Tag Archives: food

Make Better Coffee

So this post is going to border on “pretentious,” but not because I *want* to be pretentious about coffee. I just think the Bean Of Life‚ĄĘ deserves utmost respect and honor.

Also, we made coffee wrong for YEARS. I’m here to help you avoid my mistake – and up your coffee game to ūüíĮ.
via GIPHY

Hey! Good coffee is affordable

Great coffee has to start at the bean. You know that, I know that — but probably neither of us can afford to buy free range artisanal locally roasted coffee. ¬†Granted, when I’m down for a splurge, we go for our local roaster‘s Tanzanian Peaberry. ¬†But that’s special.

Our daily coffee is Trader Joe’s Dark Roast – we buy it whole-bean in the can when we’re at the store 45 minutes away (we go biweekly to stock up on bacon, chocolate, coffee, wine, and cheese – lol).

  • Grinding it ourselves means it’s fresher than pre-ground. If you ignore everything else in this post, buy yourself a grinder and whole-bean coffee of any kind. It’ll be an improvement.
  • TJ’s offers a 14oz can for about $8. It lasts us a week or so, depending on our coffee consumption. ¬†We usually pick up one of the others and alternate for variety’s sake. (We drink coffee every morning and about every other afternoon, two sizable mugs.)
  • Joe’s Dark is consistently an even, solid flavor. It’s not complex. This isn’t the $40 wine kind of coffee, it’s the $5 Chianti that consistently tastes good with whatever you put on the table, and it’s cheap enough that you don’t mind¬†drinking it every day. ¬†It never tastes “sour” or bitter when we make it, ¬†and is pretty forgiving if you add too much or too little.

Most of the coffee snobs on the internet (eg: Thrillist) disagree with us on this one, but oh well.  We know what we know, morning after morning.

You can buy TJ’s Dark Roast or any of their coffees at Trader Joe’s of course, but Amazon somehow carries this too? ¬†– but it’s more expensive than in the store

Other good coffees we often use:

  • Komodo Dragon by Starbucks is consistently tasty. It doesn’t seem to have the “burnt” taste so common for Starbucks beans, and it’s delicious made through our quick pour-over method below. ¬†If I get a Starbucks coupon, I use it on this or maybe blonde roast or Verona – we have good luck with those. Ditto the Christmas blend.
  • DazBog is a Western coffee roaster that nails it with great, bold flavor! ¬†We have friends in Denver who spoil us by sending us DB coffee at Christmas, and let me tell you, we make every single bean count!
  • Counter Culture coffee is a hit in our local area, and we enjoy their brews at local shops. They ship nationwide and you can find their coffees in many places.
Make better coffee
Making Dazbog thanks to friends who shipped us some beans from Denver! You can see our Bodum in the back left, behind our faithful coffee grinder.

A better process for your morning brew

Here’s where you’re going to fight me. “I don’t have time for this! I need the coffee maker to click on by itself in the morning and run on its own!”

I get it; it’s hard to get rolling at 6am. Lord knows I haven’t willingly worked jobs that demand such a schedule unless I had my arm twisted. But YOU CAN DO THIS.

We use a Bodum, the filter that came with it (reusable), and a coffee grinder. ¬†You’ll also need a water kettle. ¬†Our picks are below.

Our Process: Perfect coffee every time

Step 1: Boil water – a couple minutes. I can eyeball it on the carafe, but you can pour water into your coffee mug and then from the mug into the water-pot or teapot until you get the knack. ¬†And you’ve got a few minutes during this step to finish packing your lunch or whatever …. or start Step 2 (which is what I do).

Step 2: Grind coffee – 15 seconds. ¬†We have learned that it takes “enough coffee beans to cover the center post and the silver edges of our grinder” to get the right amount. You’ll learn to eyeball it too. ¬†Then dump your fresh, wonderful-smelling grounds into the Bodum’s filter, and swipe the inside clean with your brush (below).

Step 3:¬†Bloom — 30 seconds. Slowly pour a couple tablespoons of water over the coffee grounds in the filter, just enough to wet them. Let the aromatics from the coffee punch you in the face. It’s a wake-up call from your sinuses outward.

Click the button on your water pot to keep the water hot (or put the teakettle back on the burner).  Take a 30-second break to stretch high and low. 

Step 4: Pour over — 1 minute. ¬†Slowly pour the nearly-boiling water over the grounds in a slow circle motion. Breathe deeply. Meditate on the good things in your life and what you’re going to get accomplished today after injecting this caffeine into your bloodstream. ¬†You don’t have to pour toooooo slowly, but also, give the water some time to contact with the grounds.

Step 5: Drain Р1 minute.  Get your coffee mug ready, put on your shoes. Once all the coffee has drained through, you have black gold ready for your vessel of choice.

Was that hard?  NO.  

