Friday, March 21, 2008

Falling for the Crock Pot

It was one of those slow falls. I thought he was kind of cute when I got him. Just this little guy I could set on the counter. And then the other day I was putting some split peas in to make soup and I thought, I love this thing.

The most amazing thing about the crockpot? Eight hours on low heat, I repeat EIGHT and the carrots were not mushy. How is that even possible? It must be something about the magic 160 degrees.

So this is my first stab at soup in the crockpot and it ain't half bad really. Don't be fooled, you may be thinking "split pea, vegetarian!" But this is split pea soup for pork lovers. The overarching flavor is like bacon, smoky and sweet.

Which is of course, why it's good. ;)

Split pea soup for pork lovers
(Adapted from The Gourmet Slow Cooker)

This was made in a 2 qt crockpot (told you he was a little guy) so you might want to double it

1 sweet onion, diced
1 T olive oil
1 carrot, halved then sliced at an angle
1 stalk celery, sliced at an angle
1 cup split peas
1/2 ham hock (smoked)
3-4 cups chicken broth
fresh thyme
salt and pepper

Saute onions with olive oil until browned, add some salt (~1/2 tsp). Place split peas at bottom of crock pot. Cover with onions, carrots, celery and ham hock. Pour broth over, should almost fill the pot. May need slightly more (didn't actually measure this). Add in a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Cook 8-10 hours on low heat. Remove thyme sprig. Take out ham hock and cut into small pieces, put pieces back into soup. Salt and pepper to taste.

Oh and just so you know, the split peas don't totally melt to death when this is done, which is kind of why I like it. Though really it's still the pork.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Mystery of Burnt Caramel Sauce

At the last blogger dinner we had a gift exchange and I ended up with this jar of beautiful burnt caramel sauce. Of course that was 2 months ago. It's taken me that long to figure out what to do with it.

Part of the problem was my newly developed lactose intolerance. The easiest pairing is vanilla ice cream and I just didn't want to go there.

So last night I tried it out on some roasted pears and damn if it isn't like absolutely perfect. You roast the pears with vanilla and sweet dessert wine (or white wine with honey added) and then top them with the warmed burnt caramel sauce. The caramel adds this creamy sweetness but the pear keeps it light, like a perfect pear tart. You could go whole hog and top it with ice cream as well, but as I said before...dairy doesn't like me.

Incidentally, this stuff is far from lactose free. It's just not quite so tough on my stomach as ice cream.

Oh and my second use for this stuff? (this is for you Jay). Open faced peanut butter sandwiches with warm burnt caramel swirls. Fantastic.

I'm still trying to figure out a possible savory use for it, maybe involving some virginia ham. Or bacon. I'll let you know how it goes.

Roasted Pears with Vanilla
(adapted from A New Way to Cook, by Sally Schneider)

Okay just to let you know right off....Sally's recipe is a little fussy partly because she's trying to make sure you end up with a nice sauce. Since you have your own sauce (ta da! burnt caramel) you can actually afford to skip the fussiness a little. But I'll give you the whole thing anyway.

4 pears (1.5#)
1/2 vanilla bean
3/4 cup sweet dessert wine (or white wine such as riesling with 1/2 tsp honey)
1.5 T . sugar
salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Peel pears, cut in half and core. Butter a pan you can use on the stove and in the oven. Place pears cut side down in pan. Pour 1/2 cup of wine over pears. Split vanilla bean in half lengthwise and add seeds to wine. Put rest of bean in among the pears. Dot pears with butter. Sprinkle with a little saltBring to a boil over moderate heat. Put in oven and cover loosely with foil. Cook x35 minutes (brushing pears occasionally). Turn over, cook 15 minutes more (still covered). Pull out pan, add additional 1/4 cup wine, and cook down liquids until thick and syrupy (you might want to pull out the pears while you do this). Turn pears one last time. Sprinkle with sugar. Put back in oven 10 minutes or so until nicely browned. Add more wine if needed to dissolve the caramel in the pan and make a nice sauce.

Now heat up burnt caramel sauce in microwave or double boiler and pour over the top. Serve with ice cream if you're a glutton or just happen to be lucky enough to have lactase sitting around.

Crock Pot Chronicles, Part III

Okay this is much closer. Maybe even a rousing success. I finally sucked it up and bought a cookbook, "Slow cooker gourmet." And discovered the issue:

Always cook on low heat.

