Monday, March 28, 2011

Substitute Teachers

This cake is sweet and delicious.

First my friend Greg introduced me to the existence of Chocolate Beer Cupcakes with Irish Whisky Buttercream, then my friend Katia countered with Irish Cream Cupcakes with Baileys Buttercream Frosting. When I had to repay Greg in cupcakes for buying me an awesome pirate shirt, he gave me my choice of what kind to make, and I chose the latter because leftover Irish cream I will drink, leftover stout I will not.

I did not purchase Baileys for this recipe, which is only the first of the substitutions. I chose instead to buy O'Mara's for about half the price at Trader Joe's. Baileys is a whisky-based Irish cream while O'Mara's is wine-based (which is why Trader Joe's can sell it in Michigan where they don't have a liquor license so only sell wine and beer). For trivia's sake, another popular Irish cream that I used to buy from Meijer, Carolans, is made with mead-wine.

The next item that I did not buy was cake flour. told me that I could make my own cake flour by mixing regular flour (I use whole wheat) and cornstarch, two ingredients I had in abundance on hand. My final substitution was baking soda and cream of tartar for baking powder. It probably seems a little strange that I had cream of tartar and not baking powder in my cupboard, but I guess I just didn't need baking powder until now, and the cream of tartar came from raiding my mother's cupboard a couple months back. (She had multiples and I thought it might come in handy. And lo, it was so!)

If I had a blender, I could have made my own powdered sugar, as well! Dang it. Good thing powdered sugar is only a of couple dollars at Meijer and comes in handy enough that I don't mind leftovers.

The batter was a little thicker than I expect from cupcakes, but I wasn't too worried. They just took a little longer to bake, and they rose quite nicely. The buttercream frosting turned out to be the fluffiest and creamiest frosting I have ever made. And I whipped it by hand with a fork! The frosting is where there taste of Irish cream is the strongest, so be careful when mixing it yourself.

Since I still had most of the bag of mini chocolate chips left, I decided to use those to decorate the tops of the cupcakes for a little added flare. Now that I can deconstruct these little guys, I am already getting ideas on how to vary up the recipe. I was thinking chocolate cupcakes with mint Irish cream next time. Baileys also makes caramel, which would make an awesome frosting, but not sure about batter.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this little treat as much as I did. Have fun experimenting with your own!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blender Fail

So I found this recipe for corn pudding and thought to myself, “Hey, that looks easy! I bet I can make that.” But things rarely go according to plan in my kitchen. For starters, I did not want to buy ears of corn since I had multiple packages of the sweetest corn I have ever tasted in my freezer. A quick look at told me that one medium ear of corn is equal to about ¾ cup of kernels. When I put the frozen corn and milk in the blender, however, they would not blend. (Guess I should invest in a Blendtec.) In fact, the milk just froze.

But I never give up that easily. Not when food could potentially be wasted! I transferred the milk and corn slushy to a pot and set the burner to medium. Even if I did have a vegetable masher, I wouldn't be able to easily remove the “fibrous parts” so I abandoned that part completely. Adding sugar and butter, I let the mixture continue to boil until the liquid boiled down. Then I pulled a heavy drinking glass from the cupboard and commences mashing the corn to the best of my ability. It didn't turn it into pudding, but it did add a creamier texture, so I can see where this would work as a pudding if I could only remove to “fibrous parts.”

After tiring myself out mashing and sweating profusely form the steam, I turned off the burner and let the pot of sweet corn mash to sit and cool. I decided to let it sit in the fridge overnight as my hands turned to other tasks.

When I dished out a small bowl the next day and dashed on cinnamon, I was surprised at how sweet and tasty the concoction turned out to be. I wasn't sure how corn pudding would taste, but the answer is delicious! Naturally, it would be better if this were actually pudding and not pudding-laced kernels of corn, but I get the idea of the flavor. It's definitely something I would like to try with a decent blender in the future. I can see this as a very refreshing late summer or fall dish, mayhaps when I can procure some fresh corn from the farmer's market.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Garlic on the Side

“What are collard greens?” I wondered as I looked through a list of recipes from Brazil. That and “Ooh, garlic!” Continuing in the tradition set down by okra, I decided to make couve a mineira (garlicky collard greens), a traditional Brazilian side dish, because I wasn't sure I'd ever had collard greens, and used to wonder about them also when I worked the freezer at Harding's.

