Pizza Party: Domino’s

When it comes to pizza, we live in a pretty fantastic area. I’ve had the best pizza of my life out here in New York, no doubt about it and that’s just in counties like Orange and Rockland, I’ve never even really jumped into the whole NYC pizza scene. But, sometimes you just want something familiar. That was the case a week or two back when the wife and I both had a taste of a very simple pizza. That’s how it started at least. I suggested getting a pie or two from Domino’s since we both had the taste for pepperoni because there’s one nearby.

With that, I hopped on the Domino’s website on my phone and I’ll tell you what, they make it really fun to order a pizza. You not only order by size and toppings, but you can chose which half of the pie you want particular toppings on. Since I was jonesing for pineapple and my wife wanted pepperoni, but we both wanted bacon, this worked out perfectly. We both got a kick out of the whole left/right decision, but it made sense. After ordering online, you can keep track of exactly where the pizza is at in the process from “firing up” to “ready.”

So, how’d it taste? Pretty good. The reason you go to big chains like Domino’s is because it’s familiar (or because it’s cheap). I’ll tell you what, it tasted just like the pizza I used to get back home which was always a chain of some sort (Dominio’s, Pizza Hut, the slightly more local Little Caesar’s). Plus, pineapple isn’t a very popular topping round these parts, so I’ll take it where I can get it.

At the end of the day, I love how many options we have when it comes to pizza. We know where to go for slices, for pies, for a nicer dinner. The possibilities are endless and that’s the best as far as I’m concerned.

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Cooking Alton Brown’s Shepherd’s Pie

After making pierogies a few weeks back, I found myself with extra dough and potato filling. I figured I could just freeze the dough for a later attempt, but needed to come up with something to do with the potatoes I had lying around. My wife suggested whipping up some Shepherd’s Pie and since I already had most of the ingredients lying around the house I got to work. As I tend to do in situations like this, I headed over to the Food Network’s website and wound up going with Alton Brown’s recipe. Since I already had the potatoes, I ignored that part of his recipe and also went with ground beef instead of lamb because my wife doens’t like lamb so much. I left out the rosemary for the same reason, but aside from those few things, I followed the recipe as it’s written.

Thawing out my homemade chicken stock was one of the first steps. I just popped a few cubes out, put them in my smallest pan and got that on some heat. While that warmed, I got the chopping and prepping. The onions and carrots were next, then I also got the flour in a small bowl and mixed the other ingredients you see in the picture to take up as little space on my small counter as possible.

The cooking itself was pretty straightforwards. The vegetables went in first, then add the meat, brown and add the liquid and boil for ten minutes. Drop the contents into a baking dish, add some frozen peas and corn (it’s winter here, so I couldn’t get my hands on fresh) and put the potatoes on top. Since I had a bunch of smaller potato balls in a container, I simply smashed them together with my hand and then scooped them out onto the meat and vegetables.

That went into a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes and we were good to go. Shepherd’s Pie isn’t a dish that I grew up with, but the wonderful cook at the fraternity house I lived in for three of my four years at Ohio Wesleyan University made it on a regular basis and I was a fan. I really enjoyed the dish and can see adding it to my regular winter rotation. As much as I like experimenting with new dishes, sometimes it’s nice to have a series of good, hearty fall-back recipes for these upcoming cold months.

The Best Pickles In The World

Oh man, you guys, I love pickles. I always have, but my tastes are pretty specific. Sweet pickles hold no cache for me and all decorum goes out the window if one happens to make it’s way into the dill section of any relish tray in my general vicinity. In other words, sour picks are where it’s at for me. Vlassics were a favorite growing up. I dig their Kosher dills and their hamburgers have a surprising kick, but they’re not the best I’ve ever had. When I worked at a bagel place back home, it was common place for me to sneak a deli pickle for a snack or on my lunch break and they were good, but nothing compared to the pickle above.

I thought I’d find some competition when I moved out to New York. I have no reason for that, it was just a feeling I had. A few years back I went to the Rosendale Pickle Festival. Being such a fan of the medium, I was excited, hoping to find something that would blow my mind. Nope. Everything was pretty weaksauce. I guess New York doesn’t really know how to bring it. I’ve had some pretty good pickles from places called things like Pickle Man from flea markets, but I’ve also had some of the worst from places like that. It’s a crap shoot.

