Guest Post–Skillets and Knives

I asked my very good friend Clay to write a guest post.  He and I are of a mind as far as getting organized/achieving contentedness and such.  I thought I’d introduce him to you.  And as I read this, it’s with no small amount of greedy anticipation that I express my thankfulness that he’s hosting my family for Thanksgiving day, and I can’t wait.

You can read more about Clay at the blog written by his dogs, The Buck-White Boys.  Enjoy!

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My heart skipped a beat the other day when a friend said, “Black Friday is less than a week away!”  The fact that she was more excited about the shopping than the holiday notwithstanding, I realized that Thanksgiving, therefore, is right around the corner.  Which means, at least at our house, it’s time to begin some of our annual traditions.

Every family has holiday traditions, of course – Christmas Eve services, the traditional stuffing recipe, Hanukkah rituals – but there are a whole slew of other annual activities that, for us, really signify the special time of year.  Such as – the annual “pre-Thanksgiving cleaning of the oven.”  Yep, the weekend before the weekend before Thanksgiving, every year, I deep clean the oven from a year’s worth of frozen pizza drips and last-minute casserole spills.

The other big signifier of the impending holidays is the annual sharpening of the knives.  The best culinary advice I ever got – or listened to – was to invest in at least one really good kitchen knife.  Sure you can buy the block sets or cheap ones at a big box store, but a really good quality, well-made kitchen knife is the most important kitchen tool you can have.

And just like any investment, you want to take good care of it.  A well-made knife that is properly cared for will last forever, just about.  After much research I bought the Victorinox (yes, the Swiss Army Knife people) 8-inch chef’s knife.  It has a good balance, a sharp edge and is very well made.  Cook’s Illustrated and several other reviewers named it one of the best knives made.

I also have several other knives – a “junk” set that I use for very general day-to-day stuff, another 10” chef’s knife, an 8” Santoku, etc.  Over time, a knife blade will start to bend and dull.  Regular use of a sharpening steel will help to keep the blade inline but at least once a year, a knife needs to be sharpened.

 

For years I listened to my mother complain about Thanksgiving, “I don’t want to do all that cooking.  Who enjoys that?  It’s never that good. And then you have to clean up.”  I have very few memories of Thanksgiving at home but wonderful memories of the day at friends’ and relative’s houses.  And I loved everything about it – the hustle and bustle, the smells, the mess, the cooking, the noise.  It’s probably my favorite holiday and I love to do all the cooking.  So since I’m going to be doing a lot of chopping and cutting, it just makes sense that this is the time of year to sharpen all the knives.  Kind of like replacing the batteries in a smoke detector at Daylight Saving Time, this way, too, I remember when all the knives were last sharpened.  You can have it professionally done, but good, electric sharpeners that produce great results are not terribly expensive.

My knives live in a very organized drawer because, once sharpened, I want to protect them as much as possible.  My pots and pans, not so much.  Every Thanksgiving there is always at least one day of my sitting on the floor by the cabinet, banging pans together trying to find all the right ones.  There’s usually a dismantling, too, of whatever organizational system I tried last year – I’m still throwing out wadded up coffee filters from the year I thought using those to protect the pans would be a good idea.

There’s one pan I really only use once a year – my great grandmother’s cast iron skillet.  This thing is a treasure.  I’ve said it’s the first thing I’d grab in case of a fire (after the dogs) but it would probably be the last man standing should the house burn down.  Grandma Buck’s cast-iron skillet has been used by generations of Bucks and it just makes me tremendously happy to use it every Thanksgiving.

As a Yankee, however, she would probably shudder to know that I’m using it to make Southern cornbread, but it’s how I honor both sides of the family.  My paternal great grandmother’s pan making my maternal grandmother’s cornbread.

Now, here’s the trick.  Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, make the cornbread for the stuffing.  It’s a very simple recipe – corn meal, flour, milk, eggs, baking soda (this is not the time to use a mix).  But the first thing to do is to make the sausage for the stuffing, too.  So, in Grandma Buck’s skillet I brown a pound of sausage – full fat, full flavor, don’t skimp here.  Sometimes I use the sage-flavored sausage, but just a good quality sausage will work fine.

While the sausage is browning, mix together the cornbread batter and pre-heat the oven.  Line a Tupperware container with a paper towel and when the sausage is done, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon or strainer.  Yes, you’re trying to leave as much rendered fat in the pan as possible.  DO NOT turn off the burner – you want that iron skillet screaming hot.  And, if you do it right, once you’ve removed the sausage and pour the batter into the skillet it will “seize” and essentially cook the edges of the cornbread.

Oh, and when that cornbread comes out of the oven . . . I can’t tell you how many pre-Thanksgiving mornings I’ve spent over the sink eating that hot cornbread with butter dripping down my fingers and chin.  And that’s the moment, for me, the holidays begin.  The oven is clean, the knives sharpened, we’re ready for the holiday stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and that taste, that smell, that moment of tasting that fresh cornbread with my grandmother’s traditions combined with our new ones is a time I look forward to all year.

