sides over chocolate malts, and can make just about every food description sound like an '80s metal band.

Check, check, check them out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Guiness Shout-out

With St Paddy's Day right around the corner, here's some good advice, as if you need another reason to opt for a glass of Gaelic black gold. (Although, if you're drinking the draught canned version, you're supposed to drink it out of the can, unless they've changed their packaging yet again — see also, rocket widget.)

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Bonus points to the first one to identify the origin of "super colon blow."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Intramurals at the University of Alberta

There's an apocryphal story that West Point lacrosse intramurals was named the most dangerous sport in America by Playboy magazine or some such other authority. Dodgeball must come in a close second.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Food and Geography

A couple or three scary maps from the USDA's Food Atlas that fairly clearly lay out the correlation (if not the causation) between food choices and health issues.

(Hat tip to La Vida Locavore.)

First up, note the link between soda consumption and adult diabetes.

This one's interesting: direct-to-consumer (farmer to consumer) food sales. I'd have to really dig into US Ag numbers to make sense of this, but it sure doesn't look like there's a correlation between a region's agricultural output and the prevalence of CSAs and farmer's markets. In other words, the more a region makes, the more likely they are to ship it out. You'll find direct-to-consumer food sales not so much where the food is grown, but where the Wal-marts aren't. We grow a lot of food in southern California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina ... but we ship all of that food elsewhere (or, at least, package it for re-sale at grocers and big box stores). Meanwhile, in the Pacific Northwest, New England, and Colorado / New Mexico, folks are buying more of their food directly from the grower.

Books for Hungry Young Readers

From the always interesting Simmer Til Done.

And it's not Mardi Gras until you've had your King Cake.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

What a bargain!

I've been meaning to do this for a while. Thanks partly to the economy, but mostly just because I'm a dork, I started calculating the cost per serving of some of our meals. Unfortunately, I usually do this in the middle of supper with a beer in hand, so I need to start from scratch and better document the process.

But the results have been surprising, in a good way.

Before I begin, a quick caveat: thanks to access to the local Air Force base commissary, I'm getting some great deals on the key ingredients. Chicken, for instance, is always under $2 per pound. The five dollar sack of King Arthur flour goes for two-and-a-quarter. But the downside is, the commissary never carries house brands, so for other items it's cheaper to look elsewhere. One example is butter. I can get the house brand at King Soopers for $1.50 - $1.80 a pound, but the cheapest name brand butter at the commissary is Land o' Lakes at around $2.75. King Soopers also always beat the commissary on milk and eggs. Another example, Sunflower Farmer's Market always has the best prices on produce, period, and it's nearly all local. This week, roma tomatoes were $2.49 at the local grocer, $1.49 at the commissary, but 99¢ for organic, grown in our next door neighbor of New Mexico, at Sunflower.

(I know, I know ... the whole "buying local" thing can get a bit annoying ... but I have started to notice a huge difference in taste between an item that was grown down the road and the same thing, shipped across one or more borders. I can get imported celery for $1.49 a pound at the local grocer, or home grown celery at Whole Foods for $2.49. Sounds like a big price difference, but I know that I'm going to eat about half of the $1.49 celery and pitch the rest, while the Whole Foods celery will both stay fresh longer and taste so much better that I'll eat every last stalk, sans peanut butter or cream cheese. Same with carrots ... cost about twice as much, but we're guaranteed to eat every last one.)

But back to my point ... here's what we have so far:

World-class Mountain Granola, about 50¢ per serving (one cup). Hard to price-compare to Quaker Natural, because they use a half-cup per serving estimate and the price varies from $3.50 to $4.50 per 14 oz box, but using the cheapest price I could find (a six-pack from Amazon for $19), we beat them by a dime per bowl.

Quick Coq au Vin: around $2.00 per serving.

Bánh Mì: about $1.75 per sandwich

Posole: Less than $1.50 per bowl, including a warm tortilla on the side

No-rise Cinnamon Rolls: 25¢ per serving (two rolls)

Grandma's Apple Pie: 75¢ per slice (recipe coming tomorrow)

Now, what to do with all of that money that I'm saving ...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Everyone's Favorite Holiday!

Yep, it's that time of the year again: World Nutella Day!

Everything you always wanted to know about Nutella right here.

