My Favorite Biscuits Ever!

My Favorite Biscuits Ever” is perhaps a bit misleading as I live a low-carb lifestyle and typically don’t indulge; they are, however, my kid’s favorite so we’re going to run with it!  Now that back-to-school is here, warm, nutritious breakfasts are always in the foremost of my mind.  I’m not a fan of boxed cereal and cereal bars and I make no apologies for that fact.  As I stated in my post on school lunches :

 My personal conviction (perhaps it’s the French in me?) is that food should do more than just supply nutrients to your body, but should feed the eyes and comfort the spirit as well.

On a cool, crisp morning, nothing is as delicious as a pan of warm flaky biscuits straight from the oven to wake sleepy bodies and chase away the chill.  Depending on the time available and appetite, the kids will slather theirs with strawberry jam or apple butter, make breakfast sandwiches with an egg and a piece of bacon or eat them as a side with some buttery fried apples or stewed berries.  They even like them tucked into a lunchbox as a side with a Thermos of soup.  And the fantastic thing about this recipe is it’s easy to double and freeze for those rushed mornings.  Just set them out the night before or thaw them in the microwave for a quick, warm breakfast.  So let’s skip the chatter and talk ingredients and technique.

Ingredients For The Best Biscuits Ever!

These biscuits require 3 ingredients: 2 cups of self-rising flour, 5 tablespoons of butter and 1 cup (give or take) of whole milk.  If you don’t like to use white flour, you can make your own self-rising wheat/whole grain flour by adding 3 teaspoons of baking powder and 1 teaspoon of salt to the 2 cups of flour.  Stir it really well to ensure the ingredients are thoroughly combined.  The butter should be straight-from-the-fridge cold as should the milk.  The temperature of the products really do make a difference when you’re making quick breads, so be diligent!

Technique

There are a couple of tricks you need to know to ensure flaky, tender biscuits every time.

  1. Do not overwork the dough.  You stir the dough just enough to combine the solids with the liquids.  The dough is going to look lumpy, shaggy and irregular and that’s just fine.  You knead the dough very gently and just long enough to produce a dough you can handle.  This is not like kneading bread that requires some serious muscle; biscuits and other quick breads require a delicate hand.
  2. Do not add all the flour the recipe calls for.  Anytime I’m making a pastry that is going to require kneading or rolling, I omit up to 25% of the flour and use that flour to do the kneading.  If you use all the flour called-for and then additional flour to knead, you’ll end up with a product resembling a clay target.  Better for skeet shooting than eating!  For these biscuits, I use 1&1/2 cups of flour for mixing and use the remaining 1/2 cup to knead and roll the biscuits.  This is the same technique I use on pasta, pie crusts and sugar cookie cut outs—and it works well every single time.
  3. As tedious as it is, you HAVE to cut the butter uniformly into the flour.  You need those pebble-sized chunks of butter spread evenly through out the dough for flavor, proper layers as well as to aid the leavening process.  So take your time with the step of cutting in the butter.  It really does make a difference.  The best way to do this is to use either a pastry blender (pictured) or a food processor.  I use the pastry cutter because I’m lazy and hate taking the food processor apart to wash it.


Winco 5 Blade Pastry Blender, Stainless Steel

So let’s do this!  Measure out 1 1/2 cups of flour into a large bowl and add 5 tablespoons of cold butter.  Using a pastry cutter or food processor, blend the butter into the flour until the resulting product looks crumbly with small, pebble-sized bits of butter throughout the flour.  See the bumpy bits in my hand, there?  Perfect.

 

Now, we’re going to add cold milk, approximately 3/4-1 cup.  Depending on the flour you’re using and the humidity on the day you’re baking, it may take more or less.  Just start with the 3/4 and adjust as necessary.  What you want is a sloppy dough, with a consistency thicker than pancake batter but thinner than cookie dough.  Something along the lines of a dropped dough/mashed potato consistency.  Make sense?  Anyway, mix just til the flour and milk are combined.

Take the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and dump it onto a large, clean surface for kneading.  I use an old dough board, my mom dumps it straight onto her kitchen counters.  Whatever works for you is fine by me!  Carefully spoon the dough into the center of the flour and using both hands, flip the dough over so both sides are floured. 

Sprinkle a bit of the flour onto the top of the dough and carefully fold the dough in half and turn one-quarter turn. Pat it down gently, sprinkle with some more flour, fold it in half and turn one-quarter turn again.  You’re going to repeat this process 5-6 times til the dough is manageable and the majority of flour has been worked in.  (If there’s some left on your surface, don’t stress.)  It’s the repeated flouring, folding, patting and turning that creates those fluffy layers, so don’t neglect this step!

At this point, your dough is still going to look and feel rough and bumpy and you’ll notice blobs of butter sort of protruding out of the dough—that’s perfect!  Using a rolling pin, gently roll the dough to approximately 1 inch thick and perhaps 4inches wide by 10inches tall.

Cut the dough into servings using a sharp knife or a biscuit cutter.  (I typically end up with 8 biscuits from this recipe.) 

I like to round mine off a little; you can just shape them as you place them in the dish, but that’s up to you.

Place the cut biscuits into a heavy baking dish with the sides slightly touching to prevent overbaking.  You can use a cookie sheet, but personally I think the baking dish yields better results.   Now you’ll bake your pastries in a 425 degree oven for 15 minutes, til the tops and bottoms are slightly golden and the centers are set.

 

See the beautiful layers?!  These are absolutely best served steaming hot, so don’t dawdle!  Top them with honey, butter, jam, sorghum or your favorite topping and enjoy!  Can’t wait to hear how much you love them!

 

http://simplelifemom.com/2017/10/17/homestead-blog-hop-157/

 

Guinness Stout Cake -or- Not Your Granny’s Fruitcake

Guinness Stout cake is the perfect finish to a holiday meal.

