Best of 2012: Food

This year I branched out and sharpened my cooking and baking skills. I’ve always enjoyed watching cooking programs and learning about new ingredients and recipes, but this year it went from “oh, that looks like it would be good” or “so that’s how you use that/that’s what that is” to actually incorporating the ingredients, techniques and recipes into my life.

More people have asked me for advice or questions about food and it’s been pretty awesome to share what I’ve learned. I’ve had my share of food related disasters, so if I can help someone prevent them or become more interested in food, I’m all for it! For example, my mom mentioned she made a batch of chocolate cookies and just used the cocoa powder instead of the of Dutch process cocoa she’s had for a while. I was able to tell her the difference between the two and why you can’t swap them out (Dutch cocoa has a neutral pH so it can’t be used in recipes with baking soda, which relies on the acid to activate it).

I’ve had lots of tasty encounters with food, but here are the most memorable ones:

Bacon: I love bacon. A lot. Possibly too much, at least according to others. Bacon seemed to appear in almost every area of life, from fashion (the insanely expensive and lifelike bacon scarf) to desserts (Burger King’s bacon sundae) to the possible “aporkalypse,” which didn’t happen (thank goodness!!!). I didn’t think I could love bacon more than I do, but I was wrong.

One of my good friends, Justin, took me to Frank Stoysich Meats on Q Street in Omaha to pick up some homemade sausages. While we waited for the woman to gather his order, we noticed a slab of bacon in the case. Knowing I like bacon, he generously bought me a pound. I decided to fry some for breakfast so I took out the normal amount of six slices and put ’em in the frying pan. I noticed it wasn’t nearly as fatty as other bacon-something I’d never really seen before. That first taste was heavenly. The flavor was much more meaty and pure. Even Mike was impressed. We ate our three slices each, but it was so much more filling than store bought bacon, we would have been satisfied with just two each. From that moment on, I was hooked on the Stoysich bacon. I rationed what we had left, using it for “special” times. Since then, every time Justin is in town, we stop in and get more. It is actually much cheaper to buy the super tasty bacon than store bacon, and since we don’t need as much, it lasts muuuuch longer. Even the bacon fat, which takes longer to stockpile, tastes better.

German chocolate: My mom and I lived in Germany when I was little. I have fond memories of many of the places we visited (the Christmas marketplace) as well as lots of their foods (Butterkäse, Schneebälle), but German chocolate holds a special place in my heart. When we paid our rent, the landlady would always give me a few pieces of chocolate shaped like cute little ladybugs. Once she discovered how much I loved it, she started leaving a small bowlful out in front of their door. German chocolate doesn’t taste like chocolates you can find in the U.S. or most of the chocolate I’ve tried from Britain. The “real deal “is pretty hard to find in stores, so when I found some in ALDI, I was ecstatic and shocked. Once I confirmed they were legit, I stocked up. I was even able to find an advent calendar. As soon as we got to the car, I unwrapped one and popped it in my mouth and instantly felt like I was back in Germany, enjoying my candy on our steps while I admired the geraniums in all the window boxes.

Cumin: I am not very knowledgeable with spices used outside of baking. I try to keep the basics for cooking on hand, but if a recipe that I haven’t tried yet calls for something I don’t have, I usually just leave it out. Not the best idea, I know, but I don’t really want to buy it then hate it and have wasted the money. Plus, if I’ve had a dish in the past that was awful, I tend to remember the spices in a not so flattering way. Cumin was one of those spices. I had it in an Indian dish that was loaded with cumin and who knows what else and it was so spicy, I decided to avoid it from then on. However, I had saved a few recipes from Martha Stewart and both of them used cumin. I was skeptical, but after reading reviews and seeing a handful of people note even their picky children loved the taste, I added cumin to the list. The amounts used in each recipe was so small, I figured if I didn’t like the flavor, next time I made it, I could adjust as needed. To my amazement, I have learned to love cumin. I think cumin is the first spice not used in baking that I’ve actually had to run out and replace. It does have a distinct, fairly strong flavor and smell, but in certain recipes, it doesn’t seem overpowering. I am much more open minded to try recipes that have less common spices and have started to add some to my spice rack I never thought I’d buy.

