Fancy Pants and So Can You!

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I’ll admit, I have quite a few pet peeves:  global warming, income inequality, lazy cooking, etc.  Don’t get me wrong, I too come home late from work, or I can’t bring myself to clean up the dishes from the meal before, or maybe I just want a bowl from Chipotle.  But none of those would qualify someone as a lazy cook.  I’m talking about the people who take the time to set the table, bust out some candles, scrub themselves clean and plop down in front of a plate of store bought sauce atop box pasta with some mushy thawed frozen vegetables. NO!  Put some freakin effort into your food!  It doesn’t mean more time, or even more money (though the results are usually correlated to those points).  It means taking time to learn basic cooking skills, choosing a kick ass recipe, and busting out a five star meal.

Even taking little steps in your old go-tos can take them to a whole nother delicious level!  Spices, marinades, and changing up the cooking method can add some fancy pants to your meal.

Perhaps I should start by writing a little about my cooking background, and those-I-mooch-off-of’s cooking background. My parents were not fancy eaters (not a bad thing), so I grew up on basics, boxes, and simple vegetables from a can.  All of which I loved and rarely did I turn down seconds. But that usually meant the extent of cooking (not including holidays and special occasions) was boiling water, pan frying meat, and the microwave.  All of which I was masterful at by an early age.

So, naturally since I loved food and I loved television, out came the Food Network, where I learned the rest of the skills to make almost any recipe I find.  I soaked it all those shows in like a sponge.  My favorites were always the more explanatory chefs.  Alton Brown was the best.  He goes through everything about the food he is cooking that show; giving you not only a recipe, but skills you can use throughout any recipe and the science behind it.

Alton Brown GOOD EATS

Ben, on the other hand, is a special little snowflake who had a dad who sent him to school with hand-rolled sushi.  He then had a stint in a butcher shop and some time in culinary school as I’ve mentioned before in my steak post.  He was born with a wooden spoon in his hand.

Which brings me to one of the elements you need to make those fancy pants recipes you see me posting all the time on my Instagram:

Ribeye with mixed mushrooms, spiced roasted broccoli, and garden salad with strawberry dressing.

Balsamic braised short ribs over garam masala rice with that same roasted broccoli.

Almond crusted trout on a bed of balsamic greens.

None of these recipes are difficult.  None took more than a half hour for all the prep and serving, which may seem like a long time, but it’s not intense by any means (including some TV and conversations). They all were taken from the internet, and they all tasted scrumtrulescent.  But they all required basic cooking skills.  Starting with knife skills.

Knife skills is seriously the number one thing anyone who wants to make a good meals should learn.  Learn how to buy a good knife set, or even just one or two good ones for those not looking to invest an arm, leg, and child of their choosing.  One should go to a kitchen store (yes, even Bed, Bath, & Beyond, Crate & Barrel) and give them a test run to see what feels good in your hands or even online with Amazon if you are desperate or hate social interactions.  Ben has a gorgeous set of Wusthof knives including a honing steel, which this dude can tell you all about.  Seriously, a sharp knife is everyone’s best friend.

Then you need to learn how to wield it!

The main take-aways are how to hold the knife, how to protect your hands, and how to cut properly.  Like he said, if it take a while to cut something the first couple times it’s ok! Better to learn good technique then risk losing a finger, or worse ruining that beautiful knife you just bought!

Now you have a knife, you know how to sharpen it, you know how to use it.  Now what the hell is a julliened carrot?  Recipes usually call for things chopped, diced, minced, julliened, or in rare cases something fancy that I google, but mostly the former ones.  All these things really do mean something specific and can alter a recipe if you screw it up too much (too small and you get an overcooked carrot, too big and you get crunchy mashed potatoes).  And truely, different vegetables will look different with the “same” cut.  Chopped potatoes tend to be a little bigger than chopped carrots, just because of the shape of them.

Here is a handy chart:

Now. FINALLY. To the good part: the food.  The recipe.  How the heck do you find a good recipe.  They easy way is to go into a book store, or online and find a book with pictures that make you drool.  Follow those instructions and blamo, you have something tasty.  The other option, which is what Ben and myself tend toward is using the power of the internet to get good recipes.

“But Emma! There are literally millions of recipes for mashed potatoes out there! How will I be able to pick out a good one?” you may ask.  Welp, there are options in how to pick a good one.  You could literally go to google, put in the title of something you want to make “Mashed potato recipe” and maybe add a desired adjective (“Chunky mashed potatoes”, “red skin mashed potatoes”, “garlic mashed potatoes”, “Twice baked potatoes”, etc.etc.etc.) and pick the first one that pops up.  There also tends to be comments or ratings of recipes if you have a second to comb through them.  Pick ones with 4 or 5 stars, or lots of positive comments from people who actually cooked it, not people who “totally will make that tomorrow”–they get no say in your dinner tonight.