Okay, this may end up being a divisive post, so my apologies in advance.  I find that in the great fruitcake debate, there’s no gray area; you either love it or loathe it and rarely are there any in-betweens.  I loathe the stuff personally.  It typically weighs 12lbs, full of oddly-colored quasi-fruit that I can’t quite identify and has the same density as a cinderblock.   Historically, fruitcake was a grand indulgence reserved for special occasions such as weddings and Christmas celebrations, as it was full of expensive nuts, liquor and imported candied fruits.  So when your Granny sends you a homemade fruitcake, son, that’s because she really, really loves you and doesn’t realize that it’s handed out at white elephant parties as a gag gift and passed out free at corner gas stations with any fuel fill-up.  Gag.

But Guinness stout cake, now I like it pretty well.  Quite well, in fact.  The flavors are sophisticated, but less complicated than your granny’s traditional fruitcake, the texture is more delicate and the fruit is recognizable.  Oh and it weighs far less so you won’t be using this one as a doorstop come January.  Just like traditional fruitcake, you have to start this one well in advance, allowing at least a month or more for the flavors to mingle and mellow.  I typically start mine around Veteran’s Day if I plan on serving it for Christmas.

Alright friends, let’s make a Guinness Stout cake!

The ingredients you’ll need for this cake are

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, softened
  • 12oz pitted, chopped prunes
  • 8oz golden raisins
  • 8oz currants
  • 1 1/4 cup of Guinness Stout, plus more for dousing
  • 2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2t baking powder
  • 1/4t freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/4t ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/4c light brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 2 eggs

Directions

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Brush a 9-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pan with butter. Line pan with parchment paper; brush with butter. Set aside.

2. Combine the chopped prunes, raisins, and currants in a medium bowl. Add 1/2 cup stout, and let stand for the dried fruit to plump a bit.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and cinnamon together. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each, scraping down sides twice. Add dry ingredients in two additions; mix just to combine. Fold in fruit mixture.

4. Pour batter into your prepared pan. Bake until dark brown and set and a cake tester inserted into the middle of cake comes out clean, about 3 1/2 hours. (Cracks will appear on top of cake.) Remove from oven; sprinkle with 1/2 cup stout. Let stand on wire rack 30 minutes. Remove from pan; discard parchment and let the cake cool completely.

5. Wrap in a cheesecloth, a thin tea towel or muslin and douse fruitcake with remaining 1/4 cup stout. Store in a cool, dark, dry place (such as a large Tupperware), dousing with 1/4 cup stout once a week for at least 1 month before serving.  Personally, I like to do my last “dousing” about a week prior to serving it, to allow the stout to absorb and the flavors to mellow.

(Recipe courtesy of Martha Stewart.)

So it’s a pretty cut-and-dry recipe as you can see, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious!  It’s not sickeningly sweet and slathered in greasy frosting like many holiday cakes are, so this one goes down pretty easily, even after a heavy meal.  With a hot cup of tea or coffee, Guinness Stout cake is the perfect finish to a holiday meal.  So where do you fall in the great fruitcake debate?  Yea or nay?

 

Easy Homemade Baking Extracts

 

Homemade baking extracts are a simple, 2-step process!

It’s early October and you know what that means?  It’s time to start considering Christmas gifts in earnest!  I love making baking extracts for gifts; poured into a cute container with a pretty label, it’s a gift my foodie friends are sure to enjoy.  Honestly, there is no simpler or more inexpensive gift you can make that will be so eagerly anticipated and enjoyed each year than homemade baking extracts.  And with the varieties of herbs and fruits available, the possibilities are limited solely to your imagination.

Let’s get started with vanilla, lemon and cinnamon baking extracts.

As with most extracts, with vanilla you need only 2 ingredients:  quality vanilla beans and a potent alcohol.  I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked the first time I shopped for vanilla beans.  I thought OH LARDY as I researched brand names, country of origin and price.  Especially price.  But as with most things, you can have quantity or you can have quality.  Go for quality.  You’ll taste the difference in the finished project for certain.  Here’s a link to a good quality, fairly priced vanilla bean:  Vanilla Products USA 10 Grade A Prime Gourmet PNG Bourbon Type Vanilla Beans ~5″ (12.5 cm)  Now moving on to the alcohol, for most extracts, a plain, inexpensive vodka is all you need; with vanilla extract, brandy, rum or bourbon are quite nice too.  It just adds another layer of flavor to an already delicious product.  To make your homemade vanilla extract, add 2 vanilla beans for every 4 ounces of alcohol, so for a standard fifth of liquor, you’ll need 10 vanilla beans.  Split the beans from top to bottom exposing the seeds, place the beans in a large bottle or quart Mason jar, add the vodka or bourbon and add a lid.  Set in a cool, dark place, such as inside a kitchen cabinet for at least 6-8 weeks (though longer is better!), giving it a good shake every few days.  When Christmastime rolls around, pour your vanilla baking extract into a cute 4 ounce jar with a single vanilla bean (for presentation) and add a pretty label.  There’s one baking extract done!  Let’s move on to the next!

Lemon baking extract is as easy as the vanilla, but far less expensive.  For this baking extract, you’ll need 2-3 organic lemons and a fifth of inexpensive vodka.  Wash your citrus well then carefully peel the fruit with a paring knife or veggie peeler, taking extra care to avoid the white pith.  (It’ll turn your extract bitter.)  Stuff the citrus peel into a quart jar, cover with vodka and let sit 6-8 weeks, giving it a shake at least once a week.  If you’re gifting this extract, pour the finished product into a pretty jar, label it and it’s ready to go.  Now if you’re exceedingly clever, you can mix the lemon extract with a simple syrup for a very passable limoncello.  But I’ll leave that project up to you.

Last up, cinnamon baking extract!  For this extract, you need 3 inch cinnamon sticks and again, inexpensive vodka, though bourbon would probably be delicious here too.  For a full fifth of vodka, you’ll place approximately 18 cinnamon sticks in a Mason jar and pour the alcohol over it.  Allow it to sit and steep for 6-8 weeks, shaking it up once a week.  If/when you pour the cinnamon baking extract into cute, gift-sized bottles, place a fresh cinnamon stick in the bottle…it just makes a very pretty presentation.  This cinnamon baking extract is fantastic for adding to cakes or cookies, flavoring whipped cream or just added to a favorite coffee for a fantastic kick of flavor.