We stumbled on the flavor and excellence of pour-over coffee apart from the hipsters; our coffee pot died and we were desperate one morning. A quick Google search revealed that only Americans use a percolating machine for morning juice. Everyone else (who isn’t making espresso) does some version of a pour over or French press. ¬† And it’s 574738475747 times better!¬†

Coffee Equipment – our setup

We bought a Bodum, a water boiler, and a coffee grinder. Apart from actual coffee, this is all you need! The Bodum is easy to clean; the water pot is handy for other kitchen uses, and theoretically you could grind spices in the grinder if you keep it clean.

I eventually added a natural bristle brush to use when tapping the ground coffee out of our grinder.  Some coffees are more oily than others, and a brush lets you a) get all the good coffee grains into your filter for brewing and b) clean the grinder with a few quick swipes while you wait for the coffee to drain.

Bodum 34 oz Pour Over Coffee Maker with Permanent Filter

You can often find this Bodum on sale at Starbucks or Target or Amazon for $20 or less, so keep an eye out. ¬†It’s a beautiful shape on its own; the mouth is wide enough to get a brush down in there and clean the thing out; the filter has never let us down and rinses quickly.

You can make 2 huge mugs of coffee in this or 4 small “after dinner” dainty cups of coffee. It holds 1 liter below the collar.

Better Coffee - Bodum

Coffee Grinder

We use the Krups F203 pictured here, but there are many affordable electric grinders available at multiple stores. Heck, wait till Bed Bath & Beyond sends you one of their incessant 20% off coupons through the mail and go pick one out.  Check site reviews first. Our little Krups has performed consistently well for us.

Krups F203 coffee grinder

Electric Kettle

Again, there are a million of these. Read the reviews, use a coupon, wait for an Amazon sale — whatever. We have a B&D model that we like, but anything that boils water quickly will do. ¬†Stovetop teakettles are perfectly fine, though it takes longer to boil the water than with an electric kettle, and the electric models have an auto-shutoff that prevents you from worrying you’ll burn the house down.

Black & Decker electric kettle - make better coffee

Bristle Brush

Look, this costs $4. Buy a brush; it’ll make your life easier and keep your grinder clean. ¬†This one is easy to wash with a little dish soap and water once a week; good as new.

Make better coffee - brush to clean your grinder

 

 


“But what if….”

This looks like work. Why should I buy into this method?

Look.¬†Are you still eating ramen noodles out of a foam container or Kraft Shells & Cheez? ¬†If you answered No, then grow up and make better coffee. It’s not hard and it doesn’t take more than 5 minutes. You waste 5 minutes trying to find your keys.

This looks like a hipster conspiracy.

I know, and I don’t disagree. But if you were a true hipster, you’d be using a Chemex and one of those swan-necked teapots and s l o w l y pouring water over a paper cone filter using only organic locally roasted beans ground by a $200 burr grinder by a Brandon in a beard.¬†Go to your hipster hangout to get that. What I’m suggesting is pouring water over fresh grounds yourself instead of letting some sad machine do it for you and murder all the flavor in the process.

No, really, this is too much.

For goodness sake, buy a French press then!  Throw grounds in the bottom, pour boiling water in, wander off (maybe tell Alexa to set a 4 minute timer).  Come back, plunge, drink. IS THAT STILL TOO HARD?

But I need to make coffee for a small army!

Buy two French presses or Bodums then? Your tea kettle can likely boil 2 quarts, so mass production simply requires twice as much coffee (two batches of grounds) and two vessels. On a busy morning or hectic dinner party, I’d probably go with 1 or 2 of the big French presses instead. Grind, pour, walk away.

I really like my Keurig.

You’re dead to me. ¬† ¬†Reason #1 ¬† Reason #2

Recipe: Monday Night Fast Whole Grain & Protein Bowls

I don’t remember where I originally got this idea, but I think it was the lucky cross-pollination of one too many Bon Appetit magazines and the discovery of quick-cooking faro at the grocery store, combined with a goal to eat better whole grains and lean proteins in 2019.¬†

We make these grain bowls on busy weeknights because they come together fast – in less than 30 minutes. If you’re using a leftover protein (literally anything could work here), then you could be done in less than 15.

The secret: this dressing! It packs a lot of flavor and punch. Print off the recipe and take it to the store with you this weekend. You’ll have to invest in some ingredients initially, but they’ll last you for several weeks, bringing the total cost of this recipe into what i consider “great quality food for way less than I’d pay at a restaurant” – and that’s good eats!

Also, you can swap freely — use an oil you have on hand, use a different vinegar, try a new flavor. If it tastes good after you shake it, you’re good to go!

Monday Night Grain Bowl | RameyLady cooks
This grain bowl was made with leftover pork, but we usually go with salmon or another “healthy” fish when we can catch some on sale. This bowl includes quick-cooking faro, fresh spinach and tomatoes, roasted red peppers (from a jar), edamame and cashews, orange slices, and avocado with leftover roast pork loin from the previous day.