It turns out that collard greens are in the cabbage family, one of "The 10 Things You Need to Eat". Collards have a high vitamin C content as well as a reputation for fighting cancer. The bag of frozen collard greens that I bought from Meijer (courtesy of the same company that made the okra) looked a lot like spinach, but the taste was more similar to Brussels sprouts, though obviously the texture was not even close to the sprouts.

Since the collards were frozen, I did follow the recipes first step of boiling them in water, but I probably didn't have to. Next time I may just dump the whole frozen mass into the frying pan and let it thaw there. I was happy to be able to use the rest of my onion (the first half was used for the gumbo). Only half what the recipes calls for, and it was still a lot of onion! Also, it was delicious. I like onions. On that note, I wonder if this recipe would benefit from sauteed mushrooms...

As usual, I did not use fresh garlic. I guess I'm just a wimp like that. I did have to douse the onions and collards in garlic powder three times before I could even detect there was any garlic in there, but considering 1/8 of a teaspoon is supposed to be equivalent to one clove, that probably says more about my tolerance for garlic than the potency of the powder. (Oops! Are my Sicilian roots showing?)

I have to say, butter and olive oil are a winning combination! I will remember this when I want to saute vegetables in the future, like peas, endives, and mushrooms, a delightful veggie side dish I tried last year after reading about it in a book. The butter can only make this combination more amazing.

Since I didn't have time to make feijoada, my poor excuse for a main dish was elbow macaroni with Parmesan cheese. That's really more of a side dish, but my choices were limited, and the two dishes together were just lovely. Rest assured I went back for seconds! The garlicky collard greens would probably go well with the shrimp and okra gumbo I made previously, and I admit that had originally been my intention, but things just didn't work out that way. Ah well!

I've made a main dish and a side dish. I suppose now I need to make a Brazilian dessert, huh? No problem! Dessert is the best part of the meal.

Friday, March 18, 2011

For Your Viewing Pleasure

I came down with a horrible flu this past Monday, hence the late posts. I just went back to work yesterday, and let me tell you, is it ever difficult to work around food for eight hours with an upset stomach! I actually know a cashier who got sick all over a customer's groceries once. Not pretty, folks. Not pretty at all.

So, since I have been sick, I have not been cooking. (Unless you include burning toast in the toaster oven in the "cooking" category.) I have, however, been watching a lot of Netflix. Strangely enough, I've been watching food documentaries. Three in particular: Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Fat Head.

Food, Inc. was great! It introduced to me Monsanto and how they're viciously attacking farmers and forcing many out of business, as well as what a GMO really is (genetically modified to absorb more pesticides, which we then ingest - yay, poison! delicious), and that the fast food industry has determined the quality of the food we buy from the supermarket. I was disgusted! I am more determined than ever to buy my food from the local farmers market as soon as spring arrives and brings with it a wider selection. (Right now, there's really just a lot of bread.)

I mostly watched Super Size Me because Fat Head  is a response film. I do feel like a learned some things, though. For example, our school systems generally sell the most disgusting, unhealthy lunches to our children and completely turn a blind eye. The girl who just bought a bag of chips, some cookies, and a Coke obviously brought her own lunch from home or is sharing with a friend. That's not her entire lunch, right? Wrong! If we feed our kids healthy, balanced lunches, not only will they be healthier, but their behavior will be better and their concentration will be improved. Maybe we can cut down on the ADD meds, eh? But no. Americans would rather pump their kids full of chemicals and sedate the problem rather than correct it. It's the American way! Right? (Gross.)

Fat Head was another winner. I learned a TON from this movie about the importance of protein and the real danger of a carbolicious diet. I always knew carbs are bad for us, but now I understand just why they are so bad and why I, in particular, should really be avoiding them. I also have officially given up my feeble attempt at vegetarianism. Though honestly, I didn't eat much meat before, and I don't anticipate that changing. I just went back to buying turkey bacon for breakfast to get a nice protein kick start, and will think about buying a chicken or turkey from the farmers market once I finally get around to cooking up the few breasts in the freezer that my mother gave me weeks ago.

I find that eating turkey bacon and eggs in the morning has given me a little more energy. (I'm still not a morning person.) I also stay fuller longer than with cereal, even the high fiber, high protein cereal that I was eating before. In Fat Head, he says that eating grains in the morning is about the same as eating sugar, even the kind just mentioned, which the body burns through quickly. I've pretty much always known that protein is a superior form of energy, I'm just trying to give that more consideration now with this new information behind it.

