Thursday, December 31, 2009

Deconstructing Poultry

Did this young girl know that she was practicing for a close working relationship with fowl when her mother plopped a chicken carcass in front of her and said, "It's time you learned how to cut up a chicken!"? At least the innards, some of them, were in a nice paper package, conveniently stuffed up in the cavity to be pulled out, and the feathers were already plucked.

Until I officially learned how to cut up a chicken in Home Economics, it was all a big mystery to me. Bones and joints and skin just seemed like tough obstacles to work with to get some pieces loose. I'd plucked plenty of chickens as a kid, but cutting them up was always someone else's job.

What a revelation when I learned the pattern of aiming for certain joints to make the official chicken pieces! Now, I can't stand to buy a precut chicken because they just go through and whack them off in the general vicinity of the section, leaving little bone slivers here and there, and not cutting the breast in the the pieces I like best.

It was fun teaching my kids how to do this. It sort of reminded me when my dad walked me through changing a tire when I started to drive. Seeing this picture from years ago reminds me of something. I have one more child at home. A son. And I really think he needs to learn how to cut up a chicken.


My mother LOVED popcorn. If it were a horserace, I’m not sure if cookies or popcorn would have won, but in any case, popcorn held an exalted position in our snack cupboard.

Back in those days, when I was a kid, there was no such thing as microwave popcorn. There were no such things as microwaves, at least for the masses. She would just shake up a big bowl of popcorn in a cast iron skillet. Those were the days of the miracle grease, otherwise known as Crisco. We kids didn’t know anything about vegetable oil. If the grease needed to be liquid, we melted Crisco. Put the 9 inch cast iron on the coil, turn the heat on medium-high, toss a hunk of Crisco in and when it melted, drop a half dozen sentinel grains in. When they began to pop, scatter corn, yellow corn always, until it almost covered the bottom in a nubbly layer. Slap on a glass lid and shake and slide like mad until the popping stopped. Pour it into a bowl before the popped grains could scorch on the hot skillet. At this point my mom would always drop a couple pats of butter on top of the quickly cooling corn, which never quite melted. I’m sure if she had thought about it ahead of time, she would have melted a little bit of butter to drizzle over. But popping corn always seemed like such a spontaneous activity.

“Hey! Let’s have popcorn!” while turning the electric burner on with one hand and pulling the skillet out with the other. The popped corn was ready before the commercial was even over.

Popcorn’s holiday persona was popcorn balls. Mom would cook up a batch of honeyed syrup, pour it over the popcorn, and with buttered hands mash it into warm sticky baseball-sized treats. Back in the days when people didn’t worry about such things, we gave out popcorn balls for Halloween treats. However, as tasty as they were, I always had the feeling that after I took a bite and looked down, I might see one of my teeth keeping company with the other white kernels.

That’s where Cracker Jack comes in. All the yummy caramel flavor, but crispy. And a prize in every box! Do you remember any of those prizes? My favorites were the magnifying glass and the little book of jokes. The boxes were sort of skimpy though, and when we discovered Laura Scudders Big Gigantic Tub of Caramel Corn, we dropped Cracker Jack.

In the meantime, I got my mom an electric popcorn popper for Christmas one year, which pretty well eliminated the burnt kernels. And in an unusual turnabout, a machine was put into the hands of the people before its main purpose was created: microwave popcorn. Always perfectly oily and salty.
The air popper came along, but we didn’t prefer it, since corn cooked in grease is tastier and more tender. Plus, the salt sticks better. I did discover a great use for air popped corn though—making my own caramel corn. I had discovered the way to have crispy instead of sticky caramel corn is to bake it for an hour with the syrup coating it.

I had pretty well let popcorn out of my cupboard and my life. But when my daughter, Melinda started raving about loving it, I decided to give popcorn another chance. And it’s not bad! Sure, I’d rather have cookies, but a deadline is looming. And the name of that deadline is “New Year’s Resolutions.” Since my resolution is going to seriously curb my pleasure eating, I’m going to get creative on the popcorn. I got an air popper so the corn is virgin to begin with. This morning I drizzled olive oil, popcorn salt, and butter buds on a big bowl of the white fluffiness. While it lacked a certain something, at least it handled my snacking urge. For now.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Mystery Food