Not everyone is going to want quarts of flavored vodka sitting around the house, (that’s a LOT of baking extracts!) so let me break this down into smaller, more manageable portions that you can share or keep for yourself!

Vanilla Baking Extract

2 vanilla beans

4 ounces of vodka, brandy, rum or bourbon

Lemon Baking Extract

peel from 1 lemon

4 ounces of vodka

Cinnamon Baking Extract

3-3inch cinnamon sticks

4 ounces of vodka or bourbon

But don’t stop there!  Use that extra vodka or bourbon to make mint extract (1/2 cup of fresh leaves to 4 oz vodka), coffee extract (2T of crushed whole beans to 4 oz vodka), berry extract (1/2 cup muddled berries to 4 oz vodka), orange or grapefruit extract (peel from 1 fruit to 4 0z vodka), coconut extract (1/3cup shredded, unsweetened coconut to 4oz vodka).

I know some of you don’t like the idea of alcohol in your food and home, and I totally appreciate that, so there’s a non-alcoholic option for you!  Vegetable glycerin (VG) makes a very good, alcohol-free baking extract.  Following the same recipe, use VG in a ratio of 3 parts VG to 1 part water.  For the small bottles we just discussed, you’d use 3 ounces of VG and 1 ounce of water to 1 lemon peel, 3 cinnamon sticks or 2 vanilla beans.  Make sense?  Here’s a link to a quality, Kosher vegetable glycerin: Glycerin Vegetable Kosher USP – 1 Quart (43 oz.)

If you plan on gifting these extracts this Christmas, I encourage you to try some pretty bottles like these
(12 Pack – 4 oz. Amber Glass Bottle with Lid for Vanilla Extract, Perfume, Oils, Light-Sensitive Liquids, Refillable Boston Round Bottle from California Home Goods) as the amber glass and tightly-sealing lid will protect your finished product.

And to top it all off, peruse our dear friend Pinterest for cute, free printable labels.  I think these and  these are perfectly adorable for our homemade vanilla extract and I’m sure there are others out there for various other extracts as well.  Give it a try and tell me what you think, sweet friends!

Preserving Pumpkin 3 Ways

 

Freshly picked pie pumpkins

Okay, I got some pretty positive feedback from Preserving Apples 3 Ways, so let’s continue in that vein with preserving  pumpkins, as they’re just beginning to come into season now .  When preserving pumpkins, you’re a little more limited in how you can preserve them simply because they’re a low-acid food but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take advantage of the cheap, cheap prices and pick up several to enjoy over the winter.   So let’s talk varieties!  When you’re picking out your pumpkins, you want to avoid carving pumpkins.  While they’re fantastic for carving, so they’re not so great for eating.  They tend to have a very dry, stringy, flavorless flesh as opposed to pie pumpkins that are sweet, moist and perfect for eating.  Pick smaller pumpkins that feels very heavy for their size and check to be sure there are no gashes or mars on the pumpkin’s skin.  Last, try to choose pumpkins with nice 2-3 inch stems…that will reduce the chances of finding a spoiled pumpkin when you cut it open.  Now that you’ve picked your pumpkin, let’s make canned pumpkin, pumpkin butter and candied pumpkin.  Here we go!

The hardest part of preserving pumpkin (or squash!) is simply slicing the sucker open without cutting a finger.   You need a large cutting board and a very sharp knife to pierce that hide.  Carefully cut the pumpkin in half or quarters so that you have a manageable size to work with.  Remove the seeds and stringy parts then flip it over and cautiously peel away the skin.  Notice I keep reiterating caution:  pumpkin skin can be incredibly tough, and it’s easy for a knife to slip and end up with a dreadful cut.  Be careful my friends!   Now chop the pumpkin quarters into 1inch by 1inch chunks and we’ll get started on our first preservation method.

Canning pumpkin requires very little prepwork, but it does require a pressure canner.  Simply add the peeled, chopped pumpkin cubes to a pan of water and boil for 2 minutes.  Add the boiled pumpkin to hot jars and cover with boiling water, leaving 1 inch of headspace in the jars.  Cap with a 2 piece lid and process in a pressure canner for 55 mins/pints or 90mins/qts.  When you’re ready to use the pumpkin, just drain it, mash it and use it as you’d use store-bought puree.  It’ll make fabulous breads, soups, pies or cookies, though you must be diligent in draining it well!

Before you ask, no, you cannot can pumpkin puree.  Due to the density of the puree and the lack of acid, there is no home-canning technique that Ball, the NCHFP, Food In Jars, Grow Your Own, USDA or any other reputable food preservation entities will approve of.  I hope I don’t get nasty private messages over this, because so-and-so’s granny canned pureed pumpkin for 50 years and no one died.  Well, praise God for that!  My granny gave babies whiskey for colic and smoked Catalpa beans and no one died, but that doesn’t mean it was safe or smart.  Science changes and as more information is available, techniques change as well.  I know what you’re going to ask next and let me answer it now:  companies like Libby’s CAN safely can pumpkin puree because they have approved means of regulating consistency and equipment that reaches much higher temperatures than our home pressure canners.  So friends, if you insist on canned pumpkin puree, buy it at Walmart because there’s no safe way of preserving pumpkin puree at home.

Okay, so we’ve successfully canned cubed pumpkin for pies and bread.  What else can we do with that pumpkin?  Pumpkin butter!   Take those delicious cubes of raw peeled pumpkin and microwave, steam or pressure cook til the flesh is soft, gloppy and cooked thoroughly.  Puree it with an immersion blender or food mill til it’s smooth.  Carefully measure out the puree and add it to a crock pot along with sugar and spices and allow to cook down til it’s reduced by 50%.  That may take 8-10 hours or even longer, so don’t be impatient!  When your pumpkin butter passes the spoon test, allow it to cool and then ladle into freezer containers or bags and freeze for up to 1 year.  That’s some super easy pumpkin butter!  Here’s exact directions from Pick Your Own.

