Tuesday, January 31, 2012

One Pork Roast - Three Delicious Dishes!

Sometimes you see things on sale and they are just too good to pass up. On a Sunday afternoon at a local market, there were these beautiful pork shoulder (sometimes called a “pork butt”) roasts at a great price. How could I resist? The only thing was, these roasts are often best cooked at a low temperature for hours and hours – but we wanted to have it that night for dinner! So I got to thinking about what we could make by cooking this for a couple of hours.

It’s in part because of the Polish in me, but there is something about the taste of pork that I just love. It can be succulent, flavorful and moist. But we’ve all experienced dry, tasteless pork from time to time. Pork loins, especially, are very lean. While there are many benefits to the lean meat, they can easily overcook and become so dried out that no amount of gravy can redeem. This is why, if I have the time, I always go for the shoulder/butt roast. Sure, it contains a lot more fat, but it holds up to longer cooking times and generally delivers better on flavor.

We decided on three different ways to enjoy out pork roast. First, sliced roast pork with gravy made from the wonderful drippings left behind in the roasting dish. Second, we would shred part of the roast into small bite-sized pieces and then use those to make BBQ pork sandwiches. Finally, there was a bunch of corn tortillas to use up, so we would chop up some toppings and have the makings for pork tacos.

I set the 4.5lb roast out for about an hour before starting the cooking. During this time I put together a rub for the outside of the roast using some of our favorite spices:
2 TBSP Kosher salt
1 TBSP black pepper
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 TBSP brown sugar
1 tsp smoked paprika (you could use hot or sweet paprika instead)
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp thyme

Making rubs is a creative way to blend your favorite seasoning together. Some spices/herbs go better with certain meats, but I generally use those I like best. I rubbed all the surface areas of the roast with the rub mixture and heated a few tablespoons of oil in a skillet. Once the oil was hot, I browned each side of the roast and then transferred it to a roasting rack in a baking dish.

Now Ralph doesn’t own a roasting rack – I have about 10 of them. So, I fashioned one out of a big piece of aluminum foil and it made due. I covered the roast with foil and put it in a preheated 325 degree oven for 2 – 2 ½ hours.
This is also a great exercise if you want to do nothing more than make your  house smell wonderful! Regardless, after removing the roast from the oven uncover it (carefully – there will be a lot of steam) and allow it to rest for at least 20 minutes.

I pour off the dripping from the bottom of the roasting pan into a measuring cup. As it cools, the fat will rise to the top. I use the pork fat with some flour to create a roux, and then add the rest of the drippings in to make my gravy. If I find the gravy too thick, I’ll thin it out with a little chicken stock or white wine.

After the roast has rested you can get to slicing. Now you could slice the whole thing if you just wanted to serve roast pork and gravy as the main course. Leftover sliced pork is also excellent sandwich making material, so none of it would go to waste. Since we had plans for three different dishes, I sliced about half the roast. The other half I took apart (with my hands) into small pieces. If you just wanted to do BBQ pork sandwiches, you could take the entire roast apart, put it in a slow cooker, add your favorite sauce, and have delicious hot sandwiches for your Super Bowl party. We probably could have eaten the whole thing via tacos, because we love well-made tacos simultaneously present a complexity of flavors yet with a simple and straightforward delivery. It’s all good!

We chopped up some tomato, onion, jalapeno, cilantro, lettuce and lime for the taco topping. I heated up some of my favorite sauce in a small skillet and added the pork pieces. Within moments we were enjoying roasted pork in three different, yet delicious ways!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chicken Noodle Soup In January Warms The Body And Soul

