Cookbook Nook: My Big Blue Binder

I realized while writing yesterday’s post about the Ginger-Sesame Marinated Pork Loin that I’ve talked a lot about my Big Blue Binder without actually saying much about it. I stole this idea from my wife completely and I’m glad I did because it’s been a great way to integrate a variety of recipe sources into one place. Basically, this thing’s packed with recipes and ideas ripped out of magazines with a few printed off the internet or passed my way from family members, all of which are in plastic pockets so they don’t get too messed up in the binder or in the kitchen.

The main sources for these recipes are a series of magazines my wife and I have gotten over the years. I always pick up the Hannaford magazine when there’s a new one. That’s usually good for a few ideas. There was also a mysterious Good Housekeeping subscription that came in my name for a year even though I never paid for it and no one said they gifted it to us. But my wife’s subscriptions to Real Simple and Martha Stewart Living probably make up the majority of the book. When I get the okay from her, I basically go through a big stack of magazines and rip out what looks interesting and then put them into the BBB. This clears up space in your house and also gives you a piece of paper you can write on or toss if it doesn’t work out for you.

Originally, this thing was just a mess with all the recipes mixed up together, but then one day I figured it would make the most sense to actually get organized. I picked up a pack of those tabs and got to work breaking them down into subjects like Soup, Salads, Beef and the like. Of course, I soon ran into a problem when I realized a large number of pages don’t easily fit into one category. You know what I mean, those magazine spreads with a full meal laid out. So, I went with the easiest solution and just put them under a Misc. tab and moved right along.

While it did take a while to get things organized, I’m so glad I did. It’s great having books and websites that are relatively easy to search, but it’s nowhere near as easy when you’re dealing with a hodge-podge like this so even this level of organization can really streamline the process.

Wife Lessons: Mac & Cheese Tips

P1080907I’m not sure about where you live, but it’s been super cold in New York this winter. Like, super-duper-crazy cold. We’ve been lucky enough to miss out on more snow on top of the mountains and mounds already covering all the previously green spaces, but it’s far from comfortable outside. As such, I’ve been looking to comfort foods to help warm us up and keep us going as this winter continues to drag on.

As I’ve said plenty of times, all three of us are big fans of mac and cheese. One of our favorite versions is Rachael Ray’s Reuben take on the format so I naturally gravitated towards that recipe when coming up with a menu for this week.

Since I’ve already written about that recipe, I’ll skip most of the walkthrough this time around, but I did want to mention a few aspects of making mac and cheese that my wife clued me into, one that comes into play during grocery shopping, the other during the actual cooking process.

First, buy cheese ends. My wife gave me this tip after her mom told her about it. If your grocery store has a deli counter where they sell sliced meat and cheese, they probably sell cheese ends (what’s left over after you slice down that huge block). I headed over there when I went to the store, asked about it and the lady went back in the cooler and gave me a pound of cheddar and swiss chunks for under $5. I chunked the cheese, tasting a little bite of each of course, and then tossed it in the food processor and was good to go.

Second, you can substitute half the milk for water or chicken stock. For some people, the two cups of milk plus all the cheese can cause some stomach uncomfortableness. So, I try to cut it down by about half. I’ve used water before which works alright, but does cut the flavor a bit. This time around, I added in chicken stock instead and think it worked out well when making the sauce.

Cooking Heirloom Grilled Cheese Sandwich & Chunky Tomato Bacon Soup

After hitting up a great farm stand and making caprese with heirloom tomatoes, I knew I’d have a few left over and did a little looking around on until I came across Rick Massa’s Heirloom Grilled Cheese Sandwich and Chunky Tomato Bacon Soup which fit the bill pretty perfectly. I did a few things differently than the suggested recipe, though. First and foremost, I didn’t do all that stuff with the butter and whatnot. A while back, my wife turned me on to a grilled cheese method that’s pretty fantastic: put mayonnaise on the sides of the bread that will be exposed to the pan (I used a flat cast iron skillet). I also decided to bake the bacon, as I have in the past. I like this method because you don’t have to watch it like you do on the stovetop.

