Easy Weekend Beef Stew

At the store this week, chuck steak was on sale. I saw this as an opportunity to make my beef stewEasy Weekend Beef Stew. This hearty dish is low in calories (340 per 1-1/2 cup serving), low in fat (13 grams) and high on flavor. I recommend making it without a lot of additions the first time. But after that, feel free to make your own additions and changes to make this your own. After all, I stole this from Mr. Food.

First, brew a pot of coffee. Actually, you don’t need a whole pot, just a couple of cups, one of which will go into the stew. The rest you can drink as you look over the Sunday newspaper waiting for the lovely stew to get going.small_cup_of_coffee

This recipe is good for more inexpensive cuts of beef, like chuck, round steak or flank steak. Making a pot of this is handy for eating the rest of the week, so don’t get hyper about the amounts.

We’re using only a single pound of beef in this dish. You’ll recall I advocate eating more vegetables than meat. Don’t worry, we’ll make plenty of beef flavor.

Next, wash your meat! No, bachelors, I’m not talking about taking a shower, although that is not a bad idea. I’m talking about rinsing off the one pound of beef after you open the package from the store. I think you should wash anything you can in the kitchen. cheapbeefWhile you’re at it, also wash about 6 medium potatoes, 3 stalks of celery, about 3 carrots, and a medium onion. Don’t have that many potatoes and carrots? No problem! Use what you have. It just won’t be as full of veggies. Lay all the cleaned meat and veggies on clean paper towels to drain.

Put 2 cups of water in your measuring cup, drop in a beef bullion cube and stick it in the microwave for 2 minutes to get the water warm enough to melt the cube. Got beef stock? Use about a cup of that with a cup of water. No bullion cubes? That’s okay, you can skip it. The point of this dish is to use what you have on hand.

Speaking of hands, make sure you keep them clean throughout this process by washing them with hot water and soap often. Wiping them off on a dish or kitchen towel just won’t do.

Don’t worry about cutting up the vegetables yet. We’ll get to that. Now I want you get out a shallow bowl or pie plate and add 3 tablespoons of regular all-purpose flour. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlso add in a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of black pepper and maybe a pinch or two of other dry spices you like with beef. This can include paprika, basil, oregano, cumin or garlic powder. Mix the flour well. Stay away from the hot spices for now because cooking will concentrate them and it can get too spicy.

Pat the beef dry and cut into 1/2-inch chunks, about bite sized. Put the beef pieces into the flour mixture and use your hands to toss the meat around until every piece is completely covered with flour. This should use nearly all of the mixture. Don’t throw the leftover flour mix out. We’ll use that later.

Put a large saucepan or soup pot on medium heat and add a 1/2 stick of butter or 1/4 cup of olive oil. When hot, add in the floured beef pieces and brown on all sides. The more browning, the more flavor, but don’t burn it. Use a wooden spoon to move the meat around from time to time. This should take about ten minutes. The flour may turn a little grayish, but that’s okay.

Then add the water (or water & stock mixture), a cup of coffee (a CUP, not a mug), a teaspoon of dried thyme and a few dashes of Worcestershire Sauce. If you have it, you can also use a little anchovy paste or asian fish sauce. I also like a teaspoon of hoisin sauce with all meat dishes. Mix the ingredients well and bring the heat up to medium high until it starts to boil. Then reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about an hour.

Now, I know that seems like a long time, but remember you’re using a cheap cut of meat and it takes time to make it tender. Trust me it will work and you shouldn’t have to watch it. You can, if you feel the need, give the pot a stir a time or two, but as long as the heat is low it should be okay.  Take your coffee and go watch the game or whatever for about 45 minutes. Then, go cut your vegetables. You want everything to be cut into large, bite-size chunks. Be sure to peel the potatoes, the peels just turn into a mess in this application. Add them to the pot along with the leftover flour mixture if you have any. If you have it, a teaspoon of browning and seasoning sauce from the store will help this a lot, but it’s not necessary. Crank up the heat to high and bring to a boil. Then bring the heat back down to low, cover and let it stew for about another hour or until the meat and vegetables are tender. Stop off in the kitchen from time to time and give it a stir.

