18 May 2011

Tortillas, tortillas

I've eaten a lot of tortillas in my life. It's hard to drive a mile in Oklahoma and not pass a Tex-Mex restaurant. You know the kind, where they bring you basket after basket of fried tortilla chips, little bowls of salsa and queso, and, at the good places, they bring you those tortilla warmers filled with soft, fluffy flour tortillas.

I know I'm not alone when I say that on more than one occasion I've eaten so many tortillas and queso that I wasn't even hungry by the time by enchiladas arrived. I have now stumbled onto something so fantastic and dangerous -- I've made them at home.

During a recent afternoon conversation with my friend Erin, she told me she'd planned on making tortillas that night for her family's dinner. I told her to let me know how it went and pass along the recipe. She said it was simple enough, so, today, while my boys napped and I chatted on the phone I made tortillas. I was shocked just how easy it was and excited just how delicious it was.

If you don't believe me, pull out the flour and shortening and get to work.

Flour Tortillas

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup shortening

1 cup hot water

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry cutter. Add hot water and mix with a wooden spoon. Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and work into a bowl. Let the dough rest about 15 minutes, then, cut the dough into 16 equal pieces (I use a bench scraper to cut the dough in half, and then the halves in half and so on). Roll each piece into a ball. Flour a work surface and use a rolling pin to roll the dough out into a thin round, roughly 6 inches in diameter. Set aside and repeat with remaining dough balls. Use a hot, dry skillet or griddle to cook until the tortilla puffs slightly and lightly browned spots appear underneath. Then flip and cook on the second side. Serve immediately or let cool on a cooling rack, wrap tightly in plastic once cooled and reheat for service later that day.

11 May 2011

Simple Roast Chicken

Taco night is one way to use roast chicken. I love to throw the bite-size pieces into soups, casseroles, stir fry, quesadillas or chicken salad.

My husband is constantly harping on me about cleaning out the fridge. He doesn't understand why I want to keep that quarter of a lemon with all the zest scraped clean, or the pork fat I trimmed off of the pork chops. Or the tortillas he's convinced have been in there since the Reagan administration.

Well, I may be slow, but I like to organize at my own pace. That is why it is a minor miracle I actually did some organizing around here. I'm pretty excited to share that I have started a recipe index for this site. (Update, May 18, 2011) The index seems to have been lost during a recent Blogger problem. I'm working to restore it.

Now, one with a new recipe.

Unless you cook for a houseful of vegetarians, knowing how to roast a whole chicken is right up there with spaghetti, scrambled eggs and pancakes. That is, if you cook at all, you should know how to cook these things.

I suppose the whole bird can be somewhat intimidating, what with the neck, liver and heart stuffed inside, reminding me of the random things my 2-year-old stuffs into the tightest cracks and crevasses. But all you really need to know is this: Pick up a decent meat thermometer, and you can roast the perfect chicken every time. It really is that simple.

Let the chicken rest before carving.

When I roast a chicken, I usually use one breast for that day's dinner. Then, once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the remaining meat and tear it into bite-size pieces.

Portion the meat into freezer bags. I like to do about a cup to a cup and a half per bag. That seems to be a good amount for a soup or casserole to serve about four people. The bags thaw quickly under running water or can be placed directly into soups to thaw.

Sure you'll read plenty of recipes about stuffing the bird with herbs, lemons and the like. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but just know, all you really need is some salt, pepper, olive oil or butter. I'm a big fan of doing anything that makes the weeknight dinner easier, and that's where the roast chicken shines. I recently bought a chicken that was a little over seven pounds and yielded meat for six meals for my family. Not bad considering that conventional birds start at about a buck a pound.

I roast a bird (or two), we'll eat it for dinner that night. Then, I'll remove all the remaining meat, tear it into bite-size pieces and freeze, portioned to be the perfect addition to soups, casseroles and noodles.

So, mastering this recipe is a must-do. You can present a handsome whole bird for a big Sunday dinner or parcel out leftovers for several nights. The best part is that the same technique translates to the tiny game hens or a 20-pound holiday turkey.

Simple Roast Chicken

1 whole chicken
Handful of kosher salt
Lots of black pepper
A few tablespoons of olive oil or melted butter

Tools: meat thermometer, kitchen twine, aluminum foil, rimmed baking sheet or baking dish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside. Cut a string of kitchen twine about 15 inches long and set aside. In a small bowl combine salt and pepper (and any other seasonings you like). In another small bowl pour oil or melted butter.