Before actually making or assembling the sandwiches, but after putting the bacon in the oven, I got to work on the tomato soup. For me, BLTs and grilled cheese always have a connection to tomato soup, but growing up, it was usually the canned stuff from Campbell’s with a little milk thrown in. I thought this soup would be pretty solid thanks to the bacon involved, but it actually wound up being kind of thick and not overly interesting. It wound up being more like sauce than a soup. Part of the problem was that I put the whole tiny can of tomato paste into the mix, which I realized after the fact probably lead to the problem. We wound up not eating much of it, but I did freeze it, to be thawed up and possibly mixed with some chicken stock to thin out a little ways down the line.

Back to the sandwiches, though, they were fantastic. I got the bread prepped with Dijon mustard on the insides as well as the cheese on both sides of the bread, tomato and some of the bacon. After that it was just a matter of throwing them on the cast iron pan one at a time. Once I flipped them, I smushed it down with another cast iron pan (be careful, even though it’s not directly on the heat, this pan will get hot!). Oh, I nearly forgot, I also steamed the green beans that I bought along with the heirloom tomatoes which came out delightfully crisp and clean-tasting. The grilled cheese was just wonderful and, like with the caprese from yesterday, got a nice boost of flavor from the heirloom tomatoes. I’ve got to say, I’m pretty partial to those green ones!

Revisiting Smitten Kitchen’s Pea Pesto

fresh pea pesto

A few weeks back, my wife convinced me to go with her and our daughter to a nearby farm so we could pick strawberries — one of our daughter’s favorite foods — and anything else we might come across. It was luckily not too hot when we got there, but I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of doing my own picking. I don’t mind paying a little bit more to buy local goods that have been picked by other folks. In fact, after actually going out and doing this, I’m even more okay with it. Anyway, the other thing my wife decided to get from the farm was a big basket of sugar snap peas. For some reason, I can never find them fresh at our grocery store which has a pretty solid and impressive selection most of the time. So, she wanted a pea-centric recipe and I searched by blog went with Smitten Kitchen’s Pea Pesto, a recipe that’s super easy and super tasty, two of the biggest things I look for when making food.

My wife was adamant that the fresh peas would taste far better than the frozen ones I usually wind up using. I joked with her, saying I forgot to use the fresh and went with the frozen instead and that I couldn’t tell the difference between fresh and frozen, but that was just for giggles. In fact, the fresh peas made for such a big difference that I fully support her going out and picking more…just leave me and the kid at home.

Wife Lessons: Nachos

I’ve loved nachos for a while now, but my wife is the real ninja when it comes to making them. I used to just throw shredded cheese on top of nacho chips, put them in the microwave and be done with it. But, she’s taught me how to really knock nachos out of the park. These particular nachos included beef cooked in taco seasoning and salsa, chopped up tomato, scallions, cheddar cheese I shredded and sour cream. I’ve also added chopped up banana peppers which are delightful, but I was looking for a simple nacho that day.

So, if you’re unfamiliar with the process, here’s what I do. I take the same approach for cooking the beef that I would for making tacos: cook it up in a cast iron pan until brown, drain,  then add salsa and taco seasoning. I went with Pace Salsa Verde salsa and Ortega 40% Less Sodium seasoning. I let that cook until the liquid comes off a bit and then let it cool.

Next, I laid the chips out on a pan, it’s important not to have your chips overlap too too much because then you wind up with a lot of cheese-less chips and who wants that? I also shredded the cheese and got to layering. I put the meat down first, then the cheese and chopped up some scallions. Those went into the oven on broil for a few minutes. I don’t really time it, but I keep an eye on the cheese to make sure it doesn’t get too brown. Once they looked done, I popped them out, added some sour cream and we were good to go.