But you know which pickles are never a crap shoot? The ones that taste awesome and sour and make me salivate just thinking about them? The ones that, when I eat them, the event verges on inappropriate? Well, those are the pickles from Rau’s Country Store in Frankenmuth, Michigan (656 S. Main, Ste. 2, Frankenmuth, MI 48734). I’ve been going to Rau’s since I was a kid and my dad got a job working for a company that was headquartered near Frankenmuth. The town itself, as you might be able to tell from the name, is modeled after German villages and is basically a full main street done up in a Little Bavaria style. There’s a place called Bronner’s nearby that is the largest Christmas store in the world, so we would tend to go in the winter time, go to Bronners, see all the Christmas decorations, walk through the town and get some of the world famous fried chicken at Zinder’s.

But the real food highlight of the trip every year was the pickles from Rau’s. Since I’ve moved to New York, I’ve only made it to Frankenmuth once and that was with my wife and parents. But, because my parents are awesome and did some research, I have had plenty of pickles in the meantime. See, Rau’s–which is designed like an old general store with chotchkies all over the place and a baskets of what used to be called penny candy for purchase–has stepped into the modern age and sells their pickles online. I will say that the vacuum sealing they use to ship the delicious delights sucks some of the juices out, but even an ever so slightly juiced Rau’s pickle packs more of a punch than anything this side of a gherkin (which I just discovered recently and will be experimenting with more in the new year).

Cooking Pierogies

Toledo has a pretty big Polish population, yet I didn’t even hear about pierogies until high school when we switched churches to St. Hyacinth’s which was a predominately Polish church. To raise money, they would sell the delightful potato-filled dumplings and we bout a few different kinds. They were very tasty, though I don’t think I had them until the last year or two. I can’t remember which came first, but some time last year, I both made pierogies from this recipe I found by Googling around and also had them at a place in New Paltz called The Moonlight Cafe (53 Main St., Cornwall, NY). They were tasty both times, so much so that a week or two back, I thought it’d be nice to have them again!

This time around, I ran into a few problems like losing interest the Sunday I intended to make them and cutting my thumb on the Monday I actually did make them (it was alright and I finished making them). Anyway, a few Saturdays back I decided to make the dough which was really simple, which is saying something because I never make dough. I busted out the wife’s Kitchenaide mixer and got all that going with no problem, then wrapped the ball in plastic and popped it in the fridge over night.

Like I said, I was going to continue the next day, but was beat, so I put it off. The second part is a lot more work intensive because you have to make mashed potatoes, roll the dough, cut out circles, stuff them with the potato filling, boil each pierogie and then cook them in a pan. Since, it’s a long process and I had a slow Monday on my hands, I got to work. Peeling the potatoes was first on the list, which was no problem. I put those in the Dutch oven, covered with water and started boiling. My intention was to do sour cream, cheddar cheese and bacon in the mashed potatoes, so I got to work shredding the cheese. While reaching for a scale to see how much cheese I had, I wound up cutting the tip of my thumb and nail. For more on that, come back for an upcoming post, or read this account I wrote over on Pop Poppa, my dad blog.

After getting myself patched up, I finished mashing the potatoes with cheese and chives, but skipped the bacon. At that point I took a break, not sure if I had it in me to finish up. But, I rallied later on and got back to work. First, I rolled the potato mix into balls for stuffing. Then I rolled out the dough and used a clean jar top for cutting circles. I think I used a bar glass last time, but this was a little bigger. I had the same problem I did before, though, about not getting the dough big enough to fit the large-ish potato balls. After cutting out the smaller circles, I would roll those again and then insert the filling and clamped the dough down with a fork. Since my hand was feeling funky and I was doing a lot of this with my right hand raised up, I didn’t make all the pierogies I could, but instead made enough for dinner that night.