Candied pumpkin

One more recipe to go!  Candied pumpkin!  This may be a little outside your comfort zone, but it’s a fun little treat if you have a bit of pumpkin left over and you can feel good giving it to children because there’s at least a little nutrition under all that sugar.  To make candied pumpkin you need raw pumpkin sliced into 1-inch cubes, brown sugar (1 cup) and water (2 cups).  Boil the pumpkin cubes in water for 20 minutes til fork tender then drain them, reserving 1.5 cups of the cooking water in a pan.  Add 1 cup of brown sugar to the reserved water, bring to a boil for 5 minutes and then add the pumpkin back in and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow the pumpkin to steep in the syrup over night.  The following morning, remove the pumpkin cubes from the  syrup, drain on a rack over the sink and when they’re dry but tacky, roll them in additional sugar.  Cinnamon sugar is really nice!  You’ll want to store these in the fridge or freezer, but they probably won’t last too long!  They’re like little chewy bites of pumpkin pie!

How easy was that?  Delicious preserved pumpkin 3 ways, starting with the same raw cubed pumpkin!  Now if you find yourself blessed with an abundance of winter squash or even sweet potatoes, you can use them interchangeably in these recipes with nearly the same results.  Friends, if you haven’t enjoyed a fresh sweet potato pie, you haven’t lived!  Try it sometime!  Anyway,  I hope you try these techniques and let me know what you think about them!  Til next time!

Preserving Seasonal Fruits

Preserving fruits is one of my favorite kitchen hobbies.  When it comes to home-canning, so much of what you do is an *exact* science.  Green beans HAVE to be processed for a certain amount of time at a specific pressure point.  Corn too.  Quick pickles HAVE to be brined with a certain percentage of salt or vinegar.  Tomatoes also fall into that category.  There is no guess work and no room for experimentation with veggies and low acid foods.  Fruits, on the other hand, allow for much more creativity.  Now that doesn’t mean you can play fast and loose with safety issues, like cleanliness, proper canning technique, etc, but beyond that, the possibilities are endless.  Let’s talk about the different means of preserving fruit and the flexibility within those methods.

By far, the most common method for preserving fruit is simply canning it.  It involves bringing fresh fruit to a boil in either a simple syrup or fruit juice (such as pineapple juice), pouring it into a Mason jar, capping it with a screw-on lid and processing it in a boiling water bath for a short period of time.  The natural acid in the fruit combined with the preservative qualities of the sugar results in a pleasantly sweet, brilliantly colored fruit that is delicious straight from the jar, baked into a pie, or topping ice cream or cake.  Berries, apples, peaches, pears, plums all taste amazing when preserved by this technique.   Each fall,  I put up a bushel of apples in a sweet, cinnamon-y syrup for wintertime breakfasts;  warmed and topped with some cream and served alongside a fresh biscuit or as a topping for pancakes, waffles or French toast, canned apple slices can’t be beat.   Here’s an example for you to follow.

Jellying or jamming is also a delicious means of preserving fruit to last through the year.  Only slightly more difficult than straight canning, you simply bring fruit to a boil, adding precise quantities of sugar and either commercial pectin or bitter fruit as a thickener.  Everyone loves the ubiquitous pb&j using Concord grape jelly, but the possibilities are nearly endless here!  From spiced tomato jam to corncob jelly there’s almost no food you can’t jam or jelly.  There ARE some exceptions to that rule and it’s important that you use tried and true recipes, but you can find reliable information as well as proven recipes at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  Think of their files as the Holy Grail of canning.

Candying is another favorite fruit preservation for us!  The concept is simple and ages old:  you soak fresh fruit pieces in heavy syrup until the fruit’s moisture is removed and replaced by sugar.  You can pretty much candy *anything* though we particularly enjoy candied orange slices, pumpkin cubes and ginger pieces.  And as a total bonus, the fruit flavors the heavy syrup, so after you’ve candied the fruit, you’re left with a delicious fruity-sweet syrup that you can use on pancakes, in drinks or any number of uses.  Love those bonuses!  Here’s a recipe from Martha Stewart for making candied citrus peels–for a real treat, dip them in dark chocolate!!

If you have a dehydrator, drying fruit is so incredibly simple!  Most fruit requires nothing more than being sliced, dipped in salt water or lemon water (to preserve color) and dried for 1-2 days on a med-low setting.  My great-granny in eastern Kentucky used old window screens covered in cheese cloth in an enclosed porch to dry apple slices and oh-my-word, were they ever delicious!  I was always so excited to go see her—to see if I was finally taller than she was and to come home with a big old bag of dried apple slices!  Here’s a link that provides ideas, recipes and guidelines for you.  Dried fruit is one of the children’s favorite lunchbox treats and I feel good offering it to them because there’s so many vitamins packed into those little sweet packages!preserving fruits

But fruit preservation doesn’t stop there!    Fresh seasonal fruit can be preserved in brandy or other spirits, fermented with honey, frozen, pickled, made into cider, wine or vinegar….the options are really endless with fruit and for the most part, your imagination is the only limit.  Try your favorite combination of berries for a triple berry jam.  Or mix your favorite stone fruits with brandy for a delicious cake topping.  Puree and dehydrate apples for fruit leathers.

What is your favorite tried and true way to preserve summer’s bounty?

 

 

Under Pressure – Or- A Primer On Pressure Cooking

 

My granny and yours were no strangers to cooking under pressure.  They knew a good thing when they saw it and pressure cooking was a good thing, even then.  As early as the late 1600s (IK,R?!), the process of using steam and pressure to cook food was an intriguing concept.  Though it took several hundred years and innumerable design changes to perfect, pressure cooking has been a safe, reliable means of cookery for many generations…and has seen a huge resurgence in the past few years thanks to the new electric multicookers.  So what are the advantages and drawbacks to pressure cooking?  And what about those new-fangled electric doodads?  Honestly, there are so many advantages, I don’t know where to begin, so let’s set opinion aside and just talk time, flavor/texture and nutrition.  Here we go!