I watched all of these films streaming on Netflix. I know that Fat Head is making the rounds because I've heard the name thrown around both at work and seen it pop up on Facebook by totally separate groups of people, but it probably helps a little to have previously viewed Super Size Me, and everyone should TOTALLY check out Food, Inc. Consumers can make a difference - we are not powerless. All three films agree that the food industry is this way because it was responding to what we, the consumers, demanded. Cheaper, faster, more bang for your buck meals, and that is precisely what we got. Now we suffer for it.

Just some food for thought. Hoping I'll be back on track next week. Until then!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Paczki! (Gluten Free)

My dear friend LaRissa was recently diagnosed gluten intolerant – just in time for Fat Tuesday! This meant no paczki for her. SHOCK! HORROR! Oh, the humanity… So I did what any good friend who loves to cook and relishes a challenge would do: I googled gluten free paczki recipes. And found some! Here is the one that I chose to use as my guide.

The key ingredient, as I saw it, was the gluten free all-purpose flour. As I was about to learn on my trip to a local health food store, Arbor Farms Market, there are many varied substitutes for wheat flour, but most seemed to require mixing with some other substance, such as potato starch, or were not a perfect cup-for-cup match for wheat flour in recipes, so Tom Sawyer really did seem like the easiest and least expensive option. King Arthur also offers a GF flour. (What is with these names??)

After checking a few different stores, I never did find any rum extract, so my lovely assistant LaRissa and I ended up substituting vanilla extract (the real stuff) instead. We also used a 50/50 Splenda/sugar blend, which certainly didn’t hurt anything in my opinion. And since neither of us owns a deep fryer, I just used a fry pan with moderate olive oil puddle in the bottom. (I use this same technique for beignets, and they always turn out just fine.) We also used my mother’s technique of using a drinking glass as a biscuit cutter.

Those already familiar with GF baked goods know that they tend to come out smaller and denser than their wheaty counterparts, so if you try this recipe, don’t be disappointed by the lack of doughy poof you are used to from gluten paczki. The GF paczki did puff up! They were just smaller and denser than the paczki that the Paczki Fairy delivered to my work on Tuesday and Wednesday last. (Yeah, that’s right. I ate paczki on Ash Wednesday. And they were delicious!!)

The honey got everywhere - including on us!
Lacking a pastry bag, we decided to just douse them in powdered sugar, rendering them very beignets-like. (And now you know how to make GF beignets!) The first taste-test was positive. Then we hit upon genius. I don’t remember the details, but the suggestion was made to drizzle honey on top. PERFECTION! Pure surgary, gluten free indulgence.

Everyone out there who can no longer eat gluten, fear not. There is a plethora of products that are gluten free, and though you are not required to make everything from scratch anymore (the shelves of your local health food store are guaranteed to be lined with GF pre-made products – I even found a GF chocolate cake mix!), offerings like the Tom Sawyer GF flour make it a lot easier now than it used to be. And naturally there are tons of websites devoted to a GF lifestyle, as well. Try Gluten Free Girl and the Chef or Simply Gluten Free for your own GF high jinks.

For a first attempt at making paczki from scratch, this was a resounding success. The fact that they were GF paczki makes me feel that much more accomplished! And having for the first time a beautiful assistant baker made the process more entertaining. (As did the bottle of moscato I’d brought with me. Wine + Kitchen = Happy Shenanigans)

I received a request from our friend Katia to make chocolate paczki. Not chocolate filled paczki – chocolate dough. Having broken paczki down to the base elements like this, I think I could easily make chocolate paczki, but that will have to wait a little bit. More adventures await! Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Did it all for the cookies.

When my friend Jeannine asked me if she gave me half the resulting batch, would I bake some bomb cookies for her, I said yes! Everyone at work who saw me with the bag of mix (just add one egg and half a cup of butter, then bake) was impressed and praised the tastiness and naturalness of this brand, Among Friends.

I had never heard of Among Friends, but I am not from Ann Arbor (so back off, people!), and I quickly learned that Among Friends was started by some local women who wanted to make “healthy” cookies for their children. (The quotes are mine because I remain unconvinced any cookie is truly healthy.) They turned their endeavors into a business and they seem rather successful! I was also told that they buy the chocolate chips for their cookie mixes from our store, probably because it's so difficult to find dark chocolate that is lactose free. (Go figure.) Our good prices probably don't turn people off either.

So on Tuesday – Fat Tuesday to be precise - before work, I took out this much-talked-up bag of cookie mix and read the directions. I was a little skeptical at first about adding butter and eggs to a pre-assembled mix like this. I've always found it difficult to properly stir the mixture when I add the chocolate chips too soon, or otherwise mess with the order. But I did like the bag said and added my one egg and half a cup of mostly softened butter.

