Friday, May 21, 2010

May in the Wichita Mountains

I went for a walk today, around the area where I work. My workplace is located inside a Wildlife Reserve in the Wichita Mountains of Southwest Oklahoma.

Anyway, here are my photos:

Trail head near my work.

Wildflowers of the plains

More Wildflowers

Base of the Wichitas

An unusually wet winter and spring have allowed
greenery to grow on the rocks of the mountains.

Ancient smooth mountain stone and greenery.

Small lake near my work.

So serene... water in the dry plains...

Vibrant base of the mountains

More wildflowers

Impressive view of the Wichitas

Dual mountains, heading west on US 62.

Ancient stone of the Wichitas

Mountain, water, what a view!
Oklahoma's state wildflower. It's so lovely.
Prickly Pears, in bloom

Doesn't this look like the devil's foot?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Playing With My Food - Love Me Tender (Chuck Steaks)

Chuck steaks were on sale this past week at the grocery. These particular ones were named "chuck tender steaks" and they looked a lot like filet mignon. They were nearly the same price as ground beef, and so, they got my attention. I bought a package, then wondered if I'd made a mistake.

I looked up chuck steaks online and on AllRecipes in particular, and most references to chuck steak talked about a tough cut of meat that needed to be beaten and slow-cooked into submission. However, these were called Chuck TENDER steaks... I decided to put my faith in labeling and see what happens. I marinated the little steaks in a favorite blend of mine- apple cidar vinegar, horseradish and Worcestershire sauce, for about an hour.

I then heated up my grill pan. I grill on it freqently because I live in an apartment complex that doesn't allow grills near the apartments for fear of fire.
Anyway, I grilled my precious Chuck Tender Steaks for about 5 minutes per side, while I made some steak fries and peas to go with them.

When they were done to my liking (medium rare), I removed them from the grill and let them rest for about 5 minutes.
I assembled my meal and cut into my steak...

Now, this was not a fork-cut tender steak. I am of the opinion that a steak should NOT be fork tender. It was not tough. In my mind it was a perfect little steak with great flavor and just enough 'chew' to let me know it was a steak. I was well-pleased with these little steaks and will look for them again. I hope they continue to be as inexpensive as they were this week!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Playing With My Food - Brownie Sophisticate

I found a nice sale on strawberries so I bought 2 quarts and brought them home. The first quart went fast, eaten fresh with a little sugar. With the second quart, I wanted to do something a little more special.

I bought some chocolate chips and considered making chocolate-dipped strawberries. In the past, I have had trouble with them getting a little soft before they are all eaten. So, I vetoed that idea.

What to do, what to do?

Scanning the pantry cabinet, I found a box of brownie mix, and a bright light bulb popped over my head. ... strawberries and brownies... oooh!

Looking over various recipe sites, it seems whipped cream was in all of them. I'm not a huge fan of whipped topping, and I do not have any in the house.

I do, however have sour cream. Hmmm....

I did a little more research, and came up with Brownie Sophisticate.

I stemmed and sweetened the quart of fresh strawberries.

I baked the brownies, with chocolate chips, then I topped them with the sweetened sour cream and baked again for 5 minutes.

When it cooled, I topped with the sugared strawberries.

I hope you'll give this a try, it is rich, sweet, strawberry-chocolate heaven... it's REALLY good!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Playing With My Food - Intimidating Hearts (of artichoke)

(Originally posted on Jul. 5, 2009)

So, there's a small Mom-and-Pop Italian restaurant here in town, and they have a 'house' dish that I love- their House Chicken. It is a rather uninspired name but is so good! It is a grilled (unbreaded) boneless chicken breast, on a bed of angel hair spaghetti, with a lemony sauce containing artichokes and mushrooms. It tastes a little like chicken picatta, but it does not have the capers. I decided to play around with flavors to try to reproduce it.

I had never really dealt with artichokes. I have seen them used on television cooking shows, but the preparation of fresh artichokes was a little intimidating to me. For this reason, my first attempt was without artichokes. For this first attempt, I broiled the chicken breast, basting it with butter until it was done. I then sauteed garlic in olive oil, added sliced mushrooms and sauteed them lightly. Lemon juice was added to the pan, but looking at this mixture it looked a little too dry (compared to the restaurant) and tasted very tart. I added honey to the mix and it seemed to improve the flavor. To make it more 'saucy', I added chicken broth and simmered it a little, then poured it over the chicken breast. It was just okay - just a sweet lemon sauce on chicken with mushrooms. The sauce was too sweet, and the overall effect was a little too much like candied chicken... not good.

Disappointed and determined to conquer this concept, I moved on. On my next grocery trip, I looked at the canned articoke hearts. The little picture on the label looked a lot like what had been in the restaurant dish and I had a glimmer of hope. Maybe I could make something workable without dealing with those fresh artichokes! I continued shopping and, in the frozen foods, found a bag of FROZEN artichoke hearts.

WOW!... other vegetables are usually much better frozen than canned, so I decided to get the frozen ones, instead of the canned.

For my second attempt, I used what I knew about sauces and what I had learned from Attempt #1, and made some significant changes.

