Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Sticky Situation: Homemade Caramel Sauce

The snow started to really fly today - all day - here in Tijeras, and that can only lead to one thing: Me in the kitchen, trying something new. (The only time I'm not cold from September to March is when I'm in the kitchen.)

Today, I had my sights set on trying something that I'd been salivating over for more than three weeks: Apples dipped in caramel. Now, the rest of the American world might have just bought some prepared sauce, but after the research I'd done, it just didn't look that hard. Nor would it cost as much as the jarred sauce.

Besides, it's fun to try new things!

I read recipes and tips. I bought the missing ingredient (in this case, all I was lacking was heavy cream). I read about a hundred different ways to go about it. And I narrowed it down to two. Two different methods and recipes that appeared everywhere on the web. Unlike so many of the other recipes that I track down and meld two, three or four into one, these two were apparently the culmination of either the 1) "Easy" method or, 2) "The traditional" method. There were hundreds of identical recipes for each, but there was no "blend" like I normally see, so in my mind there were only two ways to go about it: Easy, or Traditional.

For reasons that elude me now, I decide to go the traditional route.

Mistake. BIG mistake.

The recipe that I used first is here, but make no mistake - the author of that post is NOT at fault in the outcome of my creation; I am. It turns out that candy making, which this essentially is, is an art. The recipe advised that I should use a candy thermometer (which, ironically, I actually had because of a previous craft project including wax and candles, but I digress), and I did, but it still didn't work out well. Let me explain.

The "traditional" method of making caramel sauce is to take your standard granulated sugar and "melt" it into liquid, then lightly brown it to "carmellize" it and add flavor. Sounds easy enough, right? No, not so much. I had liquid coming in at the edge of my pan, and I followed the instructions and tried to whisk all the sugar together, but all I had was a bunch of carmellized clumps of sugar, and NO liquid. And it was carmellizing FAST! My goal temperature (for the melted liquid sugar) was 350°F, and I hit it way before I had liquid sugar. The color looked good, but I had a pan full of sugar clumps (plus a TON of them stuck to the side of the pan that would have taken a culinary-grade chisel to get off). [I really wish I'd taken pictures!]

Being a cook by nature (not a chef, certainly not a candy master), my first thought was "add some liquid to dissolve," so I did, by way of the butter. This was NOT a good solution - no clumps disappeared AND now I had oil floating on top of them.

At this point I must have been making noises in the kitchen. My husband called in, "Do you need some help?"

"No," I replied, "I need a miracle." This was a total failure, without doubt, unequivocably.

Looking over my whisking shoulder, we went over the possibilities as I realized that this particular culinary event was going to be a total failure.

(Again, if you could see it, you would really understand.) I had a bowl full of little brown bits of sugar and a ton of butter floating on top.

After little debate, we decided to try the microwave. 3 minutes at level 1 (10% of full microwave power).  I was amazed that many of the clumps had disappeared and become syrup. Success looked to be at hand!

Several successive minutes at same low power level produced similar results, until it was ready to put back into the pan, where I whisked it merciously to get the butter to actually incorporate and then added the heavy cream and salt.

The result: Something like a Heath bar. Dark, heavy caramel, with just a hint of burnt. I was not impressed.

Of course, this was all on me: too high a heat, altitude changes things like this, etc., etc.

I'll revisit this recipe again another day.

After a boiling of the pan ( the ONLY way to get the burnt-on sugar off), I decided to try the alternate - even though it felt like a cheat. Here's what I finally did (cuz it worked!):

EASY Salted Caramel Sauce Recipe:

Over Medium-Low heat, in saucepan, combine, whisking until combined:

  • 1/2 Stick UNSalted Butter, mostly melted (Or, melt first, turn off heat, then add other ingredients, whisk and turn the heat back on - at least, that's what I did)
  • 1 tsp. Good Sea Salt (shop here)
  • 1 Cup Light Brown Sugar (use whatever brown sugar you have on hand - the darker the sugar, the darker the final result; tastes about the same - I had regular Brown Sugar; flavor was awesome, but I wish the color had been lighter so my mind would have equated it more to my memory of it.)
  • 1/2 Cup Heavy Cream (aka, Whipping Cream; don't take regular milk and turn it into this - it's not the same; fresh cream milk - if you own a cow - would, however, work perfectly)

Whisk until well combined, Then (& only then), turn the heat to high, bring to boil, then immediately lower the heat to simmer and let simmer for EXACTLY 6 minutes, stirring / or whisking about once every minute or two.