The next step is boiling. You toss the dumplings in boiling water and wait for them to rise to the top, rinse in cold water and repeat. At this point, you also cooking a chopped onion in a buttered pan that you will then cook the pierogies. I wasn’t sure from the recipe if you’re supposed to keep the onions in when you cook the dumplings, but since there were so many onions, I took them out and put them on their own plate for serving. Then it was a matter of browning the pierogies on both sides and serving with the onions and sour cream.

I’m honestly not sure if these guys were as good as last time. The dough felt a little dry and tough. Plus, the very first time I cooked them, I just decided one weekend to do it. I went out, got the stuff, started the long process and came out with tasty food on the other end. This time I had to fight the blahs and muscle through another dumb injury. I was glad that I used hand shredded cheese this time instead of store-bought stuff, but then again, that lead directly to my cut, so maybe it wasn’t such a great thing? I’ll give ’em another shot soon and will have a post up shortly about what I did with all those extra potato balls.

Bonus Food Pic: Numero Uno Deep Dish From Uno

Uno Chicago Grill
20 Centre Drive
Central Valley, NY 10917
(845) 783-6560

You might think that, because I’m from a place that’s not too far away from Chicago, that I would have had more access to deep dish pizza. In fact, that was not the case. Aside from a few local places that did their own thing, we only had access to chains like Little Caesar’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and the like. Later we’d get a place called Cottage Inn that’s pretty good too, but I digress.

I don’t think I had deep dish pizza until I went to my first Uno’s which was either in college or after moving out to New York, I can’t quite be certain. It’s a style and flavor I quite enjoy and would like to try from a non-chain restaurant if possible, but since I live in a pretty intolerant place for alternate pizza styles, Uno’s is the best I’ve got. Thankfully, it seems to be a pretty good source. I’m sure it’s not as good as sitting in a Chicago pizza house, but it tasted pretty good to these untested taste buds.

About a month back, the wife and I felt like Uno’s so we headed down and decided to split a Numero Uno which boasts sausage, pepperoni, onions, peppers, mushrooms and chunky tomato sauce with mozzarella and grated Romano on top. As I am a fan of all of those things, having them all together in one place wrapped in that cornbread-like crust was not a disappointment. The only problem? I definitely got some mild indigestion after eating. I’m guessing it was the onions and peppers, but it could have been the whole package. Don’t worry, it won’t put me off of trying more kinds of deep dish in the future!

Stocking Up: Beef

Alright, folks, this post has been a long time coming. After making my own chicken stock, I decided to give beef stock a whirl as well and it went really well, except when I burned my hand. The key to making beef stock is finding a place to buy beef bones, which I hear can be difficult, but I happened to be at my local Hannaford one day and they had big ones for sale. With those in hand, I busted out The Ultimate Soup Bible (page 32) and got to work.

I’m not sure how much of a difference it made, but the cow bones I got were not chopped up and I half-heartedly tried with my knife and failed, so I just put three of those big boys in a high-sided pan in the over at 450 degrees and got to chopping. Like most stocks, the recipe called for carrots, celery and onion, but also tomatoes. I got those and the herbs (parsley and thyme) as well as crushed black peppercorns and a bay leaf ready while the bones roasted for a half hour.

After the half hour mark, I added in the vegetables and roasted for another 25 minutes or so. At that point, I dumped the contents of the pan in the stock pot and boiled some water like the recipe suggested. While the water boiled I started doing something else–can’t remember what exactly–and accidentally reached for the handle of the pan…that was in the 450 degree oven…without a glove or a cover on the handle and burned the heck out of my hand.

I immediately got my hand under cold running water and soon transferred to a bowl of ice water (more on injury treatment in another post along with a few other dumb injuries I’ve sustained in the past month or so). While I kept a nasty burn and possibly blisters at bay on my right hand, I kept going with the stock-making. I poured the boiling water from the pan into the pot followed by about 18-inches of water and set it to boil along with the herbs and spices.

I simmered for six hours (I read in a Bourdain book that the longer, the better), then strained and let the stock cool. This time, I knew about how much liquid I would have, so after it cooled, I placed the stock in a big plastic bowl and popped it in the refrigerator. I left it there over night and when I went back to strain the fat, I was happy to find that it had solidified into a disk that I could easily remove, which is a heckuva lot easier than skimming, I’ll tell you that.