Mystery Food

Have you ever gone to take a bite out of a piece of food, expecting one thing and then been totally surprised because it is not, I mean WAY not what you’d expected? Well I have.
I can think of three examples right now, two that I personally experienced, and one in which I truly wish I’d been there to see the expressions on the tasters’ faces.
It was many years ago, perhaps 27, seven months before I married my husband. It was April, specifically, April 1st, otherwise known as “April Fool’s Day.” I’d only known my husband’s mother a few months, not long enough to know what a prankster she was, and not long enough to know that she NEVER made brownies. She made and decorated cakes, she made cookies and fudge and brittle, but never brownies. Little seemed amiss when I walked into their dining room and admired the blue china plate of brownies. They were nice generous squares liberally frosted with fudgy icing and topped with a sprinkle of chopped walnuts. The family, all either sitting around visiting or engaged in light tasks were congenial and attentive.
“Help yourself!”
“Have one; they’re there for anyone.”
“Gee, thanks!” I naively responded, and selected a nice fat one. It was surprisingly light. Probably sort of cake-like brownies, I thought, and took a big bite.
Boinnnggg! My teeth went down but not through, and then back up again. I saw the tell-tale blue color through the frosting. She’d cut up sponges and frosted them! It’s nice to be able to laugh at yourself so you can join in the common activity in cases like that.
Several years ago, my mom Mildred married Sam Criswell, my Pop, at a lovely ceremony at the Lemoore Senior Center. I’d been busy with the decorations, making and setting up the wedding cake, taking pictures, dressing up, helping my mom with her hair, and just generally being the daughter-of-the-bride, helping to make sure everything went smoothly. Finally, I was sitting with my husband in the chairs, trying to relax before the big moment. He was holding a nice tall insulated paper cup with a sipping cap on top. It was a coffee cup, and he was sipping out of it. Oh my goodness, how lovely a sip of hot coffee would taste! He looked at me kindly, lovingly, and whispered, “Would you like some?”
I nodded, mutely, and tipped it up. Waaaugh! It wasn’t hot coffee, it was cold beer! Aieeee!
My Pop, Sam, must restrict his sugar intake. But when it’s your birthday, you get a birthday cake. That is some sort of cosmic rule, and if you don’t get one, then something is seriously wrong in your quadrant of the universe and you should investigate. One birthday, when they were trying particularly hard to follow the sugar rules, Mom had a novel idea and made him a birthday cake with a twist. They packed up the “cake” with them that evening as they headed off to a friend’s house to have a Bluegrass Pickin’ Birthday Party.
The cake was gorgeous. It was round and covered with the fluffiest, pinkest frosting you ever saw and topped with birthday candles. They sang, of course, and then cut the cake, revealing a rich, chocolaty colored crumb inside. Though I wasn’t there, I heard that at least one was mightily surprised when, after a bite, the “chocolate cake” turned out to be meatloaf frosted in beet-juice tinged mashed potatoes!
A person could get tight over that. “I wanted cake, Darn it! You let my sweet tooth down!” Or she could say, “I wasn’t expecting this, but it’s sure fantastic meatloaf!”
The unexpected can be scary or disappointing. Turkey instead of Prime Rib. Your 16 year old nephew driving instead of Uncle John. Yes, it can be a shock getting a classical CD for Christmas, or a romance novel instead of a western for your birthday, but get over it! Try it! Be open and good-humored about what comes your way, and you are a long way towards a living a life of peace and contentment. And although I’ve never developed a taste for sponge brownies, after awhile, I did appreciate sharing that drink!

Monday, December 21, 2009


I've been experimenting with sausages.

Yeah, I know I can make the patties and then cook them or freeze them for later, but what's the whole fun of sausages if they aren't in those little casings?

I didn't want to invest in a nice new sausage stuffer, so I've been keeping an eye out in the thrift stores for something that would work. I already knew that my KitchenAid meat grinder, though it grinds meat and more, is a mess to try to run already ground meat through it for stuffing sausages. My goal is to make sausage that is lower salt, lower grease, no strange ingredients, and usually chicken.

I finally ran across this at the Goodwill in Colorado.

It had a smaller funnel, but I found a larger one later that fit. It works just like a caulking gun. I do have to refill it several times for a batch of about 3 pounds sausage, but it isn't a big trouble. I picked up a package of natural hog casings at the Bass Pro Shop. You soak them first to get the salt out. They then resemble tough snotty strings that work hard to tie themselves in knots.
It was pretty easy; I greased the nozzle, pushed the casing on it, tied the end off and started caulking, er, stuffing. every few inches, I gave things a couple twists to make the links, and then tied it off again at the end.

I'm still working on my recipe. This one turned out pretty good, mostly using fennel, poultry seasoning, black pepper, kosher salt, and a little garlic. I also added a little red pepper flakes. I broiled these; I think they would be prettier and maybe tastier on the outside if I fried them, but this was SO easy! An instant read thermometer told me when they were done, at about 180.
What should I try for the next batch?

Friday, December 4, 2009

#3 Review -- Cisco's Taqueria

This is one Mexican restaurant that I really wanted to like. It is ultra-convenient, being downtown Marysville, within a couple blocks of the post office, the library, Cal Trans office, The Brick, etc. But…

Cisco’s is a tiny corner taqueria where attention has been paid to d├ęcor, seating, layout, and getting as much useable space as humanly possible in a small space. It is cute, streetside, and charming inside. Most seats are close enough to the window to see what’s passing by outside. Here’s the lowdown:

Scale 1-5, 5 being highest praise.
It is called a “taqueria” but is really more of a sit-down restaurant, as the waitress takes your order and delivers the food, providing the service.