Leeks: I am so bummed I didn’t try leeks sooner. I am not an onion person, but I do like the subtle flavor they add to dishes, but I always assumed leeks had a harsher onion flavor and had no clue how to cook them so I avoided them. I started to change my mind after seeing various British chefs use them on TV and in their cookbooks for their mild flavor. Once I did a search for recipes using leeks, I realized everyone knew how tasty they could be. As I mentioned in a previous post, leeks are quite a pain to clean, but so worth it. I know leeks, cream and bacon are a wonderful combination, but I’m looking forward to trying them thinly sliced in salads or a frittata as well as in stews.

Pan roasting: I can’t believe I didn’t attempt to try pan roasting sooner, and I can’t believe it isn’t a skill taught in every cookbook. If you aren’t familiar with this technique, Google it and give it a try. It is unbelievably quick (you can have dinner done in under an hour), easy and seriously tasty. I think the word “roasting” scared me away, especially since I wasn’t too successful roasting whole chickens in the past.

Pan roasting consists of two steps: first, searing off the meat in some oil, then finished in an oven.  We eat a ton of chicken in our household and pan roasting has turned chicken from ordinary and boring to something flavorful. I have become a pro at roasting chicken parts, mainly legs and bone-in thighs, which has saved us a bunch of money (who doesn’t love that?). Pan roasting is a great way to make vegetables more exciting, too. I LOVE to roast potatoes–they satisfy my cravings for French fries without adding lots of extra fat. Other favorite vegetables to roast include carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, onions and squashes. I suggest making more than you need; leftover roasted veggies are delicious mixed into cooked rice, on bread with a bit of goat cheese or reheated in the oven for another meal. Plus, you usually only have to use one pan, which means less time doing dishes and more time doing fun stuff!

Everyday Food Magazine: In the fall, Martha Stewart announced how Everyday Food was published would be changing. The magazine’s last stand alone issue would be December, and would instead be a supplement to Martha Stewart Living. I subscribe to MSL and I enjoy all the crafts and looking at the fancy recipes, but I love Everyday Food much more. The recipes were much easier to make, the ingredients were easier to find and it was one of the few publications that included recipes for one or two people. I’m interested to see what the supplement will look like, and I do appreciate the daily emails sent out, but I’m old fashioned: I like to have a hard copy of the recipe in front of me!

Cooking without a recipe: When I try a brand new recipe, I tend to follow the directions to the letter. If it’s tasty enough to make again, then I’ll make adjustments as needed, but I am not so great at making something up from scratch (especially when all I have to work with is what we’ve got in the house). I’ve watched hours of cooking shows like Chopped, so you’d think I’d be fearless enough to just go for it.

Sure, I tend to keep emergency meals on hand like mac and cheese or frozen pizzas, but sometimes I just can’t face a premade meal. Thanks to spending hefty amounts of time out of state, I usually come home to an interesting selection of ingredients I’m kind of forced to use until we can make it to the store.

My favorite no recipe meal would be a frittata. We always have eggs on hand and with a bit of hunting, I can find enough add ins to make a tasty meal (I do bacon, scallion, potato and bell peppers a lot). However, my results don’t always turn out well. The only meal I’ve seriously failed would be the almost cooked bone-in turkey breast. Our fridge had died and by the time we noticed, we had to find fridge and freezer space ASAP. We brought most of food to his parents’ house, but there was no room for the turkey breast so I had to cook it that night. Despite being overly cautious and letting the turkey cook an extra 20 minutes, when we carved it, the meat was raw. I did my best to fix the situation (I threw all the pieces into the gravy I had made from the drippings and finished cooking it in the pan), but it was pretty awful. A more successful (but not by much) recipe: crunchy, spicy mustard chicken legs. We had a bunch of chicken legs that had to be used, so I decided to brush the legs in spicy mustard then coat them in a mix of panko, parsley and a bit of Parmesan. They didn’t taste bad, but the coating didn’t stick as well as I hoped and what did stick didn’t brown enough. I think with a bit more work, it could be another favorite dinner.