The bag told me to stir everything with an electric mixer, but I don't have newfangled fancy technology like that in my kitchen, so I beat it with my trusty white plastic spoon. And when that didn't work, I washed my hands thoroughly and squished it all together myself. The brown sugar was particularly stubborn, and I was still finding little chunks while spooning the dough onto a greased cookie sheet.

The directions warned me not to over-bake them, so I carefully set the timer for 9 minutes. For the first batch. Totally forgot that step when putting in the second batch, so they got a tad more done than the first, but the cookies were still moist and delicious, just with a little extra crisp around the edges. Then, of course, I forgot to bring them into work with me and had to jog home to retrieve them at lunch time. (It's a handy thing walking to work.) There are just so many things to think about during the day that a couple items are bound to get lost along the way, am I right?

Everyone who tried them agreed they were some of the best cookies we've ever tried. I will definitely keep an eye out for Among Friends when I am shopping at the local natural food stores. I was cautioned that they are a bit expensive, but I think that if I were to gather all of the ingredients on my own, it would probably amount to roughly the same price. (Of course, I probably already have a number of these items on hand already, but whatever.)

Jeannine said to look for the “krinkle cookies” for next time. I'm down! I just have a few more cooking challenges to conquer in the meantime. If you are in the Ann Arbor area, I highly suggest checking out Among Friends cookie mixes.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bom Apetite!

In honor of Carnaval in Brazil this past weekend, I decided to make a Brazilian dish. It was a lot harder to find Brazilian recipes than I thought it would be! Too far south for us here in the US, I guess. But I did manage to find something that is both Brazilian and involves a vegetable that I have been curious about since I worked the frozen aisle at Harding's Marketplace in the mid 00s: shrimp and okra gumbo.

I really thought gumbo would be easier to find, considering I stocked it a couple times a week at Harding's, but I had almost given up the search at Meijer (there are no Harding's in A2) when I finally found a private label one pound bag for $1.29. I did abandon the searches for manioc meal and fish stock, though, because I could not find them, and I really didn't have the money to buy specialty ingredients.

I was going to try the peanuts alternative to manioc meal, but I really didn't have the money for peanuts in my food budget either after buying shrimp, so I ended up substituting these with the almond meal I had left over from the Swedish meatless balls. In place of fish stock, I just used the water that I boiled the okra in, which.... was interesting.

Slimy fingers.... Slimy fingers...
Fun fact: okra is the seed pod of a flowering plant that comes to us from West Africa. Both “okra” (from Igbo) and “gumbo” (from Bantu) are common names in the United States for it, so the title of this recipe, shrimp and okra gumbo, amuses me. Another name is “Lady's fingers,” which is just creepy.

Now, I did not know this about okra, so I think it only fair to warn others who may also be unfamiliar with the plant. When you boil okra, IT GETS SLIMY. “Ropey” is not a word I ever thought I would use to describe food. This slime is called mucilage, and Wikipedia offers some suggestions on minimizing it in cooking. Since I was using the leftover water for stock, and I hadn't read Wikipedia yet, I just dealt with the mucilage, which later helped to thicken the gumbo.

This looks good already!
Since I could not find any shrimp at Meijer with the tails already off, I dumped the frozen peeled and cooked shrimp I bought on sale into a bowl, which I then filled with hot water to quickly soften the shrimp. Then I plucked off all of their nasty little tails. I love shrimp, but really hate shrimp tails, or really any part of the shrimp that is not meat. I once ordered shrimp okonomiyaki in Japan and it came with an entire shrimp inside, claws and all. Rarely have I lost my appetite so quickly.

Obligatory criticism of the shrimp industry located here.

Waaay more onion.
I actually used more onion than I normally do (which is still less than recipes call for), and I am glad that I did. Oh, and I used garlic powder rather than real garlic. I know, it isn't the same, but I am poor and I prefer to use non-perishables that I already have on hand. I never claimed to be a chef.

After I put it all together, the mixture became even more watery, so I stirred a few tablespoons of corn starch in a little dish with some cold water and broth from the gumbo until it formed a creamy thin paste, then added that to the dish to help it thicken a little. (It helped some.)

Aside from needing a little more salt, I think this turned out pretty delicious! The okra is quite tasty, though the broth is a bit slimy as a result. Next time, I think I will try to de-slime it a bit using one of the techniques from Wikipedia. It'll be a while before I make this again, though, considering this batch made so much I feel the need to freeze at least half for future use.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Public Service Announcement

I have a wish for the world. It's a small wish - a simple wish. I wish that consumers would realize that not only is leaving perishable food items at the grocery store out in a non-refrigerated area, or sticking fresh produce in the freezer tantamount to stealing, but it is also laughing in the face of starving people in their community.

