Friday, July 18, 2014

Let's Get Poppin'!

There are some things that I don't think much about when I make them, because it's just so routine to me.  And every once in a while, someone is so impressed by one of those things that I have to stop and reevaluate the situation.  "Hold up...what did I just do?  Is it really that cool?  Why would that be?"

Stove-popped popcorn is one of those things.  It's just how I make popcorn.  But anytime I do it when someone else is over, they say something like, "Wow!  You pop your own?" or "My grandma used to make popcorn on the stove, and nothing else tastes as good.  Wish I could do that!".

I'm pretty sure that every time this happens, I get one of those looks on my face.  One eyebrow up, scrunchy nose, trying to hold back a sassy comment and just nod and try to look like I'm focusing on the insanely difficult task that it must be.

But here's the's not hard.  It is absolutely delicious, but not difficult at all.  It seems to be almost a lost art.  And one worthy of bringing back into our repertoire.

Popping your own popcorn on the stove doesn't take much longer than throwing the bag in the microwave, and you avoid all the added junk, plus the highly-debated microwaves themselves.  Yes, you do have to be attentive to it, but do you really go and do something else when you throw a bag in the microwave, or do you stand there listening to it to make sure you catch that point where most of the kernels have popped and yet the popcorn has not started down that road to making your whole house smell like burning?

Perhaps it's a control freak thing.  Popping your own gives you a lot of control.  You control the type of popcorn you use.  Yellow, red, blue, markets have some great home-grown varieties these days, and you'd be surprised at how the differ in flavor.  You control what you pop it in.  I like coconut oil (kind of gives it that movie theater popcorn sense), but you can use grapeseed oil, your favorite nut oil, or any other that you prefer.  I'm not saying this would be good for you, but bacon fat popped popcorn sounds pretty intriguing.  You also control how much you make, and the toppings you put on it.  I recently popped a huge grocery bag full of popcorn that we took to a movie in the park event.  My daughter was having a sleepover so we had extra friends with us, and all the kids were able to snack on the popcorn without any problems.

Did I mention that it's not hard?

Here's what you do:  Get a large pot with a lid.  If you have one with a clear lid, it can be fun to watch the popping, but not necessary.

Pour or scoop in your oil, about 2 Tablespoons of it.  I really like to use coconut oil, but like I said, the fat is up to you.  Just make sure that it can take the heat...butter would be a tough one here to keep from scorching.

Pour in a quarter to a half cup of popcorn kernels.  You want a single layer of kernels on the bottom of your pot.  It kind of depends on how big your pot is, although if it starts popping over, you can always carefully pour a little of the top pops out into a bowl and keep popping.  Speaking from experience.

Put the lid on the pan, but slightly ajar, so steam can escape a bit.  Put it on medium high to high heat, and agitate it every once in a while, just to keep the kernels from burning.  The heat is the only thing even remotely tough about this process, because you want it high, but not burning, and it's different for every stove.  Find your perfect spot.

Kernels should start popping after a minute or two.  Keep an eye on things, making sure it doesn't pop over and, much like with microwave popcorn, taking it off the heat when you hear the popping stopping.  Pour it into a bowl to stop the cooking, and be careful of late-bloomers that will pop and jump out of the pot.

Then top with some melted butter and/or the toppings of your choice.  The kids and I found this popcorn seasoning at a local farm, and we are currently addicted to it!  It has an indescribably complex flavor, made with things like smoked paprika, lavender, and rosemary.  Slightly sweet, but savory as well, and just made to go on freshly popped popcorn.  Try your own mix of spices, or just a sprinkling of salt.

See?  Not hard.  Doesn't take long.  And I didn't mention this before, but MUCH cheaper than buying even the cheapest microwave popcorn. Even with the "fancy" blue popcorn I got from the farmer's market and a sprinkling of the "gourmet" popcorn seasoning, my cost per large batch (about 2 microwave bags' worth) is right around 50 cents.

Control.  Health. Savings.  Retro-coolness.  Doesn't get much better than that!  Give popping you own popcorn a try...I'll bet you'll be hooked!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Maple Coconut Oat Cookies

I'm sure I've mentioned before about how a lot of my childhood foods came out of cans and boxes, so I won't bore you with that again.  What I will say, is that it becomes problematic for me when it comes to comfort foods.