Time: Regardless of whether you use a stove-top cooker or an electric one, you’re going to be thrilled with the amount of time you save.  Even with the time it takes to build pressure in the pot, the time savings is extraordinary.  Some of our favorite dishes to cook under pressure are whole chicken (30mins), spaghetti squash (18mins), hard cooked eggs (2-3 mins), beef roasts (1 hr), bbq ribs (25-30mins), pinhead oats (10mins), baked wh/sw potatoes (15mins), frozen chicken breasts (15mins), fresh green beans (3-4mins), collards (30mins).    And it’s particularly nice during the heat of the summer to NOT have to run an oven for hours to prepare dinner!  If you’re particularly clever, you can use devise/purchase a rack that will allow you to cook several items at once; for instance chicken breasts on the bottom of the pot with a rack of baked potatoes on the top of the rack.  Seriously, your whole meal can be ready in under 20 minutes!

 

Taste/Texture- While taste is subjective, texture really isn’t.  Meats that frequently come out of the oven dry or stringy come out of the pressure cooker fall-apart tender in a fraction of the time.  Chicken breasts cooked under pressure are moist and tender, bbq ribs typically fall right off the bone.   Regarding the subjective issue of taste, the higher temperatures create a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction  which results in rich, carmelized, “umami” flavors without the addition of extra salt, fats or seasonings.  So while I can’t say if you’ll like the flavor more or less, I can say it takes fewer ingredients to achieve certain flavor combinations.  Make sense?

Nutrition- Because pressure cookers use so little water, some as little as a cup, vitamins and minerals aren’t leached out of the ingredients during the cooking process.  That translates to food that retains a much higher nutritional content than items that have been boiled or braised.  AND you can take leftover bones, fat, and veggie scraps to make an awesome, nutritious pot of broth in under an hour.  Pressure cooked food is just better for you, friends!

 

Okay, now the disadvantages, and there are a few.

Expense- Stove top and electric pressure cookers are a good deal more expensive than conventional pots and pans.  There’s just no getting around that.  A stove top model can cost up to $100 or more and an electric model, substantially more.  And there may be ongoing expenses such as replacing gaskets (perhaps every 1-2 years.)  That said, I’ve been using my stove top pc for 10 years now and it’s showing no signs of slowing down, so if you break down the cost over the course of a decade, it’s really no more expensive than replacing cheap pots and pans every couple of years.

Interrupted cooking- To test/check for doneness in a pressure cooker, you have to reduce the pressure, remove the lid and check, which effectively brings the cooking process to a halt unlike a dish in the oven or in a conventional pan, in which you can check in only seconds without interrupting cooking.  BUT after you use the pressure cooker for a while, you begin to find your groove and will intuitively know how long to cook your food without the need for opening it up to “check”.

Space- If you go the electric route, bear in mind that many of them are quite large, requiring a good deal of counter space and storage.  My Instant Pot is approximately the size of 2 crockpots, but for us, it’s worth the space.

Now, let’s talk stove top VS electric.  I have both and at this point in my life, I’m absolutely enamored of my Instant Pot multicooker.  It’s a pressure cooker, egg cooker, steamer, rice maker, yogurt maker, soup pot, slow cooker; so while it WAS an expensive purchase and it DOES take up a lot of space, I was able to purge several other appliances that I no longer need or use.  After the initial learning curve, it’s simple to use and clean up is quite easy.  And my favorite part: you can set it and walk away unlike a stovetop model.   In size and usefulness, I find my stovetop pressure cooker pales in comparison to the Instant Pot though I keep it to use as a 5qt stock pot.  That’s just my opinion.  Here’s a link for you to check out the specs and read the reviews:   Instant Pot DUO60 6 Qt 7-in-1 Multi-Use Programmable Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice Cooker, Steamer, Sauté, Yogurt Maker and Warmer

Now, last thing, let’s talk fear of pressure cooking.  It’s not an uncommon thing, so don’t feel embarrassed if pressure cookers terrify you.  When I worked at a kitchen store about a hundred years ago, I remember older women coming in terrified of them because they remembered their mother’s exploding pressure cookers in the 40s and 50s.  Friends, what we use now are NOT our grandmother’s pressure cookers.  One of the main culprits behind exploding pressure cookers was the metal recycling during and immediately following WWII.  Metal was precious and the highest quality metals were used for airplanes, tanks and aircraft carriers.  The metal that went into pressure cookers was frequently thin and low quality, so under pressure, it was apt to explode.  In addition to better quality materials, current generation pressure cookers also have several built-in safety mechanisms that all-but eliminate any possibility of an explosion.  Unless you TRY to make your pressure cooker explode, it’s not going to happen now.  Please don’t take that as a challenge, though!!  If you follow the instructions and ask for help, you can safely enjoy your pressure cooker and the fast delicious meals.  Alrighty, hit me with your pressure cooker questions!  And go!

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://simplelifemom.com/2017/09/19/homestead-blog-hop-153/

 

 

 

 

Preserving Apples 3 Ways

 

Several of you have expressed interest in learning to preserve seasonal produce, so I thought I’d do a quick post on preserving apples 3 ways.  This will be quick, easy and oh-my-word, the satisfaction you’ll feel when you’ve taken a bag of apples and turned it into 3 amazing treats in a day’s time!  So let’s dive right into this with a quick primer on apple varieties.  The best option for a newby to canning is to find a nice all-purpose apple.  Some apples cook down to mush, which is fine if you’re committed to making a LOT of applesauce.  Some apples stay firm when they’re cooked, which is fine if all you’re doing is making pies.  If you can locate an all-purpose apple, it will allow for several different options when you get it home.  All purpose apples can be made into sauce, salads or pies and are good eaten straight out of the bag.  Varieties will vary according to your region and the season, so it’s best to ask a local orchard for recommendations, but some common all-purpose apple varieties may include Honeycrisp, Gravenstein, Empires, Ida Reds, Johnathons and MacIntoshes.  So now that you’ve picked an apple variety let’s get to work preserving apples by making applesauce, apple butter and apple leathers.