Lori’s Monday Night Grain Bowl

Here’s the basic outline:

  1. Start cooking the protein or pull out leftovers
  2. Start cooking the grain (farro, brown rice, etc)
  3. Make the dressing – maybe double it for use again next week
  4. Prep the fresh vegetables, fruit, garnishes
  5. Assemble! Pour a little dressing over every layer, especially the grains so they soak up that flavor!

The Dressing

Make extra and leave it in the frig for next week’s bowl.¬†

These are proportions, not measurements. Taste and see if it’s good; adjust as needed. If you aren’t sure where to start, try going with 1-2 Tablespoons as your “1” in the 2:1:1 ratio and multiply accordingly. ¬†You’re going to need enough to dress the vegetables, the grain, and the meat, so make enough!

  • SECRET WEAPON OF GOODNESS: ¬†2 parts toasted sesame oil
  • 1 part¬†¬†flavored olive oil – we use chile oil
  • 1 part sherry vinegar or rice wine vinegar or …use what you’ve got; taste and adjust until it’s tangy and flavorful without being obnoxious
  • 1 part¬†orange or lemon juice – fresh squeezed is nice
  • ¬Ĺ part srirachaoptional ¬†(lighten up on this if you don’t like hot) – can use any hot sauce that carries flavor as well as heat
  • a few dashes¬†soy sauce¬†or fish sauce or other salty but flavorful dark liquid
  • dash of minced or ground or grated garlic and/or ginger¬†or use a paste that combines both!
  • pinch of salt (if you didn’t use soy sauce)
  • pinch of pepper (fresh ground of course, if you can)
  • pinch of dry¬†aromatic¬†herb- optional — I like oregano or thyme

Tool: Salad dressing shaker — OXO makes an inexpensive one; I use a Tupperware shaker that’s been in my kitchen forever. ¬†Perk: Double the recipe and store the rest for next week. If sealed, it’ll keep for a couple weeks easily.

Cook a Grain

Here’s how we do it: Put¬†¬Ĺ cup dried quick-cooking farro* per person (maybe ‚Öď cup if you need to stretch it) into a saucepan with 2 cups of water and 1 Tablespoon of Mexican adobo seasoning* or chicken bullion granules. ¬†Cook for 10-12 minutes (per package directions) once it comes to boil. Drain and divide among bowls – we usually pile it in the center, near the spinach.

*We use quick-cooking 10 Minute Farro from Trader Joe’s. It cooks in 10-12 minutes and it’s done! Costs about $2 a bag at TJ. ¬†Link goes to Amazon; you can buy quick-cooking faro in most grocery stores for WAY cheaper than what you’ll pay on Amazon, but at least you’ll see the packaging.

*My store carries Adobo seasoning in the Mexican shelf, but the standard Goya brand is reaaaally salty (which is partly why I use it when cooking the farro). ¬†You can buy organic adobo blends that are less salty, but don’t forget to salt the farro or rice while it cooks.

Assemble your Bowl!

Again, use what you’ve got! ¬†Swap in other fresh salad ingredients or proteins. ¬†We build up from greens to grains to protein, adding a little dressing on every layer, parking produce, citrus, and avocado around the sides of the bowl, then garnishing.

  • 3-5 oz per person of cooked protein – *see below for ideas
  • handful of kale, spinach, arugula or other sturdy fresh green – no iceberg lettuce!
  • ¬Ĺ cup per person cooked “quick” farro or brown rice¬†(or any cooked, hearty grain) ¬†*see above for notes
  • fresh produce: ¬†we use cherry tomatoes (sliced in half), thin-sliced red or green onion, sliced bell peppers or jarred roasted peppers — pretend you’re making the best salad of snacking vegetables and go at it
  • orange segments¬†or other citrus, optional
  • edamame and/or roasted nuts (almonds or cashews) really add a crunchy punch
  • sliced avocado¬†– also helps cool off the heat from the chile oil and sriracha

*Proteins – We sometimes roast a piece of salmon and split it into 3-4 oz portions for the top of the bowl. ¬†Or pan-sear shrimp. ¬†Or used cooked chicken, pork, or steak that’s been reheated. ¬†You can pan-fry or bake tilapia. ¬†Consider cooking a little extra next time you’re making supper, and plan to use the left-overs in the grain bowl the next day. ¬†If you’re vegetarian, maybe fry an egg on top – that would be delicious!

The key is to think ahead just enough that you have a leftover ready to go or a fast-cooking protein, or maybe a rotisserie chicken from the store on your way home.  And you could make things even faster by cooking rice or wheat berries or farro ahead of time and having them in the frig, ready to reheat, dress, and eat!

Monday Night Grain Bowl | RameyLady cooks

 

Slow-Fried French Fries Recipe | Bon Appetit

I know this is going to sound crazy, but I ran across this slow-fry recipe for making French fries at home a couple years ago, and it’s honestly THE BEST for that one time a year you think, “Hey, I’m going to throw caution and wisdom to the side and actually fry these frozen potato sticks.”