First, I placed my raw chicken breast in a fry pan and only seared it. I removed it from the pan and used the same oil to sautee minced garlic. I added the frozen artichoke hearts and reduced the heat to a simmer. I added the seared chicken breast, chicken broth and mushrooms, and let the dish simmer until the chicken was done. This process let the juices of the chicken cook with the other components so the chicken got added flavor, and so did the vegetables. This was a HUGE improvement over cooking the chicken seperately, as I did in the first attempt. I was also amazed at the suble, but very noticeable difference the addition of artichokes made to the flavor.

When the chicken was done, I added just a hint of lemon juice. The sauce was not thick but it was reduced and was very flavorful. I did not add honey this time. The sauce did not need it. Again, I think cooking all the components together improved the flavors to the point that I really didn't need to tweak it. I plated the chicken, artichokes and mushrooms on a bed of angel hair pasta, drizzled the pan sauce over it all, then topped with a little shredded parmesan cheese. It was outrageously good and I fix it often, now.

What I learned - never give up on the first try; try something new and be ready to modify things to fit my comfort level.; artichokes are zesty and a little tart on their own- lemon is nice with them but don't get carried away.

Playing With My Food - The Man Who Has Everything

(Originally posted on Jul. 12, 2009)

My father is retired. He's always been a man who hated to be sitting around. If he wasn't moving or working, then there was a good chance he was asleep. So, when he retired, the first 6 months or so were murder on my mother. He drove her nuts having 'nothing to do'. My mother is 10 years younger than my dad, so she still works, and coming home to his desperation was getting to her.

Then, one day, he decided to fix dinner for her, for after work. When I was little, it was a big deal when Daddy cooked. His meals were always so good, but he always made complicated, fancy things and, because he worked so much, he rarely had time to devote to cooking. The decision to cook that dinner for my Mom opened up his repressed love of cooking and now he cooks every meal. Mom says she isn't even sure where things are located in the kitchen anymore (and she's not upset about that at all).

Another thing about my Dad is, he grew up just after the Great Depression. Typical of his generation, he never really 'wanted' anything special for gifts. If he NEEDED something, he got it, saved up for it, traded for it, but when it came to the question of what do you WANT, he'd always say, "I don't need anything, I have all I need."

So, what to get a man who sincerely doesn't feel he wants anything? Well...

I am a huge fan of the Food Network, especially Alton Brown. One day, he had a show on and talked about meat thermometers. He had one that he said was really great. It is a digital unit, but the probe is on a long wire. You put the probe in your meat, the wire runs through the closed oven door and to the digital unit on your counter. I bought one for myself, based on Alton's glowing recommendation, and fell in love. When Christmas time came around and, once again, I was at a loss for a gift for my father, I decided to give him one. He cooks now, maybe he would like it.

He told me he had been having a lot if issues getting a reliable thermometer to use for oven dishes. He was skeptical about the one I gave him, but I showed him how it works and left it alone. I was a little bummed because I figured it would go in a drawer and never be used.

He called me shortly after New Year's and told me he had tried it. His voice was grim, on the phone and I was getting more and more depressed at how impossible this man is to shop for, when he started giggling (he doesn't giggle often) and said he was just teasing. He said it was the best gift he'd gotten in years and he uses it nearly every day. I nearly cried with joy and relief! The unit was a success!

If you haven't tried this kind of thermometer, and you make a lot of items in the oven, you might want to try one. They are fairly inexpensive, easy to use, and... perfect for the cook who has everything!

Playing With My Food - Berrily We Roll Along...

(Originally posted on Feb. 7, 2010)
I've been craving blueberry cobbler like my mother used to make. I've tried a couple recipes recently that just didn't meet the standard. Mom's cobbler was like a layered pie - crust, fruit, crust fruit, crust. The crust was like a flakey pie crust. The juice from the fruit would soak into it somewhat, and it was just awesome.

Most cobblers that have crusts (not crumbles or streusel) have a cakey dough, which isn't what I want, or they are simply just a pie, with a top and bottom crust.

So, I came across some information where a different approach was used to make cobbler, by rolling the fruit in a dough. Interesting... Also not like my mother's, but intriguing...

I played with the idea, and here is what I came up with.

Rolled Fruit Cobbler

1/2 c. butter (1 stick)
2 c. sugar
2 c. water
1-1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c. shortening
1/3 c. milk
3 c. fruit, seperated
If using apples or peaches, 2 tsp cinnamon
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Melt butter in 13 x 9 inch pan.
3. Heat sugar and water in saucepan until sugar is melted.
4. In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.
5. Cut shortening into flour until fine texture.
6. Add milk and stir lightly with a fork. Do not overmix. The dough should be light in texture.
7. Roll out on floured board to 1/4 inch rectangle. If a silicon sheet is available, roll on the silicon or waxed paper, to make rolling easier.

8. If using peaches or apples, toss sliced fruit with cinnamon, in a seperate bowl.
9. Spread 2 cups fruit on top of dough.

10. Roll up from long side like a jelly roll.

(Some fruit will escape when you roll. It'll be okay, DON'T PANIC.)