Remember, always taste the gravy to adjust the seasoning. If it tastes a little muddy, add a splash or two of red wine vinegar. Try that before you add any more salt. Now serve.

Leftovers can go into plastic containers, something any good bachelor should have, and are great popped into the microwave for a minute or two later in the week. You can even freeze some for later. Serve with a slice of crusty bread if you have it.

Pantry Extras – Part 1: Asian Seasonings

Soon, we’ll be taking a look at the next level of kitchen, pantry and dining equipment, tools and foods to have. We’ve looked at basic equipment in the kitchen. We talked about the minimum things we should have in our pantries. We even discussed the minimum pieces and tools you need to eat with. Now, it’s time to love to the next level.

Let’s start in the pantry this time. And let’s start with something near and dear to my heart, Asian sauces and spices. You don’t have to make a lot of stir-fries or other asian dishes to find these seasonings useful. These are some of my favorites, you may find others useful depending on the type of cooking you do. And some of these may not be too much to your liking. As always, follow your own instincts but don’t be afraid to try something new.

Tamari is a Japanese type of real soy sauce. Most of the commercial soy sauce you get at the store is not really soy, but wheat. Look at the ingredient list. Water is always first, but it’s the next couple of ingredients that really tell the story. You’ll see on the major brands that soy is way down on the list, almost more of a flavoring than a real component of the sauce. Tamari also has some wheat in it, but soy is a primary ingredient. I usually buy the reduced sodium version. You may find limited choices in your supermarket, but getting real soy sauce is worth the search. The taste difference is amazing. If you can’t find or don’t want Tamari than get a regular soy sauce to add to marinades, stir-fries and lots of other dishes.

Hoisin. I like to think of this as a sort of Chinese barbecue sauce. It’s made with fermented soybeans and some sort of sweetener, like sugar or plums. Its spiciness is subtle. It’s a great addition to any sauce for red meat or poultry.

Teriyaki sauce is not something you have to buy very often. In fact, you could make your own if you want. Teriyaki, a Japanese sweet and sour seasoning and cooking style, adds a tangy flavor to all kinds of food, including fruit.

Sesame oil. There are two varieties of this, each offering different qualities, neither should be used exclusively for frying or in place of other cooking oils. The taste is too strong for that. Sesame oil is used more as a seasoning than a cooking oil. Regular sesame oil is blond in color and has a strong but not overpowering taste. You can use a little more of this than of the toasted variety. Toasted sesame oil, my favorite, needs only a few drops to add a whole lot of flavor to all kinds of dishes. This oil has a less harsh but just as strong a flavor.

Ginger. Dried and fresh versions of this ancient spice have many uses. Fresh ginger has been used as a medicine. In some forms, it is a delicacy. Ginger is in the same family as turmeric and cardamom. When choosing fresh ginger, younger rhizomes are juicy and have a mild flavor suitable for flavoring oil or making candy. This is the ginger one pickles, which might be something you’ve seen on sushi plates. Older, mature ginger is fibrous and dry. It is usually used as a spice in all sorts of Asian cooking from Japan to India. Dried ginger has less potent taste and thus is used to flavor things like gingerbread.

Five Spice Powder. Perhaps you’ve heard of this Asian spice blend. While it is a must for lots of Chinese cooking, it’s also used for many other Asian cuisines. This blend reflects the Chinese idea of balance: strong and weak, hot and cool, pungent and subtle. Usually, this is a blend of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Szechuan pepper and ground fennel seeds. There are other variations that might include powdered cassia buds (like cinnamon), anise seed or ground ginger. Five Spice Powder is especially good on greasy meats like pork or duck, but goes will in stir-fries or as part of a dry rub.

Fish Sauce. Like the English Worcestershire sauce, this is a fermented blend containing fish. It is a pungent staple condiment in many Asian dishes, especially Filipino and Southeast Asian cuisines. There are many different blends and brands and styles. You may have to experiment to find the type you like best.