After 6 minutes of simmering, remove from heat, add 1/8th to 1/4 tsp. Real Vanilla (careful - it will bubble up!), stir in and then just wait for it to cool and enjoy.

If you don't have the time to fail, just go with the "easy" version - no one will be disappointed and there's no room for failure. In the future I WILL try the "traditional" version again - if not for caramel sauce, then just to know how to make a decent candy base in general. Besides, what am I going to do with this candy thermometer if I don't?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

This Old Dog Learns a New Trick: The Superior Pot Roast

We love roasts. Pork roasts, beef roasts, weenie roasts, celebrity roasts - we love them all. My personal favorite is the old-fashioned Beef Pot Roast. It's sleeting outside and since Winter looks like she's just around the corner, it seemed like the perfect night for a fork-tender, melt in your mouth Pot Roast.

Like most cooks, I've been making Pot Roasts for years, never varying from the standard "water, flour, veggies, seasonings, all dumped in the crock pot" method. And I've always had good results. But one day, I was faced with a non-standard cut of meat and went in search of the proper way to cook it. And boy oh boy, did I come up with a total winner.

The Basic Method:

  • Take your cut of meat and place it in a hot, dry pan (cast-iron is ideal, if you have one), giving it a quick sear on all sides. (Don't skip this step! Seriously, it makes all the difference.)
  • Place 4 beef bouillon cubes in the bottom of your crock pot. Place the browned meat on top of the cubes like they were little trivets.
  • Cook on Low in crock pot for 6-8 hours. Serve & enjoy!

That's right - 3 steps & 2 ingredients. Does it get any easier than that?

But what about the seasonings? The vegetables? The LIQUID???

I know, I know - but the first time I made this I wanted some Au Jus for French Dip Sandwiches, and I didn't want to taint the juice with any additional flavors. And my oh my, was I glad I did it that way.

Tonight, I complicated the recipe a bit, but it turned out to be THE BEST POT ROAST EVER (yes, EVER - I didn't know that the meat could have so much flavor without any of the added liquids or my standard Worchestershire sauce or anything else - not even salt or pepper!), so I'll share what I actually did.

The Best Pot Roast You'll Ever Eat - Promise!
  • Take one roast (I used a standard "Pot Roast" but tonight, but you can use whatever hunk of meat you have.
  • Heat a large skillet (cast-iron is best, if you've got one) over medium-high heat.
  • Using tongs or a meat fork or whatever you have, give each side of the meat a quick sear - you'll know it's enough when the meat gets a little brown and kind of shiny. Like this:

  • Make 3 or 4 little slits on the least fatty side of the roast (we'll call it the "top") and slide a small, peeled whole clove of garlic into each slit. (This turned out to be one of the major flavor success factors - try it, you'll never skip this step after you do; use two smallish cloves per pound of meat - try and get them near the center. If your roast is thicker, feel free to put some into the sides.)
  • Place 4 Beef Bouillon cubes in the bottom of your crock pot like little trivets to hold up the meat. (If you're trying to reduce your sodium intake, look for sodium-free bouillon cubes.)
  • Place your meat on top of the bouillon cubes, set crock pot on low, and set a timer for 4 hours.
  • What if you don't have a crock pot? Just use any deep, oven-safe cooking vessel (a Dutch Oven is perfect for this!) and know that the average crock pot temperature on low is 200°F and on high is 300°F.
Now you've got a dirty pan. What to do, what to do? I know - we'll deglaze it!
  • Reheat your pan over medium-high heat.
  • Add a small amount of liquid (about 1/4 cup) to the hot pan. (I used sweet white wine, but you can use ANY wine, some liquid broth or even just water).
  • Use a pan-appropriate utensil to scrape up the brown bits and basically scrape the leftover meat bits from the bottom of the pan.
  • Pour from pan and set aside - we'll add it to the crock pot later (yes, LATER).