Because Nutella is more than just a chocolaty-hazelnut spread ... it's a way of life!

(Next up: International Waffle Day on March 25th. (Not to be confused with US Waffle Day, August 24th.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I know it's for a good cause and all ...

... and I should be thinking about the people who really need help, or maybe celebrating the human condition that makes us want to help each other in times or need, or possibly I should be inspired to try something of this scale on my own, or if nothing else it should make me want to be a better person and do something to contribute to society ...

... but all I can think about is, how do I get the recipe for maple-bacon lollipops?

Helping Haiti,
One Cupcake at a Time,
in The Atlantic

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

12 Months of Climbing

Chicken Noodle Soup with Cheddar Scones ...

... that's really more of a stew than a soup. Actually, it's more of a casserole, except that it's not baked, in that it could almost be eaten with a fork. In fact, in the original recipe, it called for whole chicken pieces, but somewhere along the way we decided to shred the chicken.

It's still technically winter, and meteorologically (word? should be) it's typically the coldest part of the winter these days. Still flu and cold season, and everyone's Granny knows chicken soup is good for what ails you.

So here's an in-between chicken soupish concoction that can be slapped together in a moment's notice, when nothing else soups good and you need a bowl/plate of something hot that smells like home.

About 45 minutes total, which includes 25 minutes of simmer time where you can work on something else. I like this particular one because you put the chicken breasts in whole, so you don't have to worry about cross-contamination with your knives or cutting boards. Just one less thing to worry about, and one step closer to sitting down to eat.

We also like the frozen egg noodles, which are a bit gummier than dried noodles and soak up the chicken flavor.

4-5 cups of chicken stock
1 medium onion (yellow or sweet)
3 celery ribs, sliced down the middle and then cut medium-fine
3 carrots or one bag of baby carrots, cut into 1/4 inch chunks or medium-fine slices
1 bay leaf if you have it

One package chicken breasts, 3-4 breasts, 1.5-2.5 pounds or so
2 teaspoons dried sage
1-2 teaspoons salt
.5-1 teaspoon black pepper (both to your taste)

1 pound frozen cavatelli, dumplings, or egg noodles.

2 Tablespoon each butter (slightly softened) and flour. You can get these two out at the beginning, and the butter should be soft enough by the time you need it.

In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, simmer the chicken stock, onion, celery, carrots, and bay leaf for about 5-10 minutes. Add the whole chicken breasts, sage, and salt/pepper. Simmer for 25-30 minutes covered or partially covered. Flip the chicken a couple or three times to make sure it cooks evenly.

Once this is going, cook the frozen noodles according to its instructions. This usually takes about 15 minutes — 5-10 minutes to get the water boiling, then 10 minutes of cooking time.

At this point, you can opt to serve the chicken breasts whole, which means you'll need a knife, fork, and spoon when it's eating time. Or, you can take two forks and pull the chicken apart into bite sized pieces.

Mix the flour and butter until smooth. Push as much of the chicken and veggies as you can to the side of the pot and spoon the butter/flour into the liquid in the middle. Stir or whisk into the soup, and then add the noodles. Simmer for a couple more minutes so the noodles absorb some of the flavor and everything is evenly heated. Serve in soup bowls or shallow pasta bowls.

Let's go back to the simmer time. Once the soup / stew is ready to simmer, you can either clean up the kitchen or whip up some biscuits. If you choose the latter, here you go.

Dry ingredients, can be prepped ahead of time:
2.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
1 tsp sea salt or kosher salt
6 Tbs butter, cold, cold, cold
1 cup shredded Cheddar

Preheat the oven to 450º. Mix the flour, sugar, powder, and salt, and then cut in the butter and add the shredded cheese. Lightly combine.

Mix and stir in:
1 cup butter milk *
1 egg, beaten

* No butter milk? One cup of plain yogurt works, or put one Tbs of either vinegar (white or cider) in a measuring cup and fill with milk to the one cup line. Let it stand for 10 minutes to thicken.

Pour the liquid into the dry and very lightly combine just until mixed. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or not) and scoop 1/4 cup of the batter for each biscuit. They'll rise just a bit, so space them out 1-2". Bake for 15 minutes. Should be ready just in time for the soup.

Monday, February 1, 2010