Even if you don’t do a lot of Asian cooking, these spices and condiments make a great addition to The Bachelor’s Kitchen pantry.

Zen Cooking When Times Improve

One good thing that’s come out of the Great Recession is that people are eating at home more. That’s a big step toward eating healthier. As I have said, even if what you make at home from scratch isn’t all that good for you, at least you know what’s in it. Right there, that’s a great improvement over just shoveling food into your mouth.

And researchers have found that about 90% of Americans have said they plan on eating and cooking more at home once the economy improves. That’s great news for people like me who are trying to get us all to eat a little better.

Have you ever gone to the gym for the first time in a while and got so sore from over-doing it you didn’t go back? The same thing can happen in cooking. Some people are either too timid or too brave. They either make something that’s so easy it’s barely cooking at all. Or they try to make a standing rib roast with all the fixings first time out and become overwhelmed. The key is a balance. The key is Zen.

Zen is about using meditation to tune in to your own intuition and instincts. The same thing can happen when contemplating cooking. Cooking can be a form of meditation and it can bring you insights into yourself and the nature of food. Looking through a cookbook, we see the gorgeous pictures of shining food. We practically drool over the descriptions of gourmet dishes and meals. In a moment of hubris, we say, “I can do that,” only to find that the clock begins approaching midnight before we have a single thing on the table.

We must resist the urge to run before we can walk. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to make that fancy dish. I’m saying, work your way up to it. You can make great food without getting complicated, spending a ton of money on specialized equipment or stepping out of the kitchen in the middle of the night exhausted and disappointed. That will make picking up the phone and ordering a pizza too appealing.

I’m a simple cook. I get just as much pleasure out of a good pot of beans, rice that comes out delicious or a nice pan of cornbread as I would get out of a lobster that’s not overcooked or a dish of escargot in a butter sauce topped with puff pastry. Cooking that’s overly complicated will give you the same reaction as overdoing it at the gym. It’s painful to throw away food that didn’t turn out right.

We need to evaluate recipes the same way we would judge an athletic event. Are our skills a match for the necessary technique? Can we easily get those exotic ingredients?  Will we use all of that jar of pesto sauce? Can we afford to throw away a failure?

And failure there will be. We all make a mess out of something we’re trying to make sometimes. It happens to the best of us. Even great chefs have stories about dishes that just didn’t turn out right and was nearly inedible.

The answer is to contemplate your recipe. Follow your instincts. Does this require a technique you’re unfamiliar with? Do you have the necessary equipment and tools? Are you certain your store will have those ingredients? Are the leftover ingredients something you will use later? Are there substitutions in either equipment or ingredients that will make it come out okay if not better? Those chefs you see on TV are trained professionals. They’ve been to culinary school. They worked their way up the kitchen ladder. They make it look so easy. They’ve also practiced for hours, days, weeks, months even. You might not be able to do things the way they do. Your stove is far less powerful than what they use in a restaurant kitchen. Your budget is more limited. Be realistic about what you do.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do fancy dishes from time to time. But if you’re planning to make an impressive dish for a dinner party, you probably should have a trial run first. Family and friends can make great guinea pigs. So much of what works in the kitchen is all about confidence.

So, how do you judge? Start with the ingredient list. Anything there you never heard of? I don’t mean that you should skip a recipe just because it calls for something you might have to go to a special, ethnic store to get. Just keep that in mind. Maybe do a little research on the internet or at the library.

Review the equipment cited in the recipe. Does it call for a food processor when you don’t have one. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it may take more time or come out a bit more rustic than the picture.

Read through all the steps. Make sure you understand exactly what you will need to do. If you don’t, set that one aside for now and find something you’re sure you can do. Come back to the first recipe later when your skills have improved.

Look at the time estimates. I’m not fast at doing much of anything. I know that if the prep time in the recipe is 15 minutes, it may take me a half-hour. Too often, recipes underestimate how much time it will take to prepare the ingredients. They usually don’t take into account resting time. Once you understand the steps, you will better be able to judge how much time these things will take.