Meanwhile, for your veggies...
What, you mean we're not going to just toss them into the crock pot with the meat? Nope, not if you want a truly flavorful roast. Today we're going to go the extra mile and make this dish truly special.
Here's how:
  • Take that "still-dirty" pan and add 1 Tbl. Water, 1 tsp. Worchestershire and 1 Tbl. Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
  • Add whatever vegetables you like with your roast. I used 2 whole baking potatoes, washed, skin-on rough chopped; 3 large carrots, cleaned and rough chopped; 1 stalk of celery, washed and cut into about 3 pieces. (I also used 1 whole yellow onion, peeled and cut into about 1" wedges (like quartered, but smaller quarters), but if you like onions, don't add them to the pan yet.)
  • Sprinkle with 1/8 tsp. Beef Bouillon Granules, 1/4 tsp. Harley's Seasoned Salt (Never tried Harley's? You should - it's addicting.), and just a bit of fresh-ground Black Pepper and some good quality Sea Salt (here's a place that sells ONLY 100% natural salts, in case you need a source - spoiler alert: It's me!).
  • Give it a quick "toss" (I personally stir it, because otherwise it ends up all over the kitchen), and add more Olive Oil, if it seems like it needs it.
  • Put over low heat with some kind of cover for about 15 minutes.
  • Remove from heat, add the Onions mentioned previously, stir and place in a cold oven, uncovered. (You can transfer to an oven-save vessel if your pan has a plastic handle or is otherwise not oven-safe.) Set oven for 350° F and let cook for 1 hour, stirring a time or two.

When your veggies have been in the oven for an hour, or at the 4 hour mark on the crock pot if that hasn't happened yet, add the roasted veggies to the crock pot. Try to maneuver everything so that the root veggies are on the bottom, then the meat, most of the onions on the top. (It doesn't have to be perfect.) Also add the liquid you set aside from the pan de-glazing.

What if you still don't have enough liquid? How much IS enough?
The perfect amount of liquid in your crock pot, assuming that most of the veggies are on the bottom and the meat is on top, is enough so that the liquid line - now that the meat is mostly cooked and it's given up all it's going to contribute - about halfway up the hunk of meat. You don't want it fully submerged (that's called stewing, and it leaches the flavor from the meat), but you don't want it out of the liquid entirely.
Tonight, I do NOT have enough liquid, so I'm adding some restaurant-quality Au Jus mix & water to bring the liquid level up to midway up the side of meat.

Continue to cook on low for 2-4 hours, or until you're ready to eat.

I'm watching my carbs, so all I had was the meat. I have NEVER had meat with so much flavor. THIS IS THE WAY TO DO IT - I'm convinced!

Try it and you'll be convinced too.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Is it Chile in Here, or is it Just Me?

Recently I've been "hatching" up a plan for Red Green. No, not the Canadian comedian you see on PBS if you're a night owl. This Red Green refers to the most common question heard here in New Mexico restaurants, "Will that be red or green?" What they are referring to is chile, specifically that which grows in a little town called Hatch. If they're grown anywhere else, they are called Anaheim peppers and even though the ones grown in Hatch are the same variety, they have a distinctive taste due to both the climate and soil in the town.

This time of year (August-October) every grocery store, Wal-Mart and produce stall in the state of New Mexico has a huge "raffle cage" out in front of them. There will be a line of customers waiting for their turn at the cage. What are they doing, you ask? They're waiting to get their Hatch chile roasted. See, they toss 40 lbs. of it into that cage, light up a propane burner underneath it and the employee who drew the short straw gets to turn, turn, turn that cage until the chile within is blistered and blackened. Why would you want to torture the chile like this? First, it brings out some of the sugars (think carmelization). And, second, it's the only way to peel the darn things.

The problem, for me (and thus the reason for this post), is that they only roast it for you when you buy a 40 lb. sack. And while we do eat a LOT of chile, we have no way to store 40 lbs. of it all at once. Not only that, but the flavor tends to change over the season, so if you have 40 lbs. of early chile and it's ridiculously hot (which happens far too often), you're stuck with it. But if you wait, they can run out (which also happens far too often). My solution was simple: Buy a pound or two every couple of weeks - and roast it myself.

