Slow Cooker Tips

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Its that time of year again.  The weather outside is cold and you want a warm dinner on the table for the family.  With all of the after school activities, the best plan of attack is to use the slow cooker.  But if you are like me, then many times the meals turn out over cooked, with tough meat, or just watery and dull.

Food Network to the rescue!

Food Network has come up with some helpful tips for that slow cooker.  Read below and hopefully your next endeavor will be a huge warm, delicious success!

Choose the right cut: Chuck roasts, short ribs, pork shoulders and lamb shanks (think fatty and tougher meats) become meltingly tender with the moist, low heat of a slow cooker. Leaner cuts like pork tenderloin tend to dry out. Likewise, dark meat chicken — thighs, drumsticks, etc. — will remain juicier than white meat breasts.

Keep the lid closed: Each peek you take during the cooking process will add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time. And curb the urge to stir; it’s usually not necessary and tends to slow down the cooking.

Care for your crock: The ceramic insert in a slow cooker can crack if exposed to abrupt temperature shifts. In other words, don’t place a hot ceramic insert directly on a cold counter; put down a dishtowel first. The same goes for using a filled insert you’ve stowed overnight in the refrigerator: Let it come to room temperature before putting it in a preheated base.

Browning boosts flavor: You can certainly just pile food into the slow cooker, turn it on and get tasty results. But when you take a couple of minutes to brown your meat and saute your vegetables before adding them to the crock, you’re rewarded with an additional layer of deep, caramelized flavor. (This is doubly true with ground meat.) Want a thicker sauce? Dredge the meat in flour before browning.

Don’t use frozen food: Loading a slow cooker with icy ingredients will keep food in the danger zone where bacteria can flourish (40 to 140 degrees F). So make sure your meat and vegetables are fully thawed before turning the cooker on. The exception: Prepackaged slow-cooker meals sold in the freezer case are fine to use as long as you follow the package’s directions.

Avoid overcrowding: For the best results, fill a slow cooker between one-half and two-thirds full. Go ahead and cook big roasts and whole chickens; just make sure you use a large crock and that the lid fits snugly on top.

Trim fat: For silky sauces and gravies, take a minute or two and cut the excess fat from the meat. Skip this step and you risk ending up with oily, greasy cooking liquid. When possible, remove chicken skin too.

Layer wisely: For even cooking, cut food into uniform-size pieces. Place firm, slow-cooking root vegetables like potatoes and carrots at the bottom of the crock and pile the meat on top.

Set the heat level: A general rule of thumb is that cooking on the low setting (170 degrees F for most models) takes about twice as long as cooking on high (280 degrees F on most models). Keep in mind that some cuts of meat and recipes are better suited to one setting over the other. (See tips on choosing the right cut, above.)

Add dairy last: Sour cream, milk and yogurt tend to break down in the slow cooker, so stir them in during the last 15 minutes of cooking.

Watch the wine: Because the cooker is sealed, the alcohol in wine doesn’t evaporate out as it would in a regular pot or skillet. Just a splash goes a long way.

End on a fresh note: A sprinkle of fresh herbs or squeeze of lemon juice at the end of simmering can brighten flavors and cut through the richness of long-cooked recipes. Other excellent finishing touches: hot sauce, citrus zest, grated Parmesan, good-quality olive oil or even sauteed garlic.

Adjust for high altitude: For high-altitude cooking, add an additional 30 minutes for each hour of time specified in the recipe. Legumes take about twice as long as they would at sea level.

Unplugged means unusable: Forgot to turn on your cooker (or accidentally tried to “cook” your meal on warm)? Any food that sits between the temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees F can harbor bacteria. Toss the contents and start again.

Read more at: http://www.foodnetwork.com/how-to/articles/15-tips-for-slow-cooker-meals.html?oc=linkback

Sticky or Gummy Rice?

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Bowl of rice

A lot of times sticky or gummy rice occurs because you do not have enough water in your pot.  If the grains rub against each other they can release more starch and, voila, sticky rice!  The best idea is to use 1 ½ to 1 ¾ cups of water per cup for rice – usually I use 1 ½ …  Keep in mind that brown rice requires more water and shorter grain rice will require less – check the directions on the packaging and good luck!!

Clarifiying Chicken Stock

So you just made a roast chicken and you don’t know what to do with the bones? Make stock! It’s easy to make and you can use it all week long!  I use mine in place of water to boil noodles or potatoes – it adds just a bit more flavor to the end product.

Place the bones into a large stock pot and cover with cold water.  Add an onion, cut in half, two carrots (peeled and cut in half) and two stalks of celery (again, cut in half).   If you have any fresh parsley you can add two or three sprigs of that as well, otherwise add about 2 teaspoons dried parsley.   Bring this to a simmer over medium-low heat.  Do not let it boil!  Cook the stock gently for a few hours.

After three hours remove the larger bones and strain the stock thru a fine sieve, or two to three layers of cheese cloth.   Place the strained stock in the refrigerator for a few hours.  Once cool a layer of film should have formed on the top.  This layer can also be removed.