Summertime, and the living is easy.

A couple of weeks ago, I was staring dolefully at the apricots we’d received in that week’s farm share basket.  I’m not a big fan of apricots–when I was a kid, we had an apricot tree in the back yard that exploded into thousands of nasty bits of orange slime each pecked once or twice by a bird before it fell to the ground and rotted, and it was most often my job to pick them up.  GROSS.  Seriously disgusting.  I’ve lived a good life free of apricots for 25 years, no regrets.

But then they showed up in our basket, and Mr Incredible (rightly) insists on at least trying everything in the farm basket and not just waiting out the shelf life of whatever we don’t like so we can just toss them.  So I had to deal with some rapidly ripening apricots tout de suite.  Fine.

I’d made strawberry preserves before, and it was kind of involving.  The simple act of locating Sure-Jell in a suburban desert grocery store almost killed the whole process.  Sterilizing jars in the Great Big Family Canner?  Crazy.  But it happened.  I knew I could do it, but I knew that there had to be an easier way.  I mean, Laura Ingalls didn’t have to do that every freaking time, right?

No.  As it turns out, she did not.  She may have anyway, because that’s how they roll By The Shores of Silver Lake.  But maybe she was just a glutton for punishment.  Or maybe she just didn’t have The Google.  Because a quick search for “easy apricot jam” led me here and a whole new world of culinary wonder was revealed to me.  Twenty minutes after I thought “Maybe I could make jam…?” I had made jam, and it was cooling on the counter.

I made this!

I added some vanilla extract, and it became a marvelous dessert topping as well.  I was so full of myself that I also baked bread, because one simply does not put homemade jam on store bread.

When I was properly stuffed with bread and jam (omg so good), I came back to the Google and started sniffing around for similar recipes.  How many times have I tossed furry strawberries and blueberries and insert-name-of-berry-here-berries because I buy more than I can possibly eat?  I started with strawberries, and I found this great, simple, no-fail recipe that tells you how you can do the sterilizing and canning, but also how you don’t have to.  Long story short, if you’re going to eat the jam “immediately”, which I assume to be within 7-10 days refrigerated, you just extended the life of your fruit.

I quickly found that there are two types of jam-makers: those who require pectin (Sure-Jell) and those who do not.  I do not.  Right then, things got easier.  Cindy Burke at Culinate.com blew my mind by putting it all on one site.  The riper your fruit is, the sweeter the end result and the less sugar you’ll need.  Your fruit doesn’t have to be perfect, but make sure it’s clean and not fuzzy or similar.  You cook it down, stir in some sugar and lemon juice (lemon keeps it from turning brown) and if you know it’s going to cook up tart or overly sweet or whatever, you season accordingly.  In my experience, you cannot go wrong with vanilla.  It makes just about anything better (amIright? yeah.).  When I get some strawberries, I’m going to go off the grid and toss in some fresh basil.  Doesn’t that sound wonderful? YUM.

What I love about this is that it’s super quick and doesn’t require anything that you don’t have in your kitchen already.   You don’t need to break out Grandma’s great big canner.  You can do this tonight for tomorrow’s pancakes.  Really.

I would be remiss if I did not include some very clear information and finger-wagging about safety.  Food preparation is serious business.  Taking a dozen peaches and making jam for your family is great, as long as you’re careful about your environment.  At eatright.org, we learn scary things about E.coli and wikihow.com tells us all about the dangers of botulism (scroll down).

So that’s it.  Don’t shy away from buying as much summer fruit as you possibly can.  Eat all you want fresh out of the bushel basket.  When you’re turning into Violet Beauregarde, just make some jam.

So you want to bake some bread.

I’ve been asked for my bread recipe.  Awesome.

Full disclosure:  I initially got the recipe from The Simple Dollar.  Hers has pictures, and for a baking noob like me, it was invaluable.  Now that I know what each step is supposed to look like, I don’t need the pictures, so I typed it up.  I also made some variations with the ingredients, but not many.  It’s a great recipe, and please go over to Simple Dollar and tell her so!  I did :).

Super Easy Homemade Bread

Get a big glass bowl.  Fill with hot water, and then dump it out.  Warm bowls make for good bread.

In warm bowl:

Dissolve 1 packet of yeast in 1 cup warm water

Soften 5 tsp of butter in the microwave, add to yeast/water

Add 1-1/2 tbsp sugar and

1/4 cup milk and

1 tsp salt

Stir that until it’s a nice shade of beige.

Add a cup of flour, and stir.  The dough will be sticky.  Keep stirring.  Add another cup of flour.  Keep stirring, and pay attention to the consistency of the bread–it will become stretchy.  Keep stirring, have one more cup of flour on deck, and add it slowly.  You may or may not add that last whole cup.  Bread is fickle.

Generously sprinkle some flour on the counter.

When the dough is in a nice ball, and doesn’t stick to your hands or the spoon too much (you’ll know), take it out of the bowl.  Put the bowl in the sink, fill with soap & water.  You’ll need that bowl to be clean in a few minutes.