Typically, comfort foods are foods that we remember from our childhood, things that we had from a very early age.  But when it comes to the food that I feed my family, I prefer to avoid and excess of processed food, which is different than how I grew up eating.  I think it's a pretty common thing for people of my generation.  After all, our parents grew up in a time where supermarkets and fast food restaurants were new, and convenience food was the wave of the future, then they did what they knew.  Our generation seems to be the one taking health issues like skyrocketing cancer rates and obesity head on.  I don't know, just a theory.

And one that doesn't even matter in this case, because there are some things that I make an exception to once in a blue moon, and the cookies I'm about to tell you about were one of those.  Maypo Coconut Cookies.  The original recipe calls for your typical cookie-making ingredients, flour, eggs, sugar...but one of the key ingredients is a bizarre breakfast-in-a-box called Maypo.  It's basically a maple-flavored half-ground oatmeal.

Here's a look at the ingredients in Maypo.  All 16 of them.  Yikes.

But like I said, as an exception, I would make these cookies once or twice a year, and figure that that cup of Maypo divided into each batch of cookies probably wasn't going to do much harm...although the ingredient list does put me on edge a bit.

Here's the problem: my stores no longer carry Maypo.  I won't say that no store does, and I've found it on Amazon, sold by the crate.  I have this one box, tucked away in my cupboard for extreme emergencies...and, judging by the fact that the the "best by" date on this box is a day off from the day my 6-year-old was BORN, more than ready to be tossed out.

Double yikes.

A huge difference between me then and me now, other than the appreciation for silence and a good gin drink, is that I'm much more confident in my skills in the kitchen.  So I now realize that having no Maypo is a blessing, not a curse.  It's the push I needed to make these cookies better for my family, and easier to toss together with things I typically have in the house.

I mean, what is Maypo, really?  Once you take away the additives?  Maple oatmeal.  Not rocket science.

So, I give you Maple Coconut Oat Cookies!

Take out a stick of butter to soften.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Mix the softened butter, a quarter cup of dark brown sugar, and a half cup of sugar in a mixing bowl.

Then add one egg and a quarter cup of real maple syrup, and mix that in.

Next, add 1 cup flour, and 1 teaspoon each of baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Mix until the ingredients are just moistened.

Add in 1 cup each of rolled oats and shredded coconut.  You can go with sweetened or unsweetened.  I went with sweetened this time.  Cookies are supposed to be sweet, right?  Mix that in.

Put some parchment down on baking sheets and scoop rounded spoonfuls of the dough onto the parchment, leaving plenty of room in between.  These cookies like to spread a lot!

Bake at 350 for about 15 minutes, until the edges are starting to turn golden brown.  Let them cool slightly on the trays before using a thin spatula to remove them to a cooling rack or serving plate.

The cookies are very crispy once they cool, and the oatmeal gives them a nice chew.  The maple and coconut are a fantastic combination of flavors, and the richness of the butter and dark brown sugar rounds it out to make a great little treat.

Mmmmmmm...tastes like childhood!  And if you were keeping count, these cookies use 5 less ingredients than the Maypo originally used to make them.  Not too shabby.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Twist on Front Porch Gourmet's Rosemary Lavender Yeast Rolls

When Melissa from Front Porch Gourmet asked if anyone was up to do a little recipe swapping, I jumped at the opportunity!  She is one of those people that I can tell is as infatuated with food as I am, and she's always got yummy vittles up on her blog.  The one that caught my eye and my heart...and my stomach, and probably my stomach's heart too...was her recipe for Rosemary Lavender Yeast Rolls.  Yes, please!

Now, the fun thing about swapping recipes is that you get to put your own little twist on them, whether it's changing up the recipe, the presentation, and so on.  This time, I got literal with the twisting.  This herby number seemed perfect to me to make into a pretzel!

Homemade pretzels are just about the best thing since...well, sliced bread. I actually like them a lot better than sliced bread.  Unless it's a good rye bread.  Ooh, or a sweet bread...

But I digress.  Back to the pretzels!

Melissa used a bread maker to mix her dough, but while I'm pretty sure I own a bread maker, I couldn't tell you where it might be right now...haven't used or seen it in ages.  What I do have, however, is my handy dandy, trusty not rusty Kitchen-Aid stand mixer.  So, I got the dough hook ready and set to work.