If you decide to go ahead, remember to do mise en place. That’s preparing and laying out all the ingredients before you begin. Even if there is a lull between steps, don’t assume you’ll have enough time to prepare the next set of ingredients. Unless the time between preparation and use is up to an hour, you’re probably safe to leave them out of refrigerator. Besides, room temperature ingredients usually work better than cold ones. If you get a break, sit down, have a glass of wine and preserve your strength for the next step.

Finally, don’t get too upset if things don’t come out exactly as you planned. Like I said, you will have failures from time to time. Look at it as a lesson learned, take out the trash and remember. You’ll do better next time.

Pantry Basics: Dry Ingredients

Pepper

Along with salt, you need pepper. In most cases, that means black pepper. You can buy it already ground or as peppercorns. For the latter, you’ll need a grinder or pepper mill. Many people swear by the pepper mill and they are right that pepper will lose its potency after it is ground. But that doesn’t mean that already ground pepper doesn’t have a punch. You just might have to use a little more. If you have a pepper mill or grinder, by all means, get the peppercorns, because it is better. But cost may push you to use the pre-ground and that’s okay. The only problem I have with using peppercorns is that they can get expensive. If you can find a good, inexpensive source, go for it. Along with salt, pepper is a basic seasoning that gets put on almost everything.

There are other kinds of peppercorns, white, orange, red and green. They all come from the same plant, piper nigrum, a flowering vine. The peppercorns are drupes, a sort of fruit containing a seed. The color results from drying, preserving or stripping off the outer husk. It’s still the same thing, although minor flavor differences can occur. Different types are used mostly for appearance.

Sugar

Even if you are diabetic or prefer artificial sweetener, you’re still going to need sugar at some time or other. There’s just no replacing it in some cooking, especially baking. That’s because sugar acts like a liquid in many applications. Replacing it with sweetener, even Splenda, doesn’t replace the volume of sugar. However, sometimes, you can replace half the sugar in a recipe and it will work well.

Flour

Wheat flour is used for more than just bread. With flour in the home, you can make biscuits, pancakes, sweet rolls, even tortillas. There are also many kinds of flour from different kinds of grains. But basic white flour is the most versatile for cooking and baking of all kinds.

Why not a wok?

Some people might dispute my belief that a cast iron skillet is the most useful, versatile piece of cookware you can own. I understand. I suppose a lot depends on your cultural heritage. If you grew up in a yurt on the Mongolian plains or in a hutch among the rice patties of rural China you would disagree. You would say that the wok, that ubiquitous Chinese cooking vessel, was more versatile and useful. But that’s probably just because you didn’t grow up cooking on a modern American cooktop.

And that’s the real problem with the wok in American home kitchens. Woks, made of carbon steel, like swords, are great on an open flame. The small, hot fires of rural Asia were what the wok was designed for. And it does that great. Controlling heat on such a fire isn’t easy, and the wok gives the cook varying temperature surfaces so food doesn’t overcook and come out underdone.

Also, the wok is great for camping or other open fire cooking. It can be used to make soup, heat water for washing and be used as a temporary holding spot for odds and ends.

But American cooktops are flat. Even with one of those rings, the heat is very uneven and doesn’t get near hot enough. Also, the heat that leaks out of the ring can cause the stovetop finish to be burned or blackened. So, a wok just doesn’t work that well there.

Instead, use a wok pan. What’s the difference? A traditional wok is heavy and usually has two handles, like a pot. It is shaped like a shallow bowl. But a wok pan has a flat bottom, allowing the cooking surface to be heated evenly on the flat cooktop. And instead of two small handles on the sides, the wok pan has a long handle like a saucepan. That makes it much easier to handle on a typical stove top. Some of the larger models have a small handle on opposite side making it easier to handle the weight.