Service 3. Adequate, but because there weren’t many in the place while we were getting our food, I would have expected a little more prompt attention in taking our order and delivering our food. It took almost 15 minutes to get our plates. Nice, when I asked for more salsa, she offered more chips too, and she topped off my ice tea when filling my husband’s. He didn’t wait for his drink to go down very far before he asked for tea.

Stove-Hot 2. The plate was warm, not hot, and the food was just hot enough for me not to send it back to be reheated. I think our plates sat on the counter for long enough to cool down.

Chips 2. The chips were crispy, salty, and not greasy. Also, I’m fairly confident they came out of a bag. Needless to say, they weren’t warm.

Salsa 4. Very fresh tomato salsa. Nice flavor, a little slow warmth.

Burrito 2. Ok, so it wasn’t that bad at the time. But I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I would have liked. They didn’t have shredded beef, or stewed chunked beef, like Betty’s. The closest I could get was little pieces of steak. The burrito was big, but that’s because it was mostly taken up by refries and rice. Because I already had refries and rice on my plate, it felt redundant. I only ate half, saving the rest for my dinner. The plate was pretty; it had a little salad garnish thingy.

Beans, Rice 4. The flavor of the refries was good, the rice was alright.

Clean 4. It looked clean enough, though I noticed some sticky spots on the wall by my table. We noticed that the local health inspector was eating there, so that may say a lot. Didn’t check out the restroom, so can’t say on that.

Value 3. That day was a special on the burrito plate, which ended up meaning the tea was free. About $7.50 a plate. Not a cheap lunch, but plenty of food.

Soooo…. I may go there if it is the convenient thing to do, but I probably won’t go there on purpose to get my Mexican food fix.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pomegranate--The Holy Grail of Juices

Pomegranate juice is probably one of the most difficult fruits to try to figure out how to extract the delicious, healthful juice. With the numerous, seemingly random clumps of ruby seeds inside the membranes and pith, they seem a little mysterious. Most people remember the Greek myth of Persephone who had to stay in the underworld for 7 months each year, one for each pomegranate seed she had eaten while down there. When I was a kid, we periodically made pomegranate jelly from the wild pomegranate trees growing around our house. On one memorable juice-making process, I remember most the roasting pans and potato mashers and splatters.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, I got several boxes of huge ripe pomegranates from my father-in-law with the intention of making juice and freezing it. The one part of my previous experience I didn’t want to bring back was the potato masher. After calling around and not being able to locate a pomegranate juicer I stirred up the creative juices to see what I could come up with. I needed something to crush the seeds and then extract the juice.

After building about a half-dozen devices in my mind, I thought I’d start with my Kitchen Aid meat grinder attachment for my mixer. I’d been concerned that it would crush the little white seeds inside, but on a test run, I had no problems, using the coarse grind blade. The seeds were crushed so thoroughly, it didn’t take much work at all to strain out the juice from the pulp. Hooray! Now I could start in earnest.

To begin with, I rinsed the fruits in bleach water in the sink. I didn't want bacteria from the rinds making their way into the juice.

Split the fruit open from the north to the south pole. That makes the seed clumps easier to get at. Do not just cut it open! Too many seeds would be cup up. Score the rind all the way around and break it open. If you need to, slide the edge of a butter knife into the gash and twist it to pry the halves apart.

After the seeds have been gently worked out of the fruit and dropped in a pan, fill the pan with water. The seeds will sink and the bits of membrane will float. Skim them out.

Strain out the pomegranate seeds from the water and put them in a bowl.

This is the coarse plate for my Kitchen Aid food grinder. The holes are about 1/4 inch in diameter. The majority of the white seed pits pass right through without being crushed.

After dealing with spatters running my first batch through, I tore a small hole in the bottom of a plastic sack, fed it through the exit end of the grinder and then screwed the front disc holder back on. That kept all the juice where it belonged. I ladled the seeds slowly into the hopper with a strainer and let the crush fall into a sieve over a bowl.

Most of the juice strained right through into the bowl. I dumped the pulp into a colander lined with a cloth and pressed the rest of the juice out. The pomace was quite dry. In fact, most of the juice just drained out naturally. I think I may skip squeezing the pulp in the future. That will help avoid the sediments, which are hard to remove.

This is NOT one straight pitcher of juice. After I poured off three pitchers of juice into freezer jars, stopping when I got to the sediment layer, I combined the pitchers of sediment layers into one. The next day, the juice had settled further. I poured that off and then strained the sediment layer through cloth. The clear juice tastes best, so it is good to separate it out. I'll see with my next batch how much less the sediments are when I don't squeeze the pulp.

As is proper, Voodoo Bunny got an offering of the first press of my fresh pomegranate juice. He didn't drink much, and didn't seem to mind when I finished it off for him.

After I filled one shelf in my freezer with jars, I realized I wouldn't have room to deal with all the juice this way, so now I am using Ziploc 1 qt freezer bags with 2 cups of juice in each one.

With the latest batch, I kept the squeezings separate from the main press. I think there is a little more sediment, but more clear juice came out than I had thought would. So I'll definitely squeeze, but maybe into a different container until I decant them all.