It’s that time of year. The days are short, the nights are long and regardless of the hour, it’s cold. Being outside for any length of time chills one to the bone. It seems we go for days on end without seeing the sun – just one gray cloudy day after the next. I understand why some people get a case of the “winter blues” every year. And then let’s not forget that every other person seems to be walking around with a cold. Sometimes I think bears have the right answer – hibernate the winter away and wake up when it’s spring!
But life goes on – cold weather or not – and one remedy that I have found that gets my body and spirits warmed up is cooking up a big pot of homemade soup. Making soups are a lot of fun because who is to say what should go into a batch of vegetable soup?? It’s all your call, and as a cook you can be as creative as you want. It’s a good way to use up those odds and ends that might be in fridge’s vegetable drawer or tucked away in the freezer. Sure, you can open a can and in a few minutes be eating some kind of soup, but once you’ve made your own from scratch you will save the canned soups for making casseroles!
In the genre of soups, there are a few superstars. In a list of top five soups, I have to believe that chicken noodle soup is somewhere on that list. Long believed to have special healing power for those who are suffering from colds or a flu bug, it just feels good to sit down to a hot bowl of hearty chicken noodle soup. So, on this cold January afternoon, it seemed like the right soup to make.
There are a couple of basic realities about making soup. It is very hard to make good soup quickly and it is even harder to make a small amount of soup. When you decide that you want to make some soup, make sure you have a couple of hours and a nice big pot. If you are going through the effort, you might as well make it count! Many soups are just as good if not better the next day and some freeze very well, so don’t be worried about having too much.
I hope everyone stays warm and well this winter – and if you want to take out a little insurance, go ahead and make some soup!
Chicken Noodle Soup
 5-6 chicken bone-in thighs (skin removed) You could also use breasts or drumsticks, if you prefer
4 quarts of water
2 carrots cut in half
2 stalks of celery cut in half
1 medium onion cut in half
1 TBSP salt
6-8 whole peppercorns
8 oz egg noodles (use whatever style you like – could also use orzo or other pasta)
3 TBSP chicken soup base
1 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 large carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
Ground pepper to taste
Place chicken thighs (I remove the skin) in a large pot. Pour water (it should be cool) over chicken. Add carrots (no need to peel), celery, onion, salt and peppercorns. Cover pot and bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. After about 15 minutes, skim top of liquid and remove any foamy residue that has come to the surface or adhered to the side of the pot (this is from the bones and fat). Continue to simmer covered pot for another 45 minutes.
In the meantime, cook your egg noodles. Follow the instructions on the package, but cook the noodles a couple of minutes short of the recommended time. These will continue to cook when they go into the hot soup, and you don’t want them mushy. When the cooking time for the noodles is reached, drain noodles through a colander and then rinse with cold water. Set noodles aside.
Remove pot from heat and using a large slotted spoon remove solid contents – chicken, vegetables and peppercorns. Let chicken cool for a few minutes and using two forks, remove all the meat from the bone and set aside. Take the onion, which will be very, very soft, and cut it into small pieces. Discard the carrots and celery. Remove any additional residue that may have collected along the side of the pot with a paper towel. Add chicken soup base to the pot and stir to dissolve (depending on the kind of base you are using, you may want more – give it a taste). Add back to the pot the chicken meat, chopped cooked onion, fresh parsley, diced carrots and celery and pepper.
Return pot to heat and bring back to a boil and immediately reduce heat to simmer. Continue until the carrots and celery are tender (about 20 minutes or so). Turn off heat and gently add in your cooked noodles and stir in soup to combine. Ladle into a big bowl and enjoy with some crusty bread or on its own – it will warm every part of you!  Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Peanut Butter Chocolate Blondies

There is something wonderful about making treats in a large pan that you can just cut up and serve. Everyone like a cookie, but when you're pressed for time or want something that is easy to transport, making bars is often a great alternative. Brownies, blondies, all kinds of squares and bars, have a long history in our collective memories of goodies we love to eat.

I make a fair amount of brownies. There's something about a rich, moist, chocolate square of goodness that makes one feel good about the world! And while brownies are always popular, sometimes you just have to change things up. These peanut butter chocolate blondies provide a diversion from the norm, but still deliver a lot of smiles. Great with a cold glass of milk or a hot cup of coffee, try these the next time you're looking for something different that is quick to make and easy to enjoy!