Check the clock, note the time.  Beat the crap out of the bread (classy people call this “kneading”) for 10 minutes.  If it sticks to itself, the counter, or you, add more flour.  When 10 minutes are up, it should be a nice, pliable ball.

Wash and dry the bowl.  Spray the inside (duh…) with some cooking spray.  Plop the dough in it and cover with a nice clean cloth.  Let it rise for an hour.

After an hour has passed, the dough has possibly doubled or more, or not.  Don’t sweat it.  It’s fine.  Take it out of the bowl, and put it on your (still floured) counter.  Work it into a rectangle that’s as wide as your bread pan and about twice as long.  Roll it up, put it into your bread pan (did you spray that with Pam?  You should do that…), tucking the ends under.

Cover it with your cloth again for another hour.  Go clean up your kitchen and put stuff away.

After the 2nd rise, put it in a 400* oven for 30 minutes.  When it’s done, take it out of the pan immediately, or it will keep cooking (trust me).

YUM.

I use Sugar In The Raw, about a 2:1 ratio of Gold Medal Better for Bread Flour and whole wheat flour, and real sweet cream butter.  You can also add fresh herbs (dill! chives! rosemary!) to the flour as you stir it in.  If you’re feeling fancy, sprinkle grated cheese over the rectangle of bread before you roll it up and put it in the pan.

By request: Food: How to make it really good, really fast

A couple of weeks ago, I put a link to a survey up top, and after a couple of modifications (read: if you took it before last Wednesday, please feel free to take it again because it’s different) I’ve started getting some feedback.  Yay!  One of the new questions is about what topics you’d like to see me address in terms of Getting A Grip.

Our first requested topic?  Food.  Amy in Texas would like some ideas for quick easy dinners.  I’m on it.

Let’s back up a little and take a look at what the staples are in your pantry.  Cooking dinner for a family on a weeknight requires preparation–you can’t just walk in the door after work and bibbidy-bobbidy-boo up a healthy tasty meal without a little forethought.  If the only thing you could make from scratch is D Batteries basted in Pickle Juice, you need to go to the store.

What do you always have on hand?  If you go to The Google and type “pantry staples”, you come up with 2 million results for things you should keep in your cupboards at all times.  I like the list that How Stuff Works has–these are basics, and if you have them, you can come up with all kinds of good stuff.  Add in some family favorites (at our house, Rotel tomatoes are a party in a can, and we like the big bag of frozen vegetables from Costco…) and you’ll have a good foundation for a week’s worth of food, including leftovers.

On the bottom shelf of the rice/pasta aisle is where the bags of bulk beans live.  Buy one of those bags.  Yes, it’s a lot of beans.  Pinto beans are the khaki pants of the kitchen–they’re not fancy, but they go with everything else you own.  Trust me.  Fill your stockpot about 1/3 of the way with beans and the rest of the way with water, and soak for 24 hours.  Then, put them in quart freezer bags, and they’re an easy addition to just about any dish.

In our freezer, we always have boneless skinless chicken breasts, pork chops, ground beef, tilapia, shrimp, and Italian sausage.  Ideally, I will put one of the above in the fridge the night before so it’s ready to cook when I get home.  If I forget to do that, putting it in a sink full of lukewarm water gets the job done in about half an hour.

Pork chops and chicken breasts are super easy to cook, and it’s not hard to make them interesting in the process.  Before you handle the meat (that’s what she said), grab your seasonings and such.  Kosher salt, ground pepper, thyme, sage, cumin, garlic or onion powder are all in my regular rotation.

With chops (I like big thick boneless ones), set them on a piece of plastic wrap (because you don’t want the trichinosis…).   Heat a skillet that’s big enough to hold all of the chops without crowding them, drizzle olive oil and a pat of butter (YES I SAID BUTTER) and let that start to bubble over medium-high heat.  Season each side of the chops with whatever combination of flavors you like, then flip them over and repeat.  Put the meat in the pan and brown so it’s got a nice crisp crust on top and bottom.  Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until it’s done in the middle with a little bit of pink, about 20 minutes.  Maybe flip them once more while they’re covered.

Chicken breasts can be cooked just like chops are, but I like to dredge in an egg wash with some Frank’s Red Hot and some flour before I season them.  It makes me feel like I’m eating fried chicken, which is a guilty pleasure.

When you remove the meat (heh) there are these great drippings and stuff in the pan.  You want to dazzle your family?  Deglaze the pan and make a sauce.  Leave the pan on the flame, toss in some diced onions and saute for a minute or two.  Add some crushed tomatoes (too fancy?  ketchup or barbecue sauce work) and some chicken broth or wine, and voila!  Fancy main dish.  Serve with some steamed vegetables sprinkled with parmesan cheese, and your family won’t know what hit them.

Cook more than you need, and you’ll be able to take the leftovers for lunch a couple of times, and you can even incorporate the meat into a salad later in the week.  WINNING.

So there we go.  I like to cook for my family, for no other reason than it’s something I’m good at and a kickass meal is one way I show my love.

Let me know if you try this, and how it turns out!