And don’t be afraid of big words.  Those “braised” short ribs? They were made in a crock pot.  Don’t know what “tender” really means?  Look it up!  There are plenty of good sources on the internets for cooks.  Or ask ya mama, you need to call her anyway.

You could also take a look at what you have in your fridge, or what you wish you had and go from there.  For example, right now I have sage sausage and a  butternut squash, so I could google something like “sage sausage butternut squash recipe” which gives me this.

You could even go to the produce or meat counter of your grocery store and try something that scares you! What the heck do you do with a parsnip? Ya know what? They make a pretty tasty mash.  Or better yet, head to your local farmers market and pick something up and ask the person behind the table, “Hey, what’s this? How would you cook it?”  I’ve never gotten so much as a strange look from these questions.  Even if it’s something you’ve cooked a million times, maybe they have a fresh new idea for those tomatoes.

Ben is also partial to this site: GoonsWithSpoons.com. They have recipes by categories, ingredient, course, etc.  They also have lots of pictures, and they are pretty easy to follow along with.

You got knife skills out the wazzo, you can find (and presumably read) recipes, you have Youtube and Google, so seriously now, stop posting pictures of sad pasta and wilted salads.  No excuses.

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Jar All the Things!

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Ball, Mason, Knorr.  I don’t discriminate, but Ball Jars are my favorite.  They are cheap at less than a buck a piece, reusable, sanitizable, and simply awesome.  I think they blow plastic tupperware out of the water for their durability, and cleanliness, plus they aren’t plastic which can leach bad things into your food.

They sell them everywhere from the grocery store (I’ve personally seen them at Mars, Giant, and Wegmans), Target, Walmart, and for a little more on Amazon.  They even have labels that stick for months, and come off with water.

If you’re a little low on money, you can literally just buy the jars and they are great for loads of things without investing in a pressure canner, or other canning tools.

Pantry Storage:

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They are airtight and easy to organize.

Preparing meals for the week:

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.13.19 PMThis is my breakfast in a jar.  I prepare mushrooms, peppers, and onions and throw them in the fridge.  This way everything is ready for me to throw in a pan with some fresh eggs and some sautéed spinach.

My new favorite before breakfast boost is chia seeds.  As in Cha-cha-chia pets!  But for your belly.

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.13.59 PMIt is coconut water, a splash of juice (in this case some blueberry cranberry juice) and a tablespoon or so of chia seeds.  They sit in the jar at least for a couple hours, but the longer the better so they form their gel-like texture.  Chia seeds are high in fiber, a complete protein, and just all around good for you, so they keep me satisfied until breakfast.

Packing lunch:

I use the little ones for my lunch.  I buy my applesauce in big containers, and some fresh or frozen fruit and divid them into the perfect 4oz portions.  I also use the 8oz ones for portions of plantain chips (seriously the tastiest thing ever from Trader Joe’s); keeps me from eating the whole bag.

Leftovers:

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.15.10 PMIf I know I’m gonna eat my leftovers soon, I’ll just throw them in a jar.

Or the freezer if they are gonna be in there longer:

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.13.43 PMRight now there is chicken stock, coconut milk, tomato paste, tomato sauce, bacon fat, and frozen fruit in ball jars.  Ben makes a crap-ton (metric) of something and we can just can or freeze the rest.

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The jars don’t specifically say they are for the freezer, but I’ve been using them without any troubles for months now.  Then, when I need some stock I can just take a jar out of the freezer, take off the metal lid, and toss it in the microwave, or in a pot of hot water if you don’t like the microwave.

They are also quite handy for non food related things and storage.

Candles:

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Since the glass is made to be heated, they are great for candles.  And they have a handy watertight lid if you want to make a bunch in case of a power outage.

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.13.05 PMThis one was cinnamon.

Or you could use them as a planter:

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 1.14.37 PMI added stones at the bottom for drainage, and picked up an African violet at the Home Depot for pretty cheap.

There are tons of other projects with them I’ve seen with them: holders for nails and other tools, vases, pencil/crayon/crafts holders, soap dispensers, light fixtures, salad-in-a-jar, pretty blue ones for decoration, and of course using them for their intended purpose of canning, but that is for my next post.

The Perfect (Pan Seared) Steak

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It all starts with the farm.

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This is Springfield Farm. A fine family farm that offers a variety of meats, dairy, and eggs.

Then, comes the cow.

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Nope… That’s a goose.

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Those are turkeys…

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There we go!  Cows! Now, these aren’t just cows. They are happy cows! Springfield cows are grass-fed (and hay, dried grass, in the winters).  They also have acres to roam on the farm.

This not only means that they are eating what they are meant to eat, and getting in their daily exercise, but it also increases the health benefits of their meat.  When cows are grass-fed they actually have better fat ratios.  Omega-3 fats are the good kinds, and omega-6 fatty acids are the not as good kind, and the ratio of 6:3 is important.  The thing to keep in mind is that the fat ratios in grass-fed beef are much better than grain fed.  Grass-fed is also higher in vitamins, and anti-oxidants.  Aside from the health benefits, there are taste benefits.  I swear the meat is more tender, and the fat tastes silky, almost like bacon fat.