In essence, you dump cold, frozen french fries into a deep pot (I use a thin T-Fal 4-quart pot that I also use for making pasta, because it’s sturdy enough to work well but thin enough to transfer the heat quickly). ¬†Cover the fries with oil, ¬†preferably with an extra inch of oil above the fries. ¬†(I’ve done it with less in a pinch.) ¬†Turn the heat to medium and walk away for about 15 minutes.

From there, you’ll stir the fries occasionally for the next 20-30 minutes as they cook through. Once they’re cooked, crank the heat up to medium high and leave them alone for 10-15 minutes to brown thoroughly and get crispy.

Pull them out (I use tongs) onto paper-toweled racks or baking sheets and salt them.  They end up crunchy and delicious, without spattering grease all over the kitchen (the normal outcome of throwing cold food into a hot fryer). De-lish!

via Slow-Fried French Fries Recipe | Bon Appetit

PS. You can usually get more than one fry-session out of the oil, unless you’ve got weird potatoes coated in seasoning or whatever. ¬†Let the oil cool off on the back of the stove, and later that night (or the next morning), use a funnel to pour the clean oil back into your oil bottle. Leave the bottom layer, because the fry bits will have settled.

As long as you didn’t scorch the fries, you can get another round of frying out of that oil. It’ll be a darker color, but it’s perfectly fine for a second batch.

PPS. This is a great recipe to pair with my favorite Belgian beef stew, using this recipe …¬†¬† which ranked as one of my favorite discoveries of 2014. ¬†Our local Belgian pub, The Trappe Door (oh how I love them!), serves their flemandes stew with crunchy fries and fry sauces, and it’s lovely.

Advice from my 40-something self to my 20-something self

*taps* Hello? Hellooooo? Is this thing on? (You never know with time travel equipment.)

Ok. I’ve got a chance to send some advice back to my younger self, and I think it’s worth the risks. If I poof out of existence because I tangled the timelines…well, I guess this post will disappear too.

But not before I pass along some good stuff, the hard-earned coin of these past couple decades.

Don’t buy things. Buy experiences.

Young Self, I’ve been sending a lot of your stuff to Goodwill and eBay this year, stuff I bought when I was your age and then didn’t really use much. It’s easy when you’re just starting out in life to buy things that other people use because they seem to be getting so much good use out of them.

Here’s the thing: we Americans are hoarders. We’re consumers. We consume things then leave their discarded husks around to clutter up shelves and closets and the garage. It’s dumb, and it spawns a lot of needless dusting and angst. Let. It. Go.

All you need in your kitchen is …

  • An excellent set of knives. When the Cutco Guy shows up at your door sometime in 2002, make sure you let him in. Yes, the price is outrageous, but good tools cost money. No, you can’t afford it – buy a set anyway. We’ve been using these knives for 15+ years now and I thank Hephaestus for them every single day. We got them re-honed and factory sharpened a couple years ago. I plan to use them till I die, and then my friends can argue over who gets to inherit them.
  • A 12″ cast iron skillet and a 6″ cast iron skillet. You hardly need any other skillets. I don’t know why I waited so long to discover the magic of cast iron, but I’m going to blame it on the stupidity of youth. We make a breakfast scramble in the little one at least once a week and use the big one for nearly everything.
  • An enameled cast iron Dutch oven. This is the other half of my short list of “indispensable cookware.” You can make soup, stew, cacciatore, gravy, roasted meat, braised beef, slow cooked pulled pork….. it’s a magical device. It’s heavy, yeah, but it’s worth it. Make this beer braised pork roast and these carnitas and this Belgian beef stew all year long. ¬†I have the one by Food Network because who has money for LeCruset?
  • Round out the cookware with a heavy sauce pan (I have a great anodized aluminum one from Calphalon), a cheap big pot for pasta (big and thin so it boils fast; mine is left over from a T-Fal set), and a small LeCruset metal enameled pot for making rice or cheesy grits. Any small, heavy pot will get a lot of use.
  • A small supply of high quality tools, preferably ones that do multiple jobs (Alton Brown’s rule). My list includes silicon scrapers and stiff spatulas that resist high heat or work for scraping a batter bowl; wooden spoons for cooking because they can handle high heat and a lot of abuse; a sturdy nylon whisk and a pan whisk (so handy – go buy one), good quality ice cream scoop (this one has held up for at least 15 years) and pie server (Pampered Chef wins here); a citrus reamer (I use this metal coated one); a thin and very sharp knife (I got a few of them free at Pampered Chef parties but you can buy them inexpensively on Amazon); and these little spatulas from Pampered Chef which are absolutely perfect for cookies. We also use stainless steel measuring cups (for dry ingredients) and spoons all the time, and a classic set of Pyrex 1 cup, 2 cup, and 4 cup for liquids. Just like Mom’s! ūüėČ

I’ve got a few other random kitchen tools tucked away, but I’ve gotten rid of a whole bunch of them and I feel so much better.