Cactus fries: I know you can eat cactus, but I certainly never expected to try them in Nebraska. We met our friend downtown in the Old Market at Roja Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar. Mike and I had already eaten, so we didn’t order anything, but we did try their guacamole (which was free thanks to a check in on FourSquare) and the cactus fries. The fries were lightly coated and fried and they were pretty darn tasty. If you ever see them on a menu, they’re definitely worth a try!

Avocado egg rolls: Last Christmas, Mike’s parents and Mike and I got gift cards to Kona Grill. We went during happy hour, which gave us the chance to try some appetizers at half price (which is a GREAT deal). We decided on the avocado egg rolls with honey-cilantro dipping sauce. I am not a huge fan of avocado, but I must confess I liked these a lot. I was surprised the filling was so soft and creamy and warm-a nice contrast to the crunchy wrapper. They had a bit of onion and bell pepper in them and the dipping sauce added the hint of sweetness they needed. We all liked them so much, I did my best to deconstruct the ingredients so I could try to make them at home.

Supreme: I love grapefruit, but since I don’t have the best grapefruit knife ever (my mom insisted she keep it and sadly, Crate & Barrel doesn’t make them anymore), I usually don’t buy them. The grocery store had samples of some Rio reds out and they were so sweet and juicy I had to buy six. I debated cutting them into wedges like an orange, but I took a chance and looked up segmenting (also called a supreme) citrus fruits. If you attempt this, you’ll need a REALLY sharp paring knife. It looks a lot scarier and harder than it is, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find all sorts uses for the membrane-free sections: tarts, salads, pies, compotes….

Ted & Wally’s wasabi ice cream: If you’ve followed my blog for a bit, you’ll probably know I LOVE Ted & Wally’s Premium Homemade Ice Cream. All of their ice creams (including vegan and diabetic-friendly ), sorbets and yogurts are homemade with fresh, all-natural and usually local) ingredients made the old fashioned way: slow-churned with rock salt. The flavors change daily (or during summer months, hourly) and range from traditional (Dutch chocolate, vanilla, chocolate chip) to unexpected (french toast bacon–it just won the annual Baconraiser competition, blueberry banana, salty seahorse, Monster Energy Drink sorbet, white chocolate caviar). If you think something would make a great ice cream/sorbet/yogurt flavor, they are more than happy to give it a shot.

They’ll let you try as many flavors as you want, but wasabi has to be one of the weirdest ones I’ve ever tried. I don’t like wasabi with sushi so I highly doubted I’d like it in ice cream form, but I couldn’t pass up the chance, especially since it used fresh wasabi instead of the powdered or premade kind. The ice cream itself was a soft, pale green and nice and creamy on your tongue; it was definitely much more muted than eating wasabi normally, but certainly left its trademark spicy punch at the end. It was sweeter than I thought it would be, but I opted to get a different flavor.

Cheddar bacon potato chips: I spent yesterday with my best friend Jill wandering around the Albertville Premium Outlet Mall in Albertville, MN. We initially passed KLN Family Brands, but saw chips in the window and decided to go inside (what can I say, we like to eat). Based in Minnesota, it is their only outlet store and they carry some of their more unique products/flavors. When Jill and I saw the cheddar bacon potato chips, we grabbed a few bags without hesitating. Potatoes, cheese and bacon–how could that be bad? We barely made it out of the store and I had opened my bag and eaten one. Yum. Yummy yum yuuuum. The chips were the perfect blend of smoky bacon flavor and cheese. I let my mom and aunt try some when I got home. Big mistake. They were also hooked. I promptly hid them so I could take them home with me. The salesclerk informed us it was the only place that carried the cheddar bacon or ketchup flavored chips and people come from all over just to buy them in bulk. At $2.50 a bag, I am more than happy to be one of those people.

There are tons of food ideas I didn’t get around to trying this year (making candy, making more pies and breads, making homemade dog treats for Nova, making pasta from scratch), so I am going to make it a point to try them in 2013. Are there any food experiences you enjoyed in 2012? Do you have a favorite ingredient or cooking style you love that you think I should explore?

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