Peanut Butter Chocolate Blondies

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky, whatever you prefer)
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla
12 oz (1 bag) chocolate chips (semi-sweet, milk or dark)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, mix flour, salt and baking powder and set aside. Using a mixer, beat butter and brown sugar until smooth. Add peanut butter and beat to combine. Then add eggs, corn syrup and vanilla and beat to combine all ingredients. On low speed, add flour mixture to wet batter until completely incorporated. Stir in chocolate chips.

Lightly grease a 9x13 baking dish with non-stick spray. Spread batter into pan evenly and bake in oven for 35 minutes or until golden brown on top. Remove from oven and cool completely on rack. Cut into bars and enjoy!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pineapple ("Princess") Upside-Down Cake

Inspired by the "flip" of another year, this stand-by cake has stood the test of time and is a favorite of many a pineapple lover. There is a comforting familiarity that accompanies a cake like this, and when it arrives at the party people just love looking at it. There was a time when the pineapple upside-down cake was commonplace, but we see much less of it these days. It seems that red velvet cakes are all the rage today - five years ago they were a rare sight, especially in this part of the country. But as cake fads come and go, simple cakes that are really good never fade from fashion.

In addition to it's wonderful flavor, this cake comes together easily - especially if you get a little help from our friend Duncan Hines! You can find the Duncan Hines Pineapple Supreme cake mix at most major grocery stores. I'm glad they are still making this product! I have no problem using a cake mix as a base, especially one that delivers good results. If you must use a scratch cake recipe, then find one for your favorite yellow cake and substitute it for the Duncan Hines mix.

Duncan Hines is a great story. He was a real person. A salesman from Bowling Green, he did a lot of traveling in days before interstate highways and chain restaurants and hotels. He kept notes of his favorite places to eat and shared his recommendations with friends. It was so popular that it eventually became a book, "Adventures In Good Eating." If your restaurant was "Recommended by Duncan Hines," then you earned a top distinction. He spent his later years traveling and eating in restaurants and writing about it - what a great job!

We're calling this particular cake a Pineapple "Princess" Upside-Down Cake because Ralph wanted to infuse some Hawaiian-style music into the episode and we found a Teresa Brewer record, "Aloha from Teresa" to play in the background. One of the tracks is "Pineapple Princess" - what a hoot! So, we had to include it somehow!

My preferences in making this cake include using crushed pineapple instead of rings (I think it gives more pineapple per bite), chopping the cherries, using dark brown sugar (if you have it - if not, light brown is great) and using the drained pineapple juice from the can in the cake mix.

Pineapple "Princess" Upside-Down Cake

1 box Duncan Hines Pineapple Supreme Cake Mix
3 eggs
1/3 cup oil
reserved pineapple juice plus enough water to measure 1 and 1/3 cup
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 20oz can crushed pineapple in juice
10 maraschino cherries, chopped
1 cup packed dark brown sugar (can also use light brown sugar)
1 stick butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drain and reserve juice from can of pineapple and set aside. In a 9x13 pan, place stick of butter and put pan in heated oven until butter is melted. Turn pan to evenly distribute melted butter. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly over melted butter. Next, distribute drained pineapple over brown sugar. Use all the pineapple. Evenly distribute cherries over pineapple. Your bottom (which is really your top) is now done. Set pan aside and prepare the cake batter.

In a large bowl, combine cake mix, eggs, oil, pineapple juice (and water to make 1 and 1/3 cup), baking powder and soda. Beat with electric mixer for two minutes until well combined. Pour batter over brown sugar/pineapple/cherry mixture on bottom of baking dish. Place in oven for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean or the center springs back when gently touched. Cool pan on rack for 10-15 minutes. Take a piece of waxed paper larger than the pan and place on top. Flip the cake over onto the waxed paper and let it hold there for 20-30 seconds. Remove pan. If you have any topping stuck to the bottom of the pan, use a spatula to remove it from the pan and spread it back on top of the cake.

Let the cake cool completely on the waxed paper. Once the cake has cooled, use the waxed paper to lift the cake and gently set it back in the baking pan. Trim the excess paper from the sides and your upside-down cake will now be right side-up! Enjoy!