You don’t need to hoard recipes, except a few proven winners. I have a few handwritten cards of my dad’s recipes (still) and the ones given to me by ladies at my bridal shower (though I’ve cooked only a few…..hmmmm….probably should dig into those). ¬†You’ll soon learn that cooking is an art and a set of heuristics rather than an exact science, and I pull out recipes only rarely. ¬†I pared down my cookbook collection as well, though I did keep a few standards or really pretty ones.

This is our #1 favorite coffee-making machine. We got ours from Amazon; click the image to check it out.  Morning coffee is an amazing, sensory ritual Рand takes less than 5 min.

Throw out that damn automatic drip coffee maker. Blech. Ours broke one morning 4 or 5 years ago so we turned to Google in desperation to figure out how the “uncivilized” world makes coffee. Discovered that we were the heathens, imprisoning our coffee for years in that sad machine. We’ve settled now on a simple Bodum vessel and a Black & Decker electric kettle (which also helps out for heating water for pasta). Coffee takes 109x better and our morning coffee ritual (which takes barely 5 minutes) is genuinely satisfying.

I don’t know why I waited 10+ years to buy myself an electric can opener (this is ours¬†and we love it).¬†Sometimes you hate doing a particular chore and it’s worth stepping up to a better tool. I should have bought one in Year One of our marriage. Durp. ¬† ¬†I put my KitchenAid stand mixer in this same category. It’s 20 years old and trucking right along. ¬†I’ve used it to make bread dough, cheesecakes, and mashed potatoes, but Coart uses it all the time to mix up chocolate chip cookie batter — and that’s a holy rite which shall never be interrupted.

Ok, enough kitchen…. on to other topics…..

Don’t pretend to be someone you aren’t, even to keep other people happy. Hold your head high when you walk into the liquor store or when you wear that pink shirt and short shorts or when you duck into Hot Topic to see what the kids are into these days or when you crank up the volume on your playlist. I still remember a lady at church talking about hiding beer in her grocery cart and feeling like she had to justify herself to people in the store: “I’m buying it for taco soup!” Look: No one cares why you’re buying beer. And if they do, is it any of their damn business? NOPE. Don’t hang out with judgey people and don’t let them dictate your actions. (But don’t be a jerk either – it’s obviously kind and caring to avoid engaging in actions you know will offend a friend. ¬†I’m talking about the non-friends who exist in your personal orbit.)¬†

Thing is, there’s a lot of pressure on you to stay within particular boundaries, especially when you’re a teacher. ¬†Don’t go out looking for trouble, but don’t ever pretend to be something you aren’t. Eventually people will figure it out. (And teenagers will detect bullshit immediately.)

If something is wrong or harmful or unkind, don’t do it. ¬†If it’s not any of those categories, then don’t pretend like you don’t do it if you do. ¬†Simple as that.

This is on my list for the front door area as soon as planting season hits. (Links to Amazon)

Plant stuff in the yard the first year you buy the house!¬†Don’t wait around (like we did, thinking “we’ll get to it….”) because then you’ll end up owning the same house for 15 years but still have zero landscaping except now you’re angry about how much nicer your yard would’ve looked by now if you’d scraped together some money for landscaping from the very start. ¬†Skip 4 Starbucks runs and buy a plant or a load of topsoil instead.¬†

Stop working for low pay. This one might be controversial, younger self, and I’m not trying to tell you what to do. Other than this: take time to sketch out a career plan. Don’t just let your career happen to you. And don’t allow your skills to be undervalued in your earnings, unless you’re getting something else equally valuable (like experience or learned skills or fulfillment).

Get better sooner at making a monthly budget and sticking to it. You aren’t good at this. And growing up poor warped your understanding of money and finances. I know you know that you’ll get more out of retirement savings¬†if you start sooner. Start with something like Acorns¬†with loose change, at first. ¬† I know it’s hard to forego current delights for the sake of future investment. Not working for low pay will help you fix that problem, but adjusting your lifestyle down to enjoy experiences rather than material goods helps too. Go find a friend and hang out. You don’t need to spend $60 to visit Biltmore to do that effectively.

Don’t pay for cable. Don’t steal it either….just….hang in there. They’re going to invent this service called Netflix and also YouTube and then this other thing called Hulu and then you’ll have all the TV you’ll ever need. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have friends who pay for cable but share their online account password with you so you can watch this hot show on HBO called Game of Thrones.

 

I think my connection is fading, so last thing: ¬†¬†Take care of the kids who need you –they’re going to grow up into amazing adults one day, and they’ll appreciate what you invested in them. Don’t stop fighting for the kids no one else thinks will make it. The underdogs can make it – they just need a hand up.

Peace out.

The Kids (Tastebuds) Aren’t All Right

Of all the things I didn’t expect about turning 40, my increasing intolerance for mediocre food wasn’t on the list.

Let’s be honest: When I was 20-something, I ate a lot of food that was honestly meh. I shopped at Sam’s and bought Hamburger Helper by the case. I had my share of processed, canned, and crock pot meals that somehow tasted good to me at the time. ¬†We ate where we could afford (though even in my 20s I knew White Castle burgers are gross and Skins hotdogs are vastly overrated).