11. Slice the roll into 1/2 inch slices and place side-by-side in the baking pan, on top of melted butter.

12. Disperse the remaining 1 cup fruit over the rolls.
13. Pour sugar-water over top.

14. Bake 75 minutes, at 350 F, or until golden brown and 'set'.

It worked really well. I hope the photo diary of the steps involved helps. If you are in the mood for some cobbler, give this one a try. (By the way, it IS a sweet cobbler.) I hope you like it!

Playing With My Food - Nutty Berry Loaf

(Originally posted on Feb. 6, 2010)

I can be a sucker for a "good buy" and, this time, I was sucked in by a sale of my local supermarket's store brand of blueberry muffin mixes - 2 for $1.00. I bought 4...

So, I'm about muffin-ed out. I love berries of all kinds, especially blueberries, but I get burned out on the "same ol' thing" pretty quickly. That's why I had to figure out something different to do with these last 2 boxes of muffin mix.

Well, muffins are just a short bread in a cupcake form, for the most part, right? So, I decided to make a shortbread loaf with it... but it needs SOMETHING to improve it from just muffin mix in a loaf.

I took the things I love and tossed them in and got the loaf pictured below. It's got sour cream, walnuts, dried cherries and dried cranberries, plus the usual eggs, oil and mix. It turned out wonderfully.

The loaf is moist, and dense, with all those nuts and dried fruits baked in. It worked much better than I expected!

Playing With My Food - Wonton Week

(Oringally posted Mar. 6, 2010)

I was doing my weekly shopping and stumbled across wonton wrappers. I hadn't used wrappers in ages and I used to love making eggrolls. Sometimes I get a bulldog stubbornness when I am 'inspired', so I decided this was the week for wontons.

Looking around at the choice of ingredients, though, I wasn't impressed with my eggroll or springroll options on that day, so I got the wonton wrappers, because I wanted them, and went home to improvise.

I came up with two very nice recipes that I know I will use over again. They were crispy, tasty, and economical. They were also very different in flavor (and heritage) which made me doubly happy, in the end.

Using wonton wrappers is easy, if you just prepare well and are ready to take some time. I don't fold them. Instead, I use one on the bottom and cover the filling with another one to make somewhat larger, square packets. I like the size and ease of doing it this way. When finished, they look like large ravioli.

The basic method I used is to create a filling, then lay out single wonton wrappers on wax paper or other clean surface. Carefully brush all 4 edges of each wrapper with cool water. Place 1 generous tablespoon of filling in the center of the wontons. Lay another wonton wrapper on top of the filling and carefully pinch the edges all around, to form a square packet. Cover prepared packets with a damp cloth until ready to fry. They may be wrapped and frozen for future use at this step. Finally, choose your cooking method (bake, fry or boil), cook, and serve hot with your favorite sauce or toppings.

First, I made some Beef and Spinach Empanadas. The recipe is in my recipe box if you wish to view it. They were really good with sour cream and picante sauce. They fried quickly and were crisp and delicate, yet filling and full of flavor.

The second recipe I made was Baked Chicken Rangoon. This one is also in my recipe box. I love rangoon at restaurants and decided to give it a shot. These were baked and I was worried they might come out bland or tough, but I brushed them with oil and oiled the pan well, and they came out superbly. I had these with some homemade chili oil and I was in heaven.

So, if you're looking to jazz up your menus, yet stay economical, I suggest you have a look at my recipes. I hope you like them, or that they inspire you to try something new and different with wonton wrappers.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Playing With My Food - Exploring My Heritage, a little.

I decided this weekend I wanted to try something I had never had before. I went to the grocery and nothing intrigued me, but chuck roasts were on sale, so I bought one.

Now, what to do that was 'different' with a pot roast? Well, in the British Isles, Yorkshire Pudding is a traditional side with roast beef, and much of my heritage is from there. I have never had Yorkshire Pudding, so that is what I decided to make.

Yorkshire Pudding is a very traditional dish in Great Britain. It is even served as a regular menu item at Cambridge University. It is said that Yorkshire pudding was originally served before the main part of the meal, with gravy, to fill people up so they would not eat as much of the expensive roast beef. I chose to eat mine with my meal, because I didn't want to ignore the beef!

I made Marie's Easy Slow Cooker Pot Roast. I cooked the beef with frozen 'stew vegetables' which contained pearl onions, carrots, potatoes and celery. When it was done, I removed it to a platter to rest.

While the beef rested, I made the batter and panned up the pudding and set it to cook for 30 minutes. I used Sky High Yorkshire Pudding.

I then made a nice gravy with the roast juices. I just made a roux with oil and flour, then poured the juices into it after it had cooked for 3 minutes. It worked very well.

I sliced the beef just as the puddings were done. I plated it all up, and smothered it all with gravy and it was awesome.

The roast was tender, the veggies were perfectly done without being mushy, and the pudding was crisp on the outside and light on the inside.

They did not rise as much as I expected, and they were not hollow inside as I expected... nor were they "sky high".. but they were really tasty and I did enjoy them with my meal.

I made another AllRecipes item for dessert: Neiman Marcus Chocolate Chip Cookies. Also yummy!!

I will be making this again. Maybe you will try something from this meal as well!