If you want clear stock now is the time to return the stock to the stove and bring it to a rolling boil.  While the stock is heating beat two egg whites until frothy.  Stir the egg whites into rapidly boiling stock and then immediately turn off the heat.  As the stock cools and stops boiling the egg whites will trap all of the stray particles.  These will then rise to the surface for easy skimming.  Strain one final time thru two or three layers of cheese cloth and enjoy!

Polenta – Its easy and great for a fast weeknight dinner

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My sister in law is a wonderful cook! She is always trying new things in the kitchen but here is one of her old ‘stand-by’s’ for a quick week night meal~

1 cup Polenta
3 Cups water
Marinara Sauce
Parmesan Cheese

Bring water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Pour in Polenta steadily, stirring constantly. Continue to stir until Polenta is thickened. It should come away from the sides of the pan, and be able to support a spoon. This can take anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes. Pour Polenta into a loaf pan, let stand for a few minutes.

Once cool, put in in the refrigerator. When you are ready to cook dinner, remove the Polenta from the pan. Slice the Polenta and either pan fry in a bit of butter or heat in the oven. Top off with marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese! Easy, good and fast!

Polenta can be stored in the pantry for up to one year.

Shellfish and Seafood Basics

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Shellfish and Seafood

 

fish

Shellfish

Mussels and Clams: Only purchase if the shells are completely closed.  If they are open it means the shells are old or have been poorly handled.  Cook in broth until the shells open.  Discard those shells that do not open.

Scallops:

  • Sea scallops are ivory or lightly colored.  White sea scallops have been processed, usually not as fresh
  • Bay scallops are smaller than sea scallops.  They are usually much sweeter than sea scallops as well.

Lobster and Crabs:  Make sure they are alive when you purchase them.  Follow recipe for cooking times.

Oysters:  Generally appear in 5 sizes.  Each area of harvest implants a unique flavor.

Shrimp and Prawns: Should be fresh, dry and firm.  Ask if they have been previously frozen.  If they have been frozen then do not re-freeze!  Use immediately.

 Seafood Basics: First, the store should smell right. It should smell like the sea, not like stinky, sour fish!

Check for the following:

  • Smooth, shiny skin with scales well adhered to the flesh
  • Consistent, elastic, and firm flesh
  • Tight belly, not too swollen or faded
  • Lucid convex eyes
  • Rosy, moist gills
  • Tail and dorsal fins intact
  • A pleasant smelling fish with a mild scent of the sea

Fish can be purchased frozen, but beware of fish with freezer burn.

Soak fresh fish in milk for 20 minutes or up to 1 hour. This will take away any leftover fishy smell!

 

 

If you’re not using the fish right away, put it in a storage bag, cover it with ice packs, and store it in the back of the refrigerator. Or fill a Ziplock bag with water, add fish, and freeze!

 

How to Cook it

Sautéing—Best for thin fillets, such as sole or flounder.

  • Pat the fish dry and season with salt. Let fish stand about 5 minutes.
  • Place 1 cup flour on a plate and dredge the fish through the flour. At this point, you can simply sauté, or you can dredge again in egg (2 eggs beaten) and then in bread crumbs. We prefer a mix of bread crumbs or crackers and finely grated parmesan cheese.
  • Melt 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over high heat. When butter melts, reduce to medium high, add fish, and cook until golden. For thicker fillets, it may be necessary to finish the fish in a 425°F oven for 5 to 10 minutes or until done.

Grilling—superheating the grill will prevent sticking.

  • Place a disposable aluminum pan upside down over grill. Cover for 5 minutes to superheat the grill and help prevent sticking.
  • Scrape grate clean with grill brush, then wipe it with oil-dipped paper towels. Place fish on grill, perpendicular to grates.
  • Grill fish until browned—2 to 3 minutes (if fish has skin, place skin-side up). Slide a spatula underneath fillet to lift and flip over. Continue cooking until desired doneness.

Pan Searing

  • Heat vegetable oil over high heat until smoking. Don’t use olive oil; it will burn!
  • Add fish and cook for 30 seconds.
  • Reduce heat to medium high, and cook fish until browned. Flip and continue until done.

Braising—The key is a tight-fitting lid.

  • Over medium-high heat, sauté 1 sliced onion, 4 cloves garlic, and 2 tablespoons olive oil until onion is soft. Add ½ cup white wine and 14 oz. can diced tomatoes.
  • Nestle fish, seasoned with salt and pepper, into sauce, and spoon sauce over fish. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and cook until desired doneness.

Poaching

  • Bring 6 cups water, 1 cup white wine, juice of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ coarsely chopped onion, and 1 coarsely chopped carrot to a simmer. Add a few whole peppercorns, a bay leaf, and a few sprigs of fresh parsley or thyme. Simmer for 20 minutes. Reduce to low then add fish. Cover and poach to desired doneness—6 to 10 minutes.