 

By far, the peeling, coring and slicing will take longer than any other aspect of this job, so if you have a countertop peeler/slicer, BY ALL MEANS use it!  If not, I find bribery is quite effective.
I use this one and have found it extremely effective:  Prepworks by Progressive Apple Peeler and Corer Machine

Peel, core and slice your apples and place them in a deep stock pot with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching.  You’ll need to pay close attention to this; if they boil dry, the natural sugars will scorch in 2 shakes of a lamb’s tail.  Set your stock pot over a med-low heat and let it come to a slow simmer. This step takes time, my friends, so don’t try to rush it.  Stirring frequently, let the apples cook til they’re tender and translucent.  Depending on the variety you chose, they’ll probably retain their shape, but will mush up easily when you smash them with the back of the spoon.  Using either a food mill or blender, puree the cooked apples in small batches and return them to your stock pot over a low heat.  You’ve just made applesauce.  At this point you can sweeten with sugar and flavor to taste (we love a little ginger in ours!), return to a simmer, ladle into hot canning jars, add 2 piece lids and process in a boiling water bath (15 mins/pts, 20 mins/qts).  Done! How easy was that?!  Here’s a very detailed set of instructions for you to follow.

Preserving Apples: Apple Butter

Okay, so you’ve followed the instructions and you have a big lovely pot of pureed apples but you don’t want to can plain old applesauce.  No problem!  We’ll take this a few steps farther and by the time the day is through, you’ll have a finished batch of apple butter.    You simply measure out your pureed apples, add sugar, tons of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves or allspice and slowly cook it down til it’s reduced by 50% or more.  You can do this on the stove top, which is quick but more apt to scorch, or you can put it in a crock pot and let it cook down slow over the course of many hours.  Either way will yield the same results.  So how do you know when it’s cooked down adequately?  The spoon test!  Carefully (watch for steam and splatters!) scoop up a rounded spoonful of apple butter and hold it at eye-level.  If the apple butter remains mounded up on the spoon, it’s ready to go!  If the apple butter flattens out into the bowl of the spoon, it needs to cook down a little longer.  (This is the art, not the science, of food preservation!) Once you’ve determined that your sauce has indeed cooked down into butter, ladle it into hot jars, add your 2 piece lid and process according to directions, typically 10 mins for pints and 15 for quarts.

So now you have oodles of apple butter and you’re not sure you’ll actually eat it all before next fall….here’s what you do!  Fruit leathers!  This is one of my favorite means of preserving apples!  You have a couple options for drying your fruit leathers, but I’d be lying to you if I told you I do anything but use a dehydrator.  I’ve been using a L’equip model dehydrator for nearly 10 years and have nothing but good to say about it!
(This is the model I use!  L’EQUIP 528 6 Tray Food Dehydrator, 500-watt )

Using either an oven or dehydrator, you pour your fruit puree onto a sheet of plastic wrap (or parchment paper, my preference) in a thin layer of perhaps 1/8th of an inch thick.  Smooth it out so that it’s as even as you can make it…this will prevent underdrying/overdrying, especially if you’re doing a large batch.  Dehydrate the puree at 140 degrees for 8 hours in a dehydrator, up to 18 hours in the oven or until the center of the puree is no longer squishy (technical term there).  Once it’s dried, you roll it up and wrap it in plastic wrap.  These typically don’t last long if you have children around!  Precise, step-by-step directions can be found here.

How cool was that?  You begin with one bag of apples and end up with 3 entirely different finished products.  You’ll find in the world of food preservation, you can use that step-by-step method we just used preserving apples with several different varieties of fruits and veggies.  Tomatoes chopped, simmered and put through a food mill will yield tomato juice.  Cook down the juice for 30 minutes or so, and you have a delicious tomato sauce.  Cook down further and you have tomato paste.  All of which can be water-bathed and in the pantry or fridge in a day’s time.  If you find this type of post helpful, let me know and I’ll be sure to follow up with some more “3 Ways” posts in the coming seasons!  Til next time, my friends!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meal Planning For Beginners

Meal planning begins in the pantry!

We’re a week back into this “back to school” thing and we’re slowly getting into what appears to be a routine again.  I’ll be completely transparent with you and confess that the area that takes the biggest hit during the summertime is our diet.  Everything shifts during summer vacation:  sleeping habits, spending habits, household chores, church attendance (for the better!), but our eating habits go straight down the toilet.  That doesn’t mean we revert to a lifestyle of doughnuts and chocolate milk for breakfast and baloney sandwiches for lunch, but we absolutely fall short of our goal of eating well 80% of the time.  Summer is just so crazy busy with the yard, garden, road trips, that it’s nearly impossible to keep to traditional eating.  After a long day of splitting and stacking firewood or peeling and canning tomatoes, that pizza delivery service starts to sound pretty stinkin’ good.  There.  I confessed it.  But, now that school is back in session, all of that changes and we can return to something like normalcy, and our diet is the first thing we work on.

Over the past year, I feel like I’ve developed a pretty good meal planning groove.  It may not work for everyone, but it works for us and that’s what matters:  you have to have a plan that works for you and your family.  It doesn’t matter how good it sounds, if it doesn’t work for your lifestyle, you might as well hang it up now.  I encourage you to try several different approaches.  Perhaps bulk cooking or monthly shopping trips is more appropriate for your lifestyle?  Whatever you try and stick with is the perfect plan, so don’t get hung up on what other people are doing and don’t feel guilty for trying other ideas.

That said, here’s what I DON’T do.

  • I don’t coupon.  Or rather, with very, very few exceptions, I don’t coupon.  It’s a rarity to find a coupon for what I’d describe as actual food:  milk, eggs, fresh veggies, baking supplies, meats, fruits, cheeses.  I think couponing is great for household items like cleaners, toiletries and such, but for food, I find them almost useless.
  • I don’t schedule our meals to the very day.  We’re not a Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday kind of family.  I develop a rough game-plan but I don’t plan which meal we’re having on which day a week ahead of time.  Because life happens.  Just as soon as I commit to an elaborate meal on Tuesday, my sweet Petunia is going to come home with a ton of homework she needs help with and a project she forgot and Angus will need something urgently from Walmart and supper won’t happen.  I give myself grace during the school week and allow the flexibility I need to tend to urgent needs first.