Wok pans also are made of high-grade aluminum, keeping the weight down but the heating ability high. The shape of the sides still gives you the same stir-frying and cooking ability of a traditional wok. Many are non-stick but without the usual coating. Instead, these pans use a texture inside the pan to keep food from sticking. It’s not fool-proof, but for most stir-frying, it works well. A regular non-stick coating would break down under the high heat usually used in stir-frying. This hybrid pan is really a good choice and I use mine all the time.

Pantry Basics: Cooking Oils

We at The Bachelor’s Kitchen maintain that any well stocked kitchen should have three kinds of salt, three kinds of vinegar and three kinds of cooking oil. And now we’re going to look at those oil choices.

First of all, cooking oil is usually some kind of plant-based fat. These came on the cooking scene about 100 years ago. Before that, people used mostly lard.

Lard really does have some good uses, especially for very high heat cooking. For example, you simply cannot make the classic British dish called Bubble And Squeak with anything other than lard. Many bakers prefer lard as the shortening in pie crusts and other kinds of dough. Its problems are: 1) it cannot be used by people with dietary restrictions against the use of pork, like halal or kashrut; 2) it is high in saturated fat which has been linked to health problems like heart disease; and 3) it’s rendered (cooked) pork fat! But on the good side, it’s a good substitute for butter, it can be used at temperatures up to 420° F, and it has a mouth-feel that vegetable fats do not have.

The go-to all-purpose oil for cooking should be something that doesn’t have a lot of flavor of its own and can withstand high heats without burning or smoking. That means vegetable oil, corn, canola or peanut oil. Vegetable oil can be a mixture of different oils or from some lesser known source such as rapeseed. The most common blends are made of palm, corn, soybean or sunflower oils. Other vegetable oils include olive oil, palm oil, soybean oil, canola oil, pumpkin seed oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, sesame oil, argan oil and rice bran oil.

Some of these oils have raised concerns in recent years because they contain trans fats. Trans fats are especially prevalent in whipped or hydrogenated oil. That process makes fat softer and/or able to stand at room temperatures. But they cause free radicals in the bloodstream which can lead to the creation of blockages in small arteries, such as those feeding the heart.

Our regular oil for cooking is soybean oil. It can handle fairly high temperatures and has very little taste of its own. Also, it is readily available and affordable. I don’t like corn oil because of the flavor and the fact that we eat too much corn in too many things already.

Our second oil, one every home should have, is extra virgin olive oil. This designation, compared to other types of olive oil, does not refer to the olive’s sexual history, but to whether it is from the first pressing of the olives. Olives are pressed much the same way grapes are. The first pressing yields the best oil with the best taste. Extra virgin olive oil has a very distinct flavor that is ideal for infused oils (really good with crusty Italian bread) and salad dressings. However, this is not an oil to use for frying or sautéing because it begins to smoke at temperatures as low as 300° F. Often this oil is used in place of butter in recipes.

Your third cooking oil is going to depend a lot on the kind of food you like to make. If you do a lot of baking, you might choose vegetable shortening rather than an oil.

Some kitchens have a fourth oil. We like popcorn, so we keep on-hand a butter flavored oil just for that.

Oils well sealed can be stored in a cool, dark place, like a cabinet, for many months, but not indefinitely. Like all fats, it will go rancid over time and if allowed to be exposed to air for more than just a few minutes. If it’s an oil you don’t use very often, or you use only in very small amounts, like my toasted sesame oil, it should be stored in the refrigerator. You will have to remember to take it out a couple hours before you need it so it can come up to room temperature.

We’re Back from Winter Vacation

 

Apparently, we were totally unprepared for this topsy-turvy weather we had during the Winter. More time was spent staring out the window than writing or cooking combined. That is not a good thing for The Bachelor’s Kitchen.

But now, the Sun is shining more often than not. The temperatures are nearly warm enough to turn on the air conditioning. And, most importantly of all, the flowers outside our kitchen are blooming. We are looking forward to even more cooking, learning about food and having some fun.

And remember you can always use the Contact Us page link to send us a note or an idea or a question. We also welcome comments on each post. Like most shake-down cruises, it is likely we will stumble or get busy or something else. That is just the way life goes sometimes. I thank you, blog readers, for your support and patience.