Chile roasting is supposed to be easy: Take raw chile, apply dry heat until skin is blistered, drop into bag to steam the skin loose & freeze until ready to use. But there seems to be as many ways to roast chile at home as there are ways to consume it.

1. The stovetop in-a-pan method. In a dry pan, over medium-high heat, place chiles, heat & turn until skin is blistered and blackened. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: The chiles are not really flat, so getting heat to all of the skin just doesn't happen. This makes them really hard to peel.

2. The stovetop open-flame method. Hold a chile at a time over your gas burner until roasted. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: Incredibly time-consuming. Plus even though I use tongs, it's uncomfortably close to the flame AND I inevitably drop every single one several times.

3. The grill method. Place the chiles on a grill set to high-heat. Flip every so often until done. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: I'm not allowed to touch my husband's grill. Otherwise, this method would probably work very well.

4. The oven broiler method. Cover pan with foil. Place chiles on pan. Broil 7-10 minutes per side until roasted. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS METHOD: I had to have my husband point out where the broiler was on the oven. (I thought this drawer was specifically designed for storage - seriously, I've never used it on any stove, ever.)

So, here's how I'm doing it tonight...
5. The high-heat oven method. I am placing my Hatch chiles directly onto my top oven rack, setting the temperature to 450°F and counting on 20 minutes for the first side (which takes into account the oven warm-up time).
You may notice that the two chiles in the back are fairly red. The longer the chile ripens on the vine, the redder it gets until it's fully red (that's the difference between green & red chile). While the red is "sweeter,"it's also hotter. Also, note the aluminum foil lining the oven floor - these guys can and will drip while they roast.

After 20 minutes, they look like this - dry & starting to blister all over:

A quick flip (with tongs or mitts, guys - don't touch the chiles with bare hands after any heat is applied; the oils released will irritate your skin & Heaven forbid you forget and rub your eyes), and back in the hot oven again for 10 minutes...

Voila! Home-roasted Hatch chile.
If you aren't sure if they are roasted enough, feel free to give them a minute or two more; you can't really overcook chiles like this. Don't worry if large areas are seriously black; it's just the skin and it will come off when you're ready to peel them. Just make sure that about 75% of the skin looks like an Irish descendent who fell asleep on a Caribbean beach.

Now, while they're hot, drop them into a sturdy plastic bag...
A freezer-type zip bag works great. DON'T use a "sandwich" thickness bag, it could melt. However, a nice clean grocery store bag will also work, or a roaster bag, or even a brown paper bag / lunch sack or glass casserole dish with a lid if you worry about plastic chemicals getting into your food. The key here is to hold in the heat and the resulting steam; the steam helps pull the skins off and it's a critical step.

After 15-20 minutes of steaming, you're ready for storage. Depending on how soon you plan to use the roasted chiles you may want to store in the refrigerator or the freezer, freezing being the recommended method for storage past 2 weeks. Separate the individual chiles into zip bags, 1-3 chiles to a bag (depending on your use; we use a chile at a time, about 3 a week, so we put about 3 chiles into each bag - your use will vary). Label and freeze the individual "serving" bags and store for up to a year.

To use each bag, thaw by placing a bag in cool water for 20-30 minutes. Under cool, running water, use gloved hands* to pull the skin off each chile (it will just slide off), then pinch off the stem end and dispose of it, and if desired, split open the pod portion and rinse the seeds out (the seeds add extra heat and bitterness). [*If you do not wear gloves while handling roasted chiles, beware; you cannot rinse off the chile oil with water or soap. Using milk, lard or vinegar may help, but until you know how you will react and until you build up a tolerance, this stuff is seriously potent.]

How to use it when it's ready:
Chop or slice and add to, well, just about anything. Eggs, Mac & Cheese, Burgers, Spaghetti, Salads (Tuna, Pasta, Potato). Turn it into Jelly or Preserves. Add it to Bread! If a recipe calls for celery or bell peppers, consider substituting roasted chile and open up a world of flavor!

Now, if I could only figure out how to bottle that fresh roasted chile smell!