Best Spices for Fish: Basil, bay, cayenne, celery seed, chives, curry, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, lemon peel, mustard, oregano, parsley, rosemary, thyme, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, and marjoram.

Temperature Guidelines

Fish is irregular in shape just by its nature. Tuck the tail under the fillet for more even cooking.

 

Salmon                      125°F

Tuna                      110°F

All other fish           140°F, or until flakes easily with a fork.

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Blonde Brownies

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The kids are coming home from school and I need to get them a snack.  The old standby, Chocolate Chip Cookies?  Today I decided to make the cookies with a twist.  Blonde brownies with chocolate chunks!  And the best part is that the chunks are from candy bars given to the kids over the Easter holidays!  Recycle and Reuse right?  The recipe is an interpretation of the Barefoot Contessa’s (Ina Garten) Chocolate Chunk Blondies.  It’s quick and easy and Dee luscious!!!

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ pound cut up milk chocolate bars
  • 8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease a 8″x 12″ pan with butter.

In your electric mixer, with the paddle attachment on, cream butter and sugars on high speed for 3 minutes.  Turn the mixer to low and add the vanilla, and eggs.  Scrape down the sides after each addition and blend until smooth.

In a separate bowl sift together the flour, salt and baking soda.  Add to the mixer slowly.  Fold in the chocolate.  Add nuts if you desire (I would add about ½ to 1 cup of chopped nuts along with the chocolate, if you like nuts.)  You can also add more chocolate if you really like them chocolatey!  Try adding 16 oz. chips and the remainder in chunks, or 1 lb chunks and 6 oz. chips.  You decide!

Spread the batter in the pan and place in the oven for 25 minutes.  Check if they are done by poking the dough with a toothpick.  If it comes out clean, they are done, if not cook for 5 more minutes.  These brownies are best if they are a bit under-cooked so watch them carefully.  When done, remove and cool completely.  Cut into squares and serve!  Store tightly wrapped in saran wrap in the refrigerator!

 

May Freshness in Michigan

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Chive Blossom Soup

Fresh Pea and Chive Blossom Soup

In May there are a few more options in the fresh department.  Not a lot, but a few.  Mostly we are seeing more fresh herbs, in addition to the Asparagus and Rhubarb we saw in April.  Chives, parsley, oregano, thyme are just starting to spring from the ground and onto the grocery shelves.

If you have a garden and have planted herbs in the past you will notice your chives, mint and some oregano beginning to sprout.  My favorite and easiest to grow herbs are chives.  They add a nice touch to salads, soups and a variety of other dishes over the entire summer.  Personally, I like to cook with the entire chive, blossom included.

Here is a great, easy, recipe for Fresh Pea Soup with Chive Blossom Cream.

  • 6 fresh chive blossoms
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 2 lbs. peas, shelled
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper

In a small saucepan combine 2 chive blossoms and the cream over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered into the cream reduces by one half, about 4-5 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 30 minutes.

Separate and mince the remaining chive petals.  Set aside.

In another saucepan, over medium-high heat, combine the peas, chicken stock, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10-20 minutes or until the peas are soft.  Remove from heat and cool slightly.  Place mixture in a food processor and blend, carefully, until smooth.  Return to the stove and heat to serving temperature.  Test for taste and add more salt if needed.

Meanwhile, remove the whole blossoms from the cream and heat to serving temperature.

To serve, ladle pea soup into bowl and add a spoonful of chive blossom cream.  Garnish with minced petals.

Granola Bars from Scratch – They are easy to make~ I promise!

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I have purchased so many granola bars that I have lost count.  And trying to find them without nuts is near impossible so I went on a mission to make my own granola bars.  I found a great recipe from Ina Garten and changed it up a bit.  Leave out the nuts if an allergy is present.  You can even add chocolate chips if you like!  And trust me it is super easy!

Homemade Crunchy Granola Bars

2 cups old fashioned oats

1 cup sliced almonds

1 cup shredded sweetened coconut (you can use unsweetened too, if you prefer)

½ cup toasted wheat germ

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2/3 cup  agave nectar, or honey if you have it.

½ cup lightly packed brown sugar

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup chopped pitted dates

½ cup chopped dried apricots

½ cup dried cranberries, or raisins

¼ cup chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9×13 baking pan and line it with parchment paper.

Combine the oats, almonds and coconut on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 10-12 minutes – until lightly browned but not burnt.  Check and stir every few minutes.  When done transfer to a large mixing bowl, add the wheat germ, and set aside.  Reduce the oven to 300°F.

Combine the butter, honey, brown sugar, vanilla and salt in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat.  When the pot boils stir for one minute.  Remove from the heat and pour over the oat mixture.  Stir well.  Add the dates, apricots and raisins and stir well.

Pour mixture into prepared pan and pat down.  Bake for 25-30 minutes, until light golden brown.  Cool at least 2-3 hours then cut into squares and enjoy the deliciousness!!

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