What I like about nachos is that they’re so versatile. You can really put anything on them. We stick with Mexican themed ingredients, but there’s no reason you couldn’t make Italian, Chinese or any other kind of nachos. We need to start a nacho revolution!

Wife Lessons: Coffee Cubes

This is another one of those things that my lovely wife told me about and then I mentioned to her a week or so later after reading about online somewhere and she glared at me. It’s okay, I can be dense that way. Anyway, the idea here is that, when you brew coffee you don’t want to put water in it and thin it out. So what’s the solution? Iced coffee cubes!

As far as Wife Lessons go, this one’s super simple. Just brew about a cup and a half to two cups of coffee, let it cool and then pour it into an ice cube tray. Freeze that tray and then you’ve got an easy way to cool down your coffee without lessening the caffeine intake too much. My wife also tipped me off to the fact that places like Marshalls, TJ Maxx and Home Goods have great deals on coffee. Just go back to where all that funky old olive oil and weird chocolates are and you’ll probably see a few interesting coffees you want to try out. I’ve had pretty good luck getting my buzz out of those bags and think you will too!

Wife Lessons: The Green Onion Trick

As I mentioned in the first Wife Lessons post, my lovely wife knows all kinds of food tricks and tips. She gets them from talking to her mom and watching food shows and then passes them along to me. I believe this one came from one of those Top Chef or Next Food Network Star between-commercial clips where the contestants give you a good cooking idea. I didn’t get it from them, though, I got it from my wife.

Anyway, the idea is that, when you buy green onions, you probably don’t use all of them, right? So, you can put them in a cup with water and they’ll keep growing. Simple as that. When the ends get a little brown, I just give them a trim and we’re good for another few days. It works great.

I’ve had the onions in this picture for a few weeks now. Usually, I forget to water them and they die, but only after I’ve gotten more than a good use out of them. I’ve been watering this batch a lot more because…our cat Milo will not stop drinking from the cup. Instead of becoming just another thing on the shelf, we notice it more while laughing at our goofy cat.

Wife Lessons: Taste As You Go

My lovely wife was kind of miffed about my Buying Local post. Not because she’s some huge supporter of chain stores or big beef, but because, as she mentioned in the comments section of said post, she’s been talking to me about this kind of stuff for years now. It’s true and it’s very much like that scene in Modern Family (a fantastic show which I wrote about over on UnitedMonkee). I have no defense for this. Like I said in that post, sometimes it can take a while for an idea to really take root in your brain.

As a kind of “I’m sorry” and to give you readers a better idea of my cooking background, I decided to start a recurring series of posts called Wife Lessons (like “life” lessons, get it?). She has way more cooking experience and knowhow than me. While I was waiting for my mom to cook dinner, she was in the kitchen with her mom helping out. She’s like my walking cookbook and reference guide all in one. I couldn’t cook without her and what’s the fun in making all this food for just one person? She offers advice (sometimes without me even asking) and recommends different spice combinations to really bring things together.

The biggest, most important lesson she’s taught me over the years and the one she continues to remind me about as I experiment in the kitchen is to taste as I go. It’s such a simple, basic and even obvious step in the cooking process, but one I honestly never even thought of. I consider myself a very analytical thinker, so when a recipe tells me how much of what ingredients I need to gather and how to throw them together, my dish should just taste good, right?

I can’t tell you how many times we had the same conversation about whether I’ve tasted my food as I cooked. Eventually, I got the importance of tasting my food as I went through my thick skull. As such, I’ve started to understand how flavors develop, what certain seasonings and herbs taste like and how they might benefit the dish. Sometimes I wonder if I should have read a book about cooking theory or something along those lines when I was starting off, but I also think it’s important to just jump into something and learn as you go. It’s the difference between learning in a school and learning in the real world and while both have their merits, there’s something you just can’t learn until you’re doing it for real. I can read about the right amount of salt to put in a dish, but until you bite into something that has way too much or too little of that particularly important ingredient, you don’t really know what the deal is.