This changes everything. I was worried that cooking on low heat would be dangerous, all that "incubating bacteria" riff raff you read about in the textbooks. But not so. Bacterial risk is for <140 degrees (and probably much much less than 140 degrees). Low heat on a crock pot (at least on my itty bitty crock pot) is 160. Can't guarantee that it's steady. But it's better than boiling the heck out of everything which is what high heat does.

Anyway. I decided on pork spareribs with prunes. I know. I can hear the skeptics. But prunes are so misunderstood. They're amazingly sweet and when cooked they fall apart like overripe fruit. Pork thrives on that sweetness.

It came out wonderfully, better than I'd imagined even. The spareribs were fall apart tender and the sauce was rich with pork flavor but deepened by the prunes and onions.

The main key to this whole crock pot experiment is to accept two facts:

1. everything is better if you brown it first
2. expect to adjust the sauce after the long cooking

And that's it! I also think it might be a tad better if your crock pot didn't hold like a quart. Just might have to make a new purchase. Twist my arm.

Pork Sparerips with Prunes
(adapted from The Gourmet Slow Cooker)
1.5# pork spareribs or pork shoulder
1 Tbs peanut or vegetable oil
2 med sweet onions
3 cloves garlic
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup riesling
1 cup prunes (pitted)
thyme sprig
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper

Sprinkle spareribs with salt and pepper, then brown on all sides (5-10 minutes). Place sliced onions in pan, saute x 5 minutes or so, until wilted. Add garlic, saute a few minutes more. Remove from pan. Add chicken broth to pan with 1/2 cup riesling, cook down until reduced by half, scraping bottom of pan. Put ribs, onions, garlic in crock pot (try to have ribs on the bottom, not sticking out). Pour over liquids. Nestle prunes in between ribs. Put in thyme and bay leaves. Cook 8-10 hours on low heat (her recipe said 6-8, mine was barely done at 8, might depend on your cooker). Then take out pork and set aside. Put pan juices, including onions garlic and prunes into a pan. Add 1/2 cup riesling. Cook down until thickened, squishing the prunes to add their flavor. Add back pork and cook 5 minutes for flavors to marry. Serve.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Post modern chili

Cobe and I made a big decision 2 weeks ago--we got Stella (see above). Since then we have been plunged into a whole new world. A world of chew toys and wee wee pads. We've also lost all hope of real sleep as she needs to pee every 3 hours.

Needless to say, cooking went by the wayside. We had a few rotisserie chickens, some takeout vietnamese. Finally I marshaled my resources and started digging through recipes.

I came up with chili. But not just any chili, real mexican chili. Ground anchos and chilpotle, some fresh cilantro. Post modern chili.

It came out even better than I expected. Earthy and spicy, but somehow still light and fresh. Definitely serve it with some cornbread (I cheated and made a mix, throwing in some canned corn for texture). The corn and beans go perfectly together. You can top it with a little sour cream, but really it doesn't even need it. And it makes fabulous leftovers.

Post Modern Chili
(adapted from Last Night's Dinner)

1 red onion
2 Tbs olive oil
3 cloves garlic (whole)
1# ground beef
2 ancho chiles (dried, also called morita)
2 chipotle chiles (dried)
2 tsp oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
2 cans black beans
1 small can roasted green chiles
1 tsp muscovado sugar (or brown sugar)
28 oz can tomatoes
1 Tbs tomato paste
12 oz beer (I used deschutes buzzsaw brown)
salt and pepper to taste
Toppings: minced cilantro, sliced green onions, sliced black olives, sour cream, shredded cheddar cheese, squeeze of lime (mix and match to taste)

Chop red onion and saute with olive oil and a little salt over medium high until soft (a few minutes). Smash garlic cloves with flat side of knife, saute a few seconds until fragrant. Add ground beef and cook until brown. Pour off excess oil. Deseed and stem ancho and chipotle peppers, then grind in coffee grinder until fine. You can use store bought chili powder, but it's really not the same. It's worth searching out the peppers. If using whole cumin, grind that too. Put the ground peppers, oregano and cumin in with the onion/garlic/beef mixture and saute a few minutes. Then add tomatoes (drained and chopped), tomato paste, whole beer and green chiles. Add pinch of salt and pepper. Cook x 30 minutes covered. Drain black beans, add to pot. Cook another 30 minutes. Taste and correct flavorings, likely will need a tsp of sugar (I used muscovado which is like amazing brown sugar). Add salt and pepper. Serve with toppings as above. Really great with corn bread.