I DO however:

  • Get input from the family about what they’ve been craving.  You know those “funny” signs that say your choices for dinner are “Take It or Leave It“.  I think that’s mean.  Yes, our families should eat what we prepare, BUT we should temper that expectation with enough compassion to serve what they’ll WANT to eat.  If there’s a meal that sounds especially delicious or someone has been craving for a while, I want to know so I can bless them.
  • Cook in large enough quantity for plenty of quality leftovers.  Last night’s Mississippi Roast is going to be tomorrow’s beef and pepperjack cheese quesadilla.  2 birds, 1 stone, my friends.
  • Shop my pantry first.  When planning meals, I look to my larder to figure out what I have and what I can do with it.  Those canned tomatoes and a few dried beans can easily and cheaply become a beautiful, thick pot of chili that we can eat from twice.
  • Budget.  I allow myself XXX amount of dollars each week and with a little planning, I have no problem staying within that budget.

So I start by gathering ideas for breakfasts,  5 lunches and 5-6 dinners.  Our typical weekly menu looks something like this:

Breakfast – Steel cut oats – stewed apples and biscuits – bacon and eggs – steel cut oats –  special breakfast cocoa

Lunches – Cheese plate – Baked beans – Pasta salad – Pulled chicken bbq (leftover chicken) – Chicken noodle soup (leftover chicken)

Dinners –  Whole roasted chickens with root veggies – Chili – Chili Mac (leftover chili) – Chicken fried rice (leftover chicken) –  Grilled pork chops/sw taters

Then I simply make a list of the necessary ingredients, starting with breakfast.

Grocery list:

steel cut oats

bacon

eggs

sharp cheddar bar

olives

Great northern beans

1-2 roasting hens

carrots and celery

ground beef

brown rice/cauliflower “rice”

whole grain pasta

pork chops

sweet taters

 

To get the biggest bang for your buck, combine meal planning with some savvy shopping.  I do the bulk of our shopping at a local Aldi store, where the daily prices are incredibly low and the quality is very good.  If you don’t have an Aldi, watch your weekly sales ads and plan accordingly.  If whole roasting chickens are on sale, figure out 2-3 meals that you can make from chicken.  Enjoy a hearty roasted chicken with root veggies one evening, chicken noodle soup for lunch and chicken fried rice for another (utilizing the leftover chicken).  If chuck roasts are on sale, try a Mississippi Roast in the crock pot for dinner, beef and cheese quesadillas for lunch and a big pot of beef veggie soup later in the week.  A pork loin or pork roast could be made into grilled pork loin medallions, pulled pork sandwiches and pork fried rice.  Money saving aside, the advantage of buying large cuts of meat such as roasts or whole chickens is that you save precious time by spending one night actively cooking and 1-2 other nights simply reheating or recombining from the quality leftovers you’ve already cooked.  It’s such a time saver!

That’s it, folks.  Meal planning 101.  Of course, this is a bit different than what our mamaws and grannies would have practiced, but the underlying concept is the same.  We have the luxury of weekly/biweekly shopping and refrigeration, which makes our lives infinitely more simple, but they practiced their own form of meal planning when they did a week’s worth of baking on Saturdays and prepared simple, whole foods with waste (or lack of it) in mind.  Their objectives were the same as ours:  to feed their families nutritious meals while conserving time and resources.  With a little bit of planning, you’ll find you save money (no waste, no trips to the burger joint), you’ll save time (no gawking at an empty pantry trying to conjure up a meal) and you’ll feel better because you’re eating more healthfully (ever got up from McD’s and thought “Man, I feel great after that meal!”?)  In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about the benefits of meal prep and bulk cooking.  Til next time–

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eating Simply

As traditional as eating gets!

Welcome back to the third and final post in our traditional eating series that we began a few short weeks ago.  Just to refresh your memory, we’ve discussed eating locally– that is eating what is traditionally available in your region.  We’ve also discussed eating seasonally, which is eating what is ripe and freshly harvested during a given season.  Today, we’ll get to the last ‘cornerstone’ of traditional eating and that is eating simply.  How I’d define eating simply would be something like this:  eating foods as close to the way they were originally grown as possible by choosing whole, unrefined, seasonal ingredients and preparing them with as little processing as possible.  Our definition touches on 2 aspects of eating simply,  beginning with the most wholesome, simple ingredients and simple preparation, so let’s take a few minutes and touch on each of those.

First, let’s choose wholesome, unrefined ingredients.  Meats should be recognizable, not mechanically separated, extruded and chemically treated.  Opt for whole roasting hens or bone-in, skin-on chicken quarters in lieu of nuggets.  The same goes for fish!  Opt for wild-caught filets over sticks or nuggets.  Fruits should be whole, raw or very minimally processed.  If you *have* to buy canned fruit, choose fruit preserved in fruit juice instead of syrup…but fresh or frozen are by far the superior choices!  Veggies should also be whole and minimally processed, with fresh or frozen being the optimal choices.  If you must use canned, be sure to choose cans without BPA linings–the packaging should proudly advertise that fact.   For dairy, choose full-fat, unsweetened and, if possible, non-homogenized products.  Be sure your cheese is actually cheese and not a “pasteurized cheese food product”.  It possible, buy your eggs locally; if not, free range is best.  Choose beneficial fats like butter, coconut, olive and avocado oils.  Avoid margarine and seed oils like the plague, my friends.  If you eat grains, choose whole grains.  Now let me add a caveat here:  I KNOW some budgets won’t allow for these choices.  And depending on your region, some of these choices aren’t available.  That’s okay; no guilt, my friends.  These are guidelines directing you toward optimal choices but you have to tweak your choices to fit within your budget, region and lifestyle.  You’ll receive no shame from me if you need to make other choices.  This is totally a no-shame zone!

Second, let’s talk about simple preparation.  Let me begin by saying that I’m a bit of a minimalist in the kitchen.  I don’t care for a lot of gizmos and gadgets.  I don’t care for elaborate recipes that require odd ingredients I’ll never use again.  And I loathe overly complicated, fussy directions.  You know the kind I’m talking about.  Here’s my thinking:  if we begin with quality ingredients that were raised responsibly and harvested at their peak, we shouldn’t need odd spices, expensive gizmos or elaborate directions to create a delicious dish.  The point behind seasonal, local eating is that ingredients should be the “stars” of the dish; all we need to do is learn to make them shine through simple, proper preparation and presentation.