It’s no surprise that one’s taste’s mature as we age, but I didn’t anticipate the side order of snobbery that seems to have come along with it. ūüėČ

This may or may not be the hipster venue in question…

Case in point: A couple weeks ago, the hubs and I stopped by one of Green Vegas’s up and coming hipster paradise locavore farm-to-table restaurants. The place has a carefully curated interior (I’d die to have those raw brick walls and rough-hewn tabletops in my own house).

But the food? ¬†Underwhelming. Tastes like…. well, not much of anything. Despite having “delicious” in the title of the restaurant, the food….wasn’t. ¬†It was weak. ¬†Good quality, but lacking any nuance in flavor.

I looked around at a crowd of Millennials with their knobby knit scarves and fall boots and flannel shirts and trimmed beards, munching down on food that I could have made myself far better. I longed to throw an arm over their shoulders and bring them into my kitchen to taste tonight’s beef stew, rich with the flavors formed in the pan by a little pork and a spike of both sherry and balsamic vinegar over the local farm beef chunks, slow-basted in the oven, married to carrots/onions/celery and creamy with pearl barley. ¬†There are flavors under the flavors, flavors that unpack themselves inside your mouth like a spy who’d stowed away in a shipping container, springing out to surprise you with truly golden-brown and delicious tastes.

Or consider one of our really popular hangout joints here in A-town. ¬†Formerly a noisy street tavern full of loud music and shouting drunks, the reimagined Earle Street Kitchen throbs with activity every night. Can’t even find a place to park on Fridays and Saturdays. How’s the food? Well, the goat cheese potato fritters ARE really tasty, and I can usually find something worth drinking on tap. The rest of it? Salt. It tastes like salt. No nuance here either. ¬†People from age 18 to 65 are packing out the place. What gives? (I was genuinely offended when someone I know raved about their mahi-mahi & grits. Yeah there was goat cheese in the grits and that’s a good idea and I plan to steal it but…. the rest of it still tastes predominantly of salt with a side of garlic.)

**UPDATE, Dec 2017**
I have to be honest: I was at this restaurant again a few days ago, and my meal was genuinely good. The crab cakes in particular were tasty and well-seasoned. Perhaps the kids are learning to cook. ūüėČ

Photo of a gathering for a friend last year at ESK by Fisher.

I’ve got more money in my pocket than I did at 25 (more bills too, so I think we’re even, younger self), but I’m loathe to spend it on food that, while may be the freshest and most environmentally conscious, fails to thrill. If the cooks haven’t learned to layer flavor in ways that provide a satisfying experience for my taste buds, why am I giving them money?

And can someone explain to me how Mellow Mushroom stays in business? The pizza is tasty, don’t get me wrong, but the prices are like “holy mother of beelzebub, why does this pizza cost more than what I pay for groceries monthly?” And since it seems to take 45 minutes for your pizza to arrive at the table, they must start the second rise of the dough when you place your order. ¬†I don’t get it. ¬†Am I just impatient now? ¬†#getoffmylawn #takeyourbadservicewithyou

We’ve also been mourning the demise of some of our old haunts. Maybe it IS me and my finicky tastebuds getting cranky with middle age, but the fries at McGee’s are soggy now, and everything seems to have dropped a notch in quality (except the wine list). I wish they’d team up with the brewery in their backyard to beef up their beer offerings and reopen the back deck to liven up the place. Maybe I don’t like the food as much now that the pub is funeral-quiet every time I walk in, as if it were a retiree rocking on the front porch waiting to die. ¬†The food at Fiesta doesn’t stand out like it used to compared to L Taco (but I have a soft spot in my heart for Fiesta’s burro de la roqueta). ¬†The faithful Empire Chinese on the corner is under new management, after we basically watched the former owners’ kid grow up from nugget to teenager. It’s still good, but I can taste the difference. ¬†:/ ¬†I hope the owners have moved into a business where they can get a day off.

Even Starbucks has lost its luster for me. I like my caramel macchiato ¬†because it’s not usually overly sweet (try swapping in the PSL syrup for the usual vanilla syrup – it’s less “candy-sweet” than a PSL but you get some nice spice). But most of the Starbucks syrups just taste like chemicals to me nowadays. Blech.

But I have digressed.

20140318-081247.jpgTo my lovely Millennials: I adore how earnestly you want your food to be sustainable and genuine. I love that you’ve said “bump this!” to boring grocery stores and are happy to let Amazon drop groceries on your doorstep. I’m glad you’ve forced Baby Boomers to learn what avocado toast is, even if they mock you for it (without good reason). I think good experiences trump having a big bank account. Your generation gives me a lot of hope that 2017 may not be the only dark apocalyptic vision available for our future. Thank you for reviving Saturday farmer’s markets and telling O’Charley’s to go die.