Instead of freezing ice cubes of stock this time around, I used my mother-in-law’s idea and instead measured out one and two cup amounts, poured that into marked bags and froze those bags in larger freezer bags. As I mentioned in the post about making Alton Brown’s recipe for Swedish Meatballs, I’ve already used the stock and it’s pretty great. The only problem with this method is that you wind up wasting the tiny bags when you tear them apart to get the stock out. The perfect solution would be ice cube trays with one and/or two cup sized holes. Do they make those? That’d be awesome.

Bonus Food Pic: Take Out From Chapala Grill

Chapala Grill
335 Windsor Highway
New Windsor, NY 12553
845-391-3133

With the baby, I’ve found that, when I’m not cooking on weekdays, my wife and I tend to lean towards quick pick up, drive through or carry out options. A week or two back I didn’t feel like cooking or hadn’t gone to the grocery store (I don’t remember specifically, but either is highly likely) and we both thought Mexican food sounded good. I wasn’t sure, but I hoped that nearby Chapala Grill did carry out and we discovered that not only do they, but they also have their full menu online (that link up above).

As I mentioned in an earlier BFP, Chapala has really solid Mexican food. It’s not slap-you-in-the-tastebuds, blow-your-mind amazing, but it’s really good. And I can say the same for their carry out now too. The pic above is from the first time we used their services, but once again last night and it was still great. They not only give you rice and beans with your meal, but also chips and salsa which is a great bonus.

If you’re in the area and you want darn good Mexican, head on over to Chapala!

Cooking Alton Brown’s Swedish Meatballs

When my wife suggested I make Swedish Meatballs, I was all for the idea. As I mentioned when I made Beef Stroganoff, I’m a big fan of the meat/gravy/sour cream combination in any and all forms. All I needed to do then was find a recipe. I didn’t realize my wife had her mom’s in the big black binder she uses as a cookbook, so I gave FoodNetwork.com a search and settled on Alton Brown’s because, well, dude knows his stuff, right?

First off, I’ll note the changes I made by going down the ingredients list. I used a few hot dog buns instead of bread, regular butter instead of clarified and sour cream instead of heavy cream because I always wind up buying and using just a portion of the stuff and throwing the rest out. I probably should have just followed that part of the recipe, but I’ll get there.

I’m still working on the post I did about making beef stock, but since I made this recipe after I made the stock, one of the first things I did was grab three cups worth of it, put it on a flame and started defrosting. Meanwhile, I got my water set up for the egg noodles (oh yeah, we like to eat our Swedish Meatballs on egg noodles) and then got to work on the meatballs. I didn’t weigh each one like the recipe suggests and just eyed them. Weighing each and every one would have been a pain!

At this point, I fired up the heat for the noodle water and got to cooking the meatballs. I did about 10 at a time and would add them to a baking sheet when they were good and brown. I’ve cooked meatballs in the past and wound up chopping them up testing to see if they were done, but putting them in the oven finished off any pink spots and help hold the balls’ structural integrity.

Once all the balls are cooked and in the oven you basically make a roux and then a gravy. Toss some flour in the pan, stir until clumpy and then add the broth, sour cream and whisk until thickened. I’m not sure what the scientific difference between sour cream and heavy cream is, but I saw it in my pan as it took forever to thicken and even after 20 minutes or so wasn’t super thick. I pulled it and poured it over the noodles and meatballs, though it was thinner than I would have normally liked.

Even though the gravy wasn’t as good as it could have been, I don’t know if I’ve ever made a better non-Italian meatball. The nutmeg and allspice were a great combination with the beef and pork and came out super tasty. I also made the mistake of using olive oil to keep the noodles from sticking to one another which really threw the flavors off (it took me a few bites to figure out what the heck I was tasting that was a little funny). Even with all that, I still liked the meal. Next time, I think I’ll follow Alton’s recipe more closely or try and decipher my mother-in-law’s, but the important thing (aside from enjoying the meal and the leftovers) is that I learned from the process.