First, I measured out 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast, which is the same as one packet.  Then I put that in the mixer bowl along with a half cup of warm water and a quick light sprinkling of sugar (half a teaspoon or so), to give those little yeast organisms some fuel.  The water temp is pretty important when you're working with yeast.  Too hot, and you'll kill it.  Too cold, and you won't wake it up.  My thermometer-free trick is simple science.  The best temp for yeast is right around 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Normal body temp is around 98.6 degrees.  So, if I run the water and it feels cool, I know that it is probably below 98 degrees.  If it feels warm to my touch, but tolerable and not at all scalding, I know I'm in the right range for yeast.

After combining the yeast and water and that touch of sugar, I let it sit for 10 minutes, until it got nice and bubbled up.  Then I moved it to the mixer stand, set my dough hook in place, and got to work.  As I slowly ran it on low, I added in 3 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of soured milk (regular milk with a splash of white vinegar), 4 tablespoons of sugar, one egg, a teaspoon of salt, some freshly chopped rosemary and lavender flowers from my garden, and the zest of a lemon.  Then I cranked up the speed a bit to let it knead the dough for me for about 5 minutes or so.

I skipped out on the butter in Melissa's recipe here in order to keep the dough a little more of a pretzel dough consistency, and also because I like slathering my pretzels in butter when they're done baking...a la Auntie Anne's.

After the kneading, I transferred the dough ball to a greased bowl, covered it with a tea towel, and left it to rise in my warm kitchen for an hour.

After the hour, I put on a kettle of water to boil (yes, for this recipe, you'll see!), preheated the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit and then separated the dough into 8 equal (well, close to equal) balls.

I also grabbed a baking sheet and covered it with parchment, then gave the parchment a quick spray of coconut oil.

Once the water came to a boil, I took a shallow dish and combined 2 tablespoons of baking soda with a cup of the boiling water.  This soda bath is what gives pretzels that nice browned crust.

I took each ball of dough and rolled it out into a long snake.

Then I made the snakes into pretzels.  It's easier than most people think.  Just make a big "U" shape...

Then grab the ends and give them a couple of twists...

Then bring the ends back down to the bottom of the "U".  Tah dah!  Pretzel!

After the pretzels are shaped, I submerged them in the baking soda bath for 2 minutes each, spooning the liquid over the pretzels as I went.  You can do a few at a time, but make sure they have their own room in the dish, so that they don't touch each other.

After the 2 minutes, I moved them to the prepped baking sheet.  Then I repeated the whole process with the remaining pretzels.

I gave the lot a sprinkle with kosher salt.

Then I put them in the oven for 9 minutes.  Your oven temp may be a little different, but in the 8-10 minutes range should be good for browning them up and cooking them all the way through to a nice soft pretzel chew.

The smell of these pretzels...oh my my.  Heavenly.

And the taste?  Again, heavenly.  The lemon zest hits you first, followed quickly by the rosemary, and then chased with the lavender end notes.

Honestly, these smelled so intriguing that I totally forgot about slathering them with melted butter when they came out of the oven, and they don't need it at all.  The flavors stand on their own.  Fantastic!

Be sure to check out Melissa's original recipe on The Front Porch Gourmet!  Any dinner would feel special with those rolls.  And I'm already thinking the flavor combination would make for good bagels as well!  I'm so thankful for the opportunity to switch things up with another foodie blogger like this, and especially one with such great recipes to work with!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mint and Chocolate Blondies

Screw what botanists may say.  Mint is a weed.

I swear, it's taking over faster than I can keep up.  Right now, it's threatening my chard.  I need to arm my chard with swords and shields (and regular pulls of the mint).  The consistent rain mixed with gorgeous sun is great for all of the garden, but the mint has really been taking advantage lately.  So I've needed to find new way to get rid of...I mean, to use it.

Mint and chocolate were just made to go together, but for some reason, the thought of throwing mint into a brownie didn't really appeal to me. Not that I don't like mint brownies! I do, but usually the mint is done through extract, carrying through the brownie or in a frosting.  But then I started thing about a blondie.  The sweet, buttery base with bits of mint and chocolate chunks mixed through?  Yeah, that's the ticket!

So, grab a bunch of mint and slice the leaves finely.  Make sure not to use the stems here...even thicker veins in the leaves get tough and a bit woody in the blondies as the moisture seems out of them.  tiny bits, about a quarter to a half cup of them.  I currently have 6 different types of mint growing around my home, but the one I used in this recipe is, appropriately, chocolate mint.   The plant is special to me, because it was the first thing we ever bought from Amy's Organics, when we first met Amy at a local Earth Fair several years ago.

Heat your oven to 350.