But please come over sometime and let me cook for you. You don’t need to spend all those hard-earned dollars on mediocre food. ¬†Learn to roast vegetables and chicken in your oven. Learn to braise a pork shoulder and serve it with good crusty bread from a local bakery. Buy a large cast iron skillet, keep it oiled, and use it for everything including those grass-fed, free-range steaks you bought at the Saturday market. Make your own damn coffee – it takes five minutes, a $30 grinder from BBB, and a $20 Bodum.

*****
Hipster places we DO love:
– Tandem Creperie
– Methodical Coffee
– Nose Dive
– White Duck Taco (be still, my heart!!)

Non-hipster places everyone should try:
– Inky’s (Philly cheesesteaks in Easley!) – thanks, Mel! ‚̧
– L Taco in Anderson (owned by my neighbor!!!)
– The Pita House, a Greenville classic
– the Tropical Grille out on Pelham & 14 (and only that one) for the slow-roasted Cuban “chop” (pork & beans & rice bowl)

Accidental Culinary Adventures

This is how I cook: I open up the refrigerator or pantry and say, “What’s here?” If there are enough building blocks to create a meal along the lines of something I’ve cooked before and enjoyed, problem solved.

This approach leads to occasional accidental delights (but mostly just decent supper food). Here are two that happened in my kitchen in the past month. See if you’re similarly inspired to experiment. ūüėČ

Chicken Orzo-tore

I’ve been making chicken cacciatore since I started cooking (a few days after I got married), but I learned the recipe by watching my dad make it countless times for supper. It was easy, relatively quick, and cheap – all qualities that my dad prized in his culinary endeavors

Recipe:¬†Dad’s Chicken Cacciatore

But the other day, as I eyed a small bag of orzo pasta I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s, I had an epiphany: What If I swapped out the rice I usually serve alongside cacciatore, and used the orzo instead?

The verdict: Delicious! I cooked the orzo pasta on the side and then throw the cooked orzo into the pot of cacciatore once it came out of the oven. However, I’m wondering if I should have cooked the orzo straight into the cacciatore so it would pick up more of those flavors. Dunno. May try that next time.

Post Pork-Roast Beef Stew

So last month, I made the most incredible pork roast thanks to this recipe from an Upstate cook:

Balsamic Beer-Braised Pork Roast, from She Wears Many Hats

Photo by She Wears Many Hats, where I found the recipe. Just LOOK at that pork!
Photo by She Wears Many Hats, where I found the recipe. Just LOOK at that pork!

It’s an amazing recipe. So easy; so incredibly flavorful.

I make two changes from her recipe. The first, I use rendered bacon fat (cook a couple pieces, pull out the bacon, use it for something else) to sear the pork roast in the first step. The additional smokiness of a high quality bacon adds incomparable depth of flavor. Goes without saying that you need to be using a good bacon here; I keep Trader Joe’s applewood smoked bacon in the frig at all times.

Second, once the pork roast had been seared but before adding the cooking liquid (beer et al), I deglaze the pan with some bourbon or sherry. Sometimes a little of both, in succession. Scrape up the brown bits and let the meat soak up some of the alcohol before continuing. Again, it’s a layer of flavor that makes a difference in the end.

When you’re done (follow the recipe), you have pork that just falls apart and shreds with no effort at all. It’s incredible as pulled pork sandwiches; you need no additional BBQ sauce.

But then…. there’s more magic to be had in the pot! You’ll need your favorite beef stew recipe – look it up on the Internet and pick up some cheap “stew beef” at the store on your next grocery run, along with carrots, potatoes, onion, celery, a box of beef broth, and either rice or big noodles or barley or whatever.

Let the drippings cool until the fat congeals on top. Stop being squeamish; this is part of life when cooking with meat. Scrape off and discard as much of the solid fat as you can, leaving behind the beer-broth and bits of pork from the earlier recipe.

Heat what’s left on medium in your Dutch oven till it’s going pretty hard and throw in all your chopped vegetables. If you did too good a job of removing fat, you might need to add a wee bit of olive oil or butter here. ¬†Meanwhile, brown your beef chunks in a skillet on the side and throw them in with the vegetables once they get brown on all sides. (The extra work is worth it – I promise.) ¬†Add your broth and seasonings, and throw the whole pot into the oven¬†for an hour or more, till the potatoes are completely done and the beef is tender.

If you’re going to add rice or noodles it might be easier to cook those on the stovetop and then add them at the end.

The result: Your beef stew will have this magical depth of flavor, a savory-ness that I can’t ever get when I just “make beef stew,” no matter what seasonings I add. The leftovers from the pork bring so many good flavors to the party, but nothing clashes with the traditional beef stew vibe.