When you pick up a bag of fresh spinach, then decide to get the bag of frozen spinach instead and then leave the fresh spinach in the freezer to freeze, we employees have to throw that fresh spinach away. In the garbage. You may as well have stuck the fresh spinach in your bag and stolen it outright. If you had handed to an employee instead and said, "I'm sorry, I changed my mind and I no longer want this spinach," it could have been put back on the proper shelf and sold to someone who did want it. Or, if it didn't sell in the right amount of time, it would have been donated to this wonderful organization called Food Gatherers.

To quote their website: Food Gatherers exists to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes in our community by: reducing food waste through the rescue and distribution of food; coordinating with other hunger relief providers; educating the public about hunger; and developing new food resources.

But when you, the consumer, destroy food by freezing it or allowing it to thaw (I regularly find frozen fish hiding on the grocery shelves which must be thrown away immediately), you are robbing these people of the chance to help  the people of our community who maybe aren't as fortunate as you. And that's purely selfish.

When you place an item in your cart, you are not under contract to buy that item. You are allowed to change your mind. You are more than welcome to take an item out of your cart and hand it to a store employee - the cashier at check-out, for example - and tell them that you have changed your mind and no longer want to buy the item. You do not need to hide the item behind other items on the shelves when no one is looking. We are not going to force you to buy the item whether you like it or not.

Things I routinely find discarded on the grocery shelves that could have been saved, but instead were thrown in the trash because of some irresponsible consumer: raw chicken, eggs, milk, fish. I find fresh produce in the freezer on a daily basis - endives, strawberries, salad, the list goes on - that freezes, rendering the food rotten in many cases (fresh plants do not enjoy being frozen - they shrivel) and not only unsellable, but inedible. Hundreds of dollars worth of perfectly good food goes into the garbage dumpster every day because of someone's laziness.

I don't think it's too much to ask every consumer to take just a few seconds of responsibility and turn over your unwanted food items to a store employee. You are not only saving the store money by not stealing from them, but you are helping your hungry neighbors. I actually prefer the customers who outright steal from us. At least then I know that the food is going to good use rather than a landfill.

A great book on the subject of wasted food is American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) by Jonathan Bloom, who also runs a blog called Wasted Food. Last year, while I was still living in California, I also read a fantastic article entitled Food waste remains persistent problem at farms, grocery stores and restaurants. I happen to work for a grocery store that does donate its "spoileds," but only the ones that haven't gone bad on their own (meat that's turning, for example) or been ruined by neglectful, lazy customers who can't be bothered to take the extra three seconds at check-out to hand their unwanted perishable goods to the cashier.

How you can help: 

1) Don't do it! Don't leave perishable items in inappropriate places. Either hand the item to an employee or, if you're feeling really adventurous, put it back where you found it yourself.

2) Now I know this is asking a lot, but if you see someone place something in the freezer that doesn't belong there, pick it up and place it on the shelf above the freezer so it doesn't freeze. No, that item is not your responsibility, it's the responsibility of the ass-hat who put it there, but think of it as a public service and pat yourself on the back for the good deed you've just done by rescuing that food from the jaws of death.

3) If you find frozen items thawing on the shelf, it's probably too late for them, so all you can really do is notify a store employee and they will throw it in the trash for you. If it does seem to still be frozen solid, it might have a chance, so still notify an employee and they can take care of it as they see fit. (Though honestly, it will still probably be thrown in the trash no matter what. Frozen items found outside of the freezer are thrown away as a matter of policy because we never know how long it has been there or if it has gone bad.)

When I worked at a previous grocery store, I often found cans of vegetables hidden in the freezer case, though that doesn't seem to be a problem at this store. I also once found a 2 liter bottle of Diet Coke that had frozen solid and separated out. The manager told me to put it back on the shelf because it would thaw, but really, frozen pop should be spoiled and thrown away. It changes the taste of the beverage because pop isn't really meant to be frozen.

So there you have it, my small attempt at educating the public and asking everyone to be a little more responsible with their grocery shopping. If you want to steal from the company by dumping our stuff in the trash, fine, I can't stop you, but I only ask that you think of the hungry family that could have eaten that spoiled item. How awful would you feel if you couldn't feed your children? And then how grateful when someone was kind enough to help you do so?