Melt a stick (8 Tablespoons) of butter, then stir in a cup of dark brown sugar until it dissolves. Let it cool a bit, the add to that an egg and a cup of flour.

Mix in the mint and a half cup of chocolate bits.  You can chop your own, or use chocolate chips.  I would go with at last a semi-sweet (a 70% cocoa is perfect!), but a milk chocolate would be far too sweet in these.  You want the bitterness of the chocolate to counteract that sweet blondie base.

Then grease a square baking pan and pour the mix in.

Pop it in the oven for about 20 - 25 minutes, just until the center sets.  You still want gooeyness in there.

Look at those tiny mines of deliciosity!

Let it cool, if you can, and then cut into small squares to serve, about 16 of them.

*Disclaimer: These smell very very delicious.  It is extremely hard to wait to try them.  I lost that battle, and totally burned the s*** out of my mouth.  Fight the urge!

The best way to enjoy these?  Slightly warm, with vanilla bean ice cream melting down over them.  Think one of those restaurant cookie skillets with ice cream, only with a kick of mint!

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Slow-Cooker Blueberry Pulled Pork

It's almost blueberry season again!

Which means that I can finally stop clinging onto the last of my frozen blueberries, because in a couple of weeks, we'll be out there picking fresh berries to refill my freezer stock!

One of my favorite "out of the box" recipes for pork is a blueberry sauced pork tenderloin that I make once in a while.  It's savory and unexpected, but there are a couple of things that I don't like about it.  It takes a while to prepare, and pork tenderloin isn't always affordable.  Luckily, I figured out a way to get all that fabulous flavor in an affordable, easy crockpot dish!

You'll need a pork shoulder roast.  This is also, apparently, called a "Boston Butt", which makes my kids laugh to no end.  It's also one of my new favorite parks of the pig to eat, next to bacon, of course.  Pork shoulder is well-marbled, so if you cook it right, it gets super tender, and it's full of flavor.  It's also usually one of the less-pricey cuts of pork.  I used a boneless, but you could go with bone-in, just remove the bone before shredding the meat.

Chop 2 large onions into thin strips.

Place them in the bottom of your slow cooker.  Add a couple pats for butter on top.

Remove any twine or wrapping, and rub your pork shoulder with salt and pepper, then place it fat-side up on top of the onions in your slow cooker.

Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of sugar over the top of the pork.

Now, here comes the part where you yell at me for using not-cheap ingredients in a dish that I have already called affordable.  However, you should know that I always believe that the quality of your ingredients has a huge effect on the outcome of your dish, and you're not using much of these two ingredients, so you can use them in many, many other delicious dishes.  You can also use lower-priced substitutes, but it will change the flavors a bit.  Calm down!

Take just shy of a half cup of Port.  I heard it said once that port is the grape jelly of adult alcohol, and I never quite got that out of my head.  It's full flavored and delicious.  You could sub in a sweet red wine here, if you don't want to do Port.  But Port, well, it's goooooood.  Pour it over your pork.  Port pork, Porty pork.  Tee hee,

Then take 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and do the same.  I have a fantastic blueberry balsamic that takes it to another level.  Well, I should say, I HAD that blueberry balsamic.  We polished the last of it off with this recipe.  If you like the flavored balsamics, other nice options with this would be black current or possibly even fig.  Anything sweet and fruity should work.

If you feel like tossing the crock pot contents around to mix them a bit, go ahead.  They should melt together pretty well even without it, but it can't hurt.

Take a healthy cup or so of blueberries, fresh or frozen, and dump those over the top.

Place the lid on your slow cooker and set to cook for 8 hours on low.  Typically, with crock pot recipes, instead of cooking on low for 8 hours, you can cook on high for 4, but if you have the time, I'd really go for the slow and low method with pork shoulder.  It melts down all that fat without drying out the meat on top.

The smell of this cooking is divine.  By the time it's cooked, you'll be more than ready to tear into it like a ravenous wildebeest.

When the cook time is up, shred the meat in the cooker with two forks or tongs and a knife.  Mix it in with the sauce in the bottom.

This time, I made mini sliders with the meat, being sure  to get some onions and berries in the mix as I dished it into the buns.

You could also make a great blueberry carnitas by wrapping it in corn tortillas with a little salsa and some nice cheese, like cotija.

Or just serve it on it's own with veggies on the side.  Maybe even use it in a salad.  It's pretty versatile.  If you go for a spicier dish, sprinkle some red pepper flakes in with the port and balsamic to kick it up a bit.

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