I’m committed now to always making the pork recipe before I make a regular beef stew. I’m not sure I can go back to the old way…. ūüėČ

The Backstory: The Pig and I

I have a full series of biographical posts here, if you wish to attempt some armchair psychoanalysis on RameyLady. 
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I have only a few rules that I strive to follow at work (in addition to the basics of human kindness):

1. Don’t be too loud. ¬†
The struggle is real, y’all. ¬†I work at a rather quiet place. ¬†I think my laugh carries all the way down the hall…. to like the second floor…

2. ¬†Don’t be too weird.
If you’re reading The Backstory series, you understand: When I went off to college and spent some time with people from all around the country, I realized just how odd I am. ¬†I blame this on being raised by¬†a struggling working-class family living on a mountain in Appalachia, raised by parents a full generation older than any of my friends, as an only child whose primary companions were a few of the dysfunctional neighbor kids, our 10 cats, whatever came over the airwaves on the TV or local radio, and thousands of books.

3. Don’t say the F-word.¬†
…without having *very* good reason.

Three rules.  Should be simple.

You’d be amazed though.

So at lunch yesterday, when the talk of the table had turned – twice – to the subject of pigs …..hunting wild hogs ….. eating wild hogs [not as much meat as you’d think] ….. pet “comfort” pigs [I don’t know, I didn’t ask]) … plus pet pot-bellied pigs had come up in conversation before that as I was walking to lunch ‚ÄĒ I had the momentary thought of telling this story to the table.

Until I did a reality check, and decided the necessity of explaining my entire background before the story could even make sense probably took me past the boundaries of rule #2.

[I made the right call, I think. ¬†Moments later, when I suggested that cauliflower tastes delicious roasted in a very hot oven with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, they all looked at me like I had 4 heads. ¬†*shakes head* ¬†People shouldn’t abuse food the way they do, like by not roasting cauliflower and eating that amazing caramelized toasty goodness on a cool winter evening. I digress.]

So here, dear reader, is the story that came to mind when the talk of the table turned to the pigs.

*****
I don’t know why my parents started to acquire large and small animals on our 12 acres of land, but they did.

I don’t have any actual memories of this, but family lore confirms that as soon as my family had settled on the mountain ¬†in a little cement block house built by the previous owner (our temporary dwelling while my dad and brothers constructed our house), my brothers managed to talk my parents into letting them get a horse.

I’ll have to share the horse story some other day. ¬†He didn’t last long with THAT attitude….

Over the course of my life, we had – in addition to the horse – two pigs, many chickens, two dogs, and a multitude of cats….. plus my brother’s beehives (for a time)…. which led to a few visits by a hungry black bear (and the end of several of the beehives). Oh, and fish.

When I was a preschooler, we had two hogs.  My dad and brothers constructed a pig pen a ways down into the woods from the house Рto prevent our yard from smelling like a farm Рand split trees into a fence.

The sow, black and pink and rather grouchy, bore the name Sarai for no reason that I can explain. I was probably 4; every part of the world made as much sense as anything else, no matter how bizarre, though I’m sure I asked why. ¬† Sarai had a piglet (hers? not sure) that we called Rudy. ¬†I don’t recall Rudy’s end, but I’m *pretty* certain a large wild animal feasted on him before we could do anything else with him. ¬†Like serve him for supper.

I was daddy’s girl and followed him pretty much everywhere. ¬†We took vegetable scraps and leftover food down to the pig trough for them to devour. ¬†I learned how much fun it is to torment pigs – they glare at you with beady eyes. And they’re hella intelligent. It got to where they’d always stay across the pen from me if I was outside. ¬†Inside the fence, I found them large and terrifying. ¬†All that bulk and snuffling. ¬†And mud. ¬†*ew* ¬†[insert Jimmy Fallon voice here]

Then one day in the golden autumn, my dad fired up his 1960-something Ford pickup truck, which had a rebuilt bed of wood with tall sides made of slats, and drove it and my brothers down to the pigpen. It took all 3 of them and maybe a neighbor too to pin down Sarai – who was huge and unhappy – and wrestle her up into the truck, tying her down.

The boys stayed in the back; my mom and dad flanked me on the red truck seat in the cab as we drove across the mountain to a barn-like building with a name¬†something¬†like Sonny’s or Sam’s or Harry’s. ¬†That’s where the men dragged Sarai squealing off the truck and then disappeared into the building for quite a long time.

I was furious at being stuck in the truck cab with my mom. ¬†Livid. ¬†My dad had left no opening for disobedience here; he was clear that I was to stay put…. plus my mom wasn’t going to let me do anything more than stare through the back window of the truck cab. ¬† So I waited. And stared.

And that was my family field trip to the slaughterhouse. ūüôā

I’m sure I was given a basic explanation that Sarai had served her purpose and it was time for her to go … and that we would be able to eat bacon and pork chops and roasts all winter thanks to her sacrifice. ¬†I remember when the truckload of white-wrapped packages came back from the butcher, labeled in black sharpie. ¬†(The bacon was especially tasty.)

I don’t recall being particularly traumatized by the realization that the animal I’d helped raise was now part of supper. ¬†I don’t know what that says about my psyche, but it was normal for mountain life. ¬†We buried many pets while I grew up, lots several chickens to a hungry possum, and got rid of the troublesome horse.

Death is always near in the Appalachians.  It just is.