The easiest way to keep up with developments at The Bachelor’s Kitchen is to subscribe to our Daily Email Update, Hot Stuff.

It’s Boxing Day!

We don’t celebrate this holiday much anymore. Traditionally, it was when the lord and lady of the manor gave small boxes and the day off to their servants. Gifts were also given to purveyors, like butchers and grocers, and to other service providers like post carriers and taxi cab drivers. Inside the boxes are usually a little money, sometimes other surprises.

So, we may not have servants anymore, we still rely on postal carriers, bus drivers and grocery store clerks. So if you have a favorite worker you depend on, take a moment to give them something to say thanks.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Today is the first day of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere North of the Tropic of Cancer. The tropical zone doesn’t have winter.

There are many festivals associated with this holiday. China has a big one. The Winter Festival is full of dumplings and other foods. It’s called the Dongzhi Festival.

In many Northern European cultures, this time of year is called Yule, which is usually incorporated with Christian traditions.

In Ancient Rome, the Solstice marked the highlight of Brumalia, a festival honoring Saturn and Ceres, and sometimes Bacchus. The festival culminated in Saturnalia, marked by feasting, gambling and giving to slaves.

This special day, the longest night of the year is also called Blue Christmas, where people mourn for their lost loved ones because of the increased darkness.

In Wales, it’s called Alban Arthan, or The Quarter of the Little Bear and goes back to the Druid celebration of the Solstice. A key part of that was bringing a tree and mistletoe into the house to honor nature.

There are many more traditions for this time of year. Tell us, in the comments, some of your favorite seasonal traditions.

Coffee Talk Part 6: Other Brewing Methods

When you began learning about food, a whole new world opens up. It isn’t about being a foodie or a gourmet, but about what food meant to all different kinds of people. Beyond just food, there was also an education in drinks: fine wine, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, even milk.

We’ve looked at where coffee comes from, how different roasts affect the taste and the caffeine content, different grinds and grinders. Now, we’re looking at brewing. There’s boiling, gravity filtration and pressurized. And then there’s another classic brewing method.

Steeping is exactly what it sounds like. Boiling water is poured over grounds and allowed to sit for several minutes, allowing the hot water to extract the flavor from the grounds. The French Press is one of the most common methods using steeping. The French Press got its name because of the plunger. When the coffee has been steeping long enough, anywhere from four to seven minutes, the plunger presses the grounds to the bottom of the pot. The filter part of the plunger also holds the grounds down while the coffee is poured. This method usually requires a courser grind.

Another steeping method developed in recent years takes a page from tea brewing. Most of us are familiar with the tea bag. But there are also coffee bags on the market. The coffee is brewed in the cup just as you would with a tea bag. In Malaysia a muslin bag called a sock is used to steep a large pot of coffee. This is sort of a homemade coffee bag.

When we talked about other brewing methods, one used what’s called a flip pot. Water is boiled in a lower section while coffee grounds are in a filter in the middle and an empty pot on top. When the water boils the whole thing is turned upside down and the hot water allowed to trickle down through the grounds to the other pot. A similar method is used in one steeping method, called the vacuum pot. Water is boiled in the lower pot where building pressure pushes it up into a top chamber containing ground coffee. The coffee then steeps. When all the water has been pushed up into the top, the pot is removed from the heat and allowed the cool. The resulting vacuum pulls the coffee through a filter into the bottom pot from which it is then served.

There are two other steeping methods that have been developed in the last decade or two. One is called an Aeropress which combines the steeping of a French Press with the pressure of an espresso maker. Instead of using a plunger to press the grounds into the bottom of the pot, the plunger is used to push the steeped coffee through a filter into a cup.

Brand new on the market is something called a Softbrew, which is like a French Press without the plunger. Not a lot of information is available on the quality of this method.

So, now you know all the different ways to make the perfect cup of coffee and all the factors that affect the quality and the taste. But there are many myths about coffee making. We’ll look at those next.