Every ingredient has a “sweet spot” in my opinion, a manner of preparation that elevates the taste and texture from a plain, raw ingredient to a satisfying end product…and that may be different for each ingredient.  Let me tell you how I like to prepare some of my favorites.

  • Try roasted vegetables.  Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, potatoes, sweet/white potatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, zucchini…they’re all delicious tossed with a bit of oil, sprinkled with salt and roasted in a moderately hot oven.  The flavors intensify, the exterior carmelizes and the end product is so much more delicious than boiled or steamed.
  • We love raw or stewed fruits as a dessert or sometimes a main dish for breakfast.  Topped with a bit of heavy cream, fresh berries make a great, simple dessert.  During the wintertime, my sweet Petunia will ask for stewed, spiced apples with cream for breakfast and I gladly oblige.
  • We regularly eat whole roasted chicken for dinner.  During cool weather, it’s a weekly meal and the leftovers make for some amazing lunches and soups!
  • During crazy hot weather, we tend to either grill tender cuts of meat (chicken breasts, pork chops) or use the Instant Pot for tougher cuts of meat like roasts and ribs.  If you’re not familiar with an Instant Pot, I’ll do a post on it later.  (Believe it or not, our great-grandparents used pressure cookers, so this is a fully acceptable return to our roots!)  To get the best results from the grill, we choose thin cuts or filet them at home, brush them with oil, season appropriately and cook them according to directions.
  • We eat wild-caught fish as our budget allows and blackened in a cast iron pan is our perennial favorite.
  • Soups and stews are an extremely easy way to prepare wholesome dishes from simple ingredients.  We LOVE chicken soup made from leftover roasted chicken,  beef and barley soup made from leftover Mississippi Roast and chili to use up day old beans.  Be sure to use quality broths, as it will have a huge impact on the richness of the soup or stew.

I follow the old time-honored “Meat + 3” approach to planning simple meals.  I serve meat or a hearty main dish such as a casserole, soup or stew with 3, typically lower-starch side dishes.  (This may seem like a lot of food, and it is, but the leftovers make for incredible lunches, so I save myself some work tomorrow by adding an extra side to the meal tonight.)    A typical cold weather dinner in our house looks like this:  1 large/2 small baked chickens, roasted root veggies (carrots, onions, celery), a dish of homegrown green beans and side salad or pot of braised greens.  In summertime, we go for lighter meals and “ploughman’s lunches” are a favorite for several of us; they allow for an infinite variety of texture and flavor, as well as preventing the waste of those little bits of cheese wedges, leftover meat and half-eaten jars of pickles in the fridge.  The kids and I frequently take ploughman’s lunches to school in lieu of sandwiches and their dishes almost *always* come home empty!

Well friends, I think that’s all I have to say on the topic, but I’d LOVE to hear what you have to say!  Tell me which aspects of traditional eating you already employ and which ones you’re excited to try your hand at.  Til next time!

 

 

Salt Preserved Herbs

Our grandmothers were experts.  They may not have held degrees, but they KNEW how to do stuff and do it well, and food preservation (in all forms) was at the top of that list.  They were able to take a simple, raw material and turn it into something amazing that we are willing to pay a premium for now.  Take for example, infused salt, which is nothing more than common table-salt that has been infused with herbs, minerals or essential oils and used to “finish” elaborate meals.  It’s all the rage among foodies and in fancy restaurants, but it’s something our grandmothers have done for centuries.  As the tagline says, “All things old are new again.”

So there’s a reason our grandmothers used infused salt, and it wasn’t to impress their Bridge clubs or quilting circles: infused salt is the by-product of salt-preserved herbs.   With little to no effort, equipment or electricity, plain old salt will preserve fresh herbs without destroying their flavor or color.  Salt is a natural desiccant, and in absorbing the moisture from the herbs, it also absorbs the flavor, leaving a delicious finishing salt for the table.  As we’re moving quickly toward the end of the growing season and my cupboards are already stocked with dried herbs, I’m going to make a good-sized batch of chive-infused salt, both for cooking and for gift-giving later this year.  It’s seriously the simplest process ever and as it’s a fairly quick project, it appeals to the immediate-gratification Gen X in me!  Here’s what you do:

 

Salt preserved herbs

 

First, you need to start with quality, fresh herbs.  Old, wilted, past-their-prime will work, but quality-in results in quality-out, savvy?  So either cut your own herbs or pick the best quality, fresh herbs you can find at the grocery.  For infused salt, I lean toward what we consider Italian herbs:  oregano, rosemary, chives, basil, parsley but any variety will do.  It’s all a matter of taste preference here.  Beforehand, clean and dry the herbs well.

Next, you need a good quality salt.  Yes, you can use the $.45 box of non-iodized table salt, but if you’re looking for the best results, I prefer Kosher, sea salt or Himalayan.  A finer grind works better than a coarse grind in my opinion, but please experiment and find what you like best!

Last, you need a glass jar with an air-tight lid.  Plastic tends to absorb flavor, so I avoid it and use an old mason jar.

To make preserved herbs and infused salt, you begin by adding a layer of salt11 to the bottom of your jar.  1/4c (or less) of salt12 should work, depending on the size of your container, as you need at least 1/2 inch of salt13 on the bottom of the jar.  Next add a layer of herbs.  Not too thickly because you need the salt14 to be able to ‘reach’ the middle of the layer.  Add another layer of salt, completely covering the herbs.  Repeat til the your container is full, then cap it tightly and sit it in your fridge.  It takes 1-2 weeks for the herbs to dry and infuse the salt15 with wonderful flavor.  Kept refrigerated, salt16-preserved herbs will last well into winter and beyond.  To use the herbs, you simply remove them from the jar, brush off the salt17 and use as if they were fresh.  The salt18 can be used directly from the jar as a finishing salt19.

That’s it, my friends.  There’s your salt-preserved herbs and the accompanying infused salt20.  How easy is that?  And placed in a pretty jar with a label you print at home, infused salt21 makes a beautiful, frugal homemade gift during the holidays.  Give it a try and let me know what you think!  On a personal note, I’d like to welcome my new readers from the Simple Life Mom Blog Hop .  So glad to have you!   Til next time, my new friends–