Of course, if you don’t live near any farms you could stop by a local farmers market.  My favorites in Baltimore are the Baltimore Farmer’s Market & Bazaar and Waverly Farmer’s Market.  Some farmer’s markets will have meats, so you can always ask about their cows.  Grass-fed and grain-finished are more popular at the markets, but even grain-fed cows that have ample pasture are better than those factory farmed cows at the normal grocery store.

That being said, there are grocery store options.  Big name stores like, Wegmans, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and organic grocers like Mom’s Organic have organic and grass-fed meat.

They will be expensive, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  One, it allows you to cast your “vote” for what kind of animals you want to be eating and purchasing.  If you want happy cows, or put simply, you DON’T want tortured, or tormented cows that are packaged by the thousands, then stand up for the extra-mile farmers who are delivering quality food.  Two, it also allows you to eat less meat.  With less meat on your plate, it makes room for other things. Green leafy things.  Three, since grass-fed is not the norm, most places you can get it will know exactly where it came from.  You could visit your food.  I’ve mentioned before that I was a vegetarian for a long time, and knowing my food is important.  I can be thankful that the steak I’m eating was made from a happy cow, that lived a nice life.

Next up, the part of the cow worth searing.

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In a previous life, Ben worked at a butcher shop, so here are his recommendations for good steak cuts:

“The Steak Continuum is labeled as Tender on one end and Tasty on the other end. Of the common grilling or searing steaks, the ribeye and the strip steak fall near the middle of this continuum, which is where you want to be if you’re not doing something special. I don’t believe in tenderloins (filet), because they’re as far to the tender side of the spectrum as you can get. They’re all texture and little flavor. If you insist on getting a tenderloin, buy a porterhouse instead. The porterhouse includes the t-bone steak, a fine grilling steak, on one side of the bone with the tenderloin on the smaller side, and is significantly cheaper.”

So now you have the farm, the cow, and the cut.  What next?  The cooking.

Before you cook any meat, you should let your cut come to room temperature.

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This is our steak for dinner.  It is a ribeye with a big chunk of fat in the middle (normally, not desirable, but we didn’t mind it) and is more than enough for the two of us.  We put it on a plate, seasoned it with salt AND ONLY SALT (pepper will burn), and let it come to room temperature for about 30-45 minutes.  We also lightly sprayed it with olive oil to give it a better sear.

The pan.

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(You’ll have to excuse the mess; it is only indicative of use.)

The pan is cast iron.  They are relatively cheap, pre-seasoned (and only get better when you cook bacon), and are stove top/oven safe.

The pan for this recipe has been sitting in an oven, which has been pre-heating at 500 degrees F.  The burner is also turned to high to maintain the heat of the pan.  Keep in mind, every second the pan is out of the oven it is loosing heat, so be sure to be purposeful when the pan isn’t in the oven.

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Place the steak in the pan and do not touch it for 30 seconds. Don’t press on it, don’t shift it, don’t try to unstick it. It will smoke quite a bit.

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Flip it and, again, don’t touch it for 30 seconds.

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Make sure to sear the edges of the steak, especially if there are strips of delicious fat.

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Place the whole pan in the oven after lying the steak back down on one side. For a medium rare steak, also known as the only proper steak you can make, that is one inch thick, flip the steak in the oven after 2 minutes and remove it after another 2 minutes. For a steak that is 2 inches thick, each side should get 3 and a half minutes. Thinner steaks might not even have to go into the oven.


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Look at that freakin’ steak.

This timing will get you to about rare/medium rare.  I have cooked a lot of steaks and know what they feel like at different done-ness intervals.  There is a method I call the hand method that has turned out well for me.

One note on doneness.  Honestly, if you are going to spend a good amount of money (or any money, really) on a steak, you should enjoy it. Any preparation above medium is too done.  A chef once told Ben that if someone came into his restaurant and ordered a steak well done, they would give them the crappiest cut they had; the simple fact is that the longer you cook a steak, the more they are going to taste and take on the texture of shoe leather. You will not be able to tell that the steak was poor.  The cow is already dead, it isn’t gonna be any less a cow if you cook it until it’s gray.

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Let it rest on a plate under foil for 2-3 minutes to let it rest again, to let the juices redistribute.

If when you take the cover off and try your hand at the hand test (pun intended) and discover it isn’t done enough, you can put it back in the oven for about 2 minutes or more if it’s feeling raw.  Be sure to let it rest again before cutting.

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Enjoy dinner.

We paired the steak with sauteed mushrooms in butter on top of the steak, roasted broccoli, and mashed sweet potatoes, along with a dry Merlot. Don’t be afraid to eat the fat on this steak. Grass-fed fat melts in your mouth.


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Get to steakin’!