Cooking Herb & Beef Soup with Yogurt & Naan

As I’ve said a few times here on Monkeying Around The Kitchen, I’m a big fan of soups and The Ultimate Soup Bible has become, well, my soup bible. If I’m looking for a soup recipe, I’m looking in there. I was flipping through a week or two back and landed on this one called Beef & Herb Soup With Yogurt (page 458). It sounded pretty interesting with what I thought was Indian origins–it’s actually Iranian I just saw) especially because it’s kind of a Middle Eastern version of Italian Wedding soup, which the bagel shop I used to work at back in Toledo used to serve.

As usual, I got as much prep done ahead of time. I combined five cups of water with a half cup of yellow split peas and one tablespoon of turmeric in a big container. I also combined a cup of brown basmanti rice and about three tablespoons of parsley and chives in a smaller bowl. Then I chopped an onion up and cooked that in olive oil in a Dutch oven. Once that turned brown, I added the water, peas and turmeric and simmered for 20 minutes.

While that was simmering, I made the meatballs which were made with about 8 ounces of ground beef, a chopped onion and some salt and pepper. As you can see in the photo, I kept them pretty tiny, thought not nearly as small as the ones I remember from my old Italian Wedding days at Barry’s.

I dropped the meatballs in after the 20 minute simmer and let simmer again for 10 minutes. Then I added the rice, parsley and chives (the recipe called for cilantro, but my wife hates that particular herb, so I skipped it) and simmered again for 30 minutes. In a smaller pan, I melted one tablespoon of butter and fried a chopped clove of garlic before then adding a handful of chopped mint. That got added to the soup before serving and then I laid out some more freshly chopped mint, Greek yogurt (that’s the only non fruity kind I could find at the store) and naan. I will not get the garlic naan next time because it was very overpowering, but all in all the soup was pretty good. I think next time I will add some acid, either lemon or lime juice, and maybe some curry powder to really round out the flavors because it did wind up tasting a bit flat.

Stocking Up: Chicken

One of the common things I’ve read in most of the cookbooks and books about food is that making your own stock is important. Not only do you know exactly what goes into it, but you’re also creating something very basic that you can use in many, many things. I’d been wanting to try my hand at stocks for along time now, but only actually got around to it in the past month. Why the delay? I was a little worried about the time commitment, plus I wasn’t quite needing stock yet. Now that it’s getting cold and I’m making more soup, I figured it would be a good time.

I started with a chicken stock recipe that I got out of The Ultimate Soup Bible (page 30) because it was an actual recipe. Anthony Bourdain had a much less specific one in  The Les Halles Cook Book, but I wanted to do it by the book and have my hand held for a bit before eying everything.

The recipe called for bone-in chicken pieces that included wings, back and necks, but I couldn’t find that at the grocery store and the butcher wasn’t around, so I went with a pair of bone-in breasts. Not sure how much difference that made, but otherwise, I followed the recipe.

I tossed the chicken, two unpeeled onions and some oil in a stock pot and started cooking until everything was brown. While that cooked, I chopped up two carrots and two celery stalks, grabbed some parsley and thyme stems, a bay leaf and ground about a dozen black peppercorns. I put all that in a container and waited until they were needed.

Once everything was browned, I filled the pot with 16 cups of water and waited for a boil. Once I got there, I dumped the container of veggies and herbs and simmered for three hours. After that, I strained out all the solids and let the stock sit. I tried scraping out fat and did my best, but came up with a much better method that I’ll talk about when I write about making beef stock.

Anyway, I had read in many places that making stock ice cubes is the way to go, so after everything cooled, I got to work on that. It was a multi-part project because we only had two extra ice cube trays and not a lot of space in our freezer anyway. I now have two bags filled with chicken stock cubes ready to go. I took about 10 or 12 back home for Thanksgiving intending to use them instead of turkey stock to make the gravy, but wound up making my own turkey stock. It didn’t go to waste though, because my mom used them in the stuffing.

I’m really glad I did this, not just because I feel like I’ve done something that not a lot of people do, but also because I finally just did it. Sometimes things seem like big hurdles, but once you finally do them, they turn out to be pretty easy. Sure, you’ve got to be home to keep an eye on the stock as it simmers, but aside from that it’s really easy and worth doing. I hope to make some killer winter soups now!