Place the chicken on the baking sheet, breast-side up. Working from the leg-end of the chicken, remove the neck and giblets from the cavity. Set those aside for another use or discard. Take each wing, one at a time, and extend it, then give it a little twist inward and tuck the lowest portion of each wing behind the chicken. It sounds silly, but it should look like someone basking in the sun with arms folding up behind their head.

Next, working with you hands, rub the oil and seasonings all over the bird, including in the cavity, and, if you like, between the skin and meat. Then, using the twine, tie the legs together. Insert your meat thermometer into the thigh, making sure the tip is well-surrounded by meat and not touch a bone (which heats more quickly than muscle tissue). Then place the chicken in the oven. Roast until the thermometer reads about 155 to 157 degrees (about an hour for that seven-pound bird). Remove from the oven and tent with foil. Let rest about 15 minutes. The temperature will continue to rise and must reach 160 degrees for food safety, when the juices should also be clear.

06 May 2011

Budgeting for food

Being charged with a family's food budget may be one of the biggest jobs of running a household. We can wear dirty socks if we must; a bath will be given, no matter when the last time it was scrubbed, and the floors will indeed still make perfect paths for our feet even when dotted with dust bunnies and toast crumbs.

But without those key items in our pantry, we simply cannot cook. For one month I gave it my best shot to spend as little as possible on groceries. I aimed for a $25-a-week budget and missed the mark on all but the first week. What I discovered was that food isn't cheap, and the whole thing just ticked me off. A stop in the dairy aisle alone could easily account for $25 worth of groceries.

I firmly believe I can help cut costs by changing the way I cook and shop, but I'm not willing to do it at the expense of my family's well-being. And that's where I drew the line. Next time I see someone stacking 20 boxes $2 pizzas in their grocery cart, I'm not going to assume they can't cook. Perhaps they can't, but, what I now know is that even though a homemade pizza is more cost effective than the traditional carry-out variety, it isn't cheap to stock a pantry with flour, yeast, cheeses, sauce, meats and veggies.

My revised goal, and one I hope can be more long-term is to spend $75 or less a week. Our family only eats a meal from a restaurant once a week, if at all, and we eat very few prepackaged, processed foods. I think this is doable and still quite frugal when I consider that even if my family ate some of the cheapest fast food for nearly every meal, we'd likely spend more than that in a week.

If you're interested in learning more about building a pantry for this type of cooking, here are a few tips. And I'd love to hear some of yours!
  • If you have a minimally-stocked pantry, try to pick up one or two items a week to add to it. For example, buy a 10-pound bag of flour one week and a few pounds of pasta. You likely won't burn through all of those items in one week, so you will gradually build your stock without spending $100 alone on one trip for pantry basics.
  • Teach yourself to turn to your pantry first instead of cookbooks. It's so frustrating to pick out a recipe only to learn that you are fresh out of the main ingredient. Open the pantry and pick an item to start with. Lots of eggs? Make a scramble, a quiche, egg salad. Pasta a plenty? Toss it into a tomato-based soup, make it a casserole, serve it up with red sauce, toss with mayo and tuna for a quick salad, make a pasta bar for a family full of picky eaters.
  • Be realistic when you shop. You probably have less time than you think to prepare meals, so take shortcuts when you can. If the pre-sliced mushrooms mean the difference of getting dinner on the table without a meltdown or not, and your budget can handle the increased cost, do it. There's no medal of honor out there for slicing all of your own veggies.
  • At the same time, be smart, though. If you buy whole carrots instead of the baby carrots, you could easily shred them, cut them into sticks, slice them for stir-fries, etc. Take your shortcuts elsewhere such as skip the step of peeling carrots and just give them a rinse.
  • Unlike Rachel Ray, my food doesn't come home from the grocery store prepped. But I do find that taking a few minutes to prep things at home when I'm not pressed against the clock for a meal, saves me time later. I shred an entire 2-pound block of cheese and store in an airtight container. I rinse and dry salad greens and store them in an airtight container lined with paper towels. I portion out raw meats and freeze individually, so I'm not forced to use an entire package of pork chops at once.
  • If you really get the hang of this prep business and do much baking, you can easily make up your own mixes of dry ingredients for items such as muffins, quick breads, pancakes, etc. This can save some time and make the task of baking less daunting. I always do this if I have overnight guests or early-morning entertaining.