Monday, December 27, 2010

Ham and Bean Soup

So what did ya get for Christmas? And don't give me that "Oh, I didn't want anything.  Just spending time with the family was gift enough." Even though I say stuff like that.  "Just get little Ben a gift.  We already have everything."  I said this a lot this year.  And at the time, I meant it.  But then I get a gift and I'm reminded that there will always be part of me that likes getting gifts.  Don't you?

So wanna see what I got?  Ok, get ready to be impressed:

Ok, it isn't a diamond ring.  It's better.  It's a TV-B-Gone!  Basically, it's a one button remote control that works in stealth mode, quietly and quickly turning off almost any television. 

Just imagine the possibilities! Jerry Springer on in the doctor's waiting room?  Gone!  TV too loud in the restaurant where you are trying to enjoy a meal?  Adios!  TV playing in a room no one is occupying, basically sucking up electricity?  I can easily do my green deed for the day.  Click!

Now I just need to try it out in the electronics department of Best Buy *evil grin*.

I also got the Christmas dinner ham hock.  It wasn't wrapped, unless you count a Ziploc bag.  It didn't even have a bow on it.  But it was a treat in itself.

I never make ham.  When you have a freezer full of moose, elk, deer, walleye, trout, pheasant, grouse, goose, and turkey (whew!), ham just seems unnecessary.  But my mom makes it for nearly every holiday, so we get our ham fix in.  I know.  You were starting to look worried.  So I thought I'd better tell you that. 

So the ham bone, or more appropriately called the ham hock.  She sent it home with me since she wasn't going to use it, leaving extra chunks of meat on it since of course she knew I was going to make some soup with it.  Ham and bean soup it is!

Wait, but Kent doesn't like beans.  Hmmm.

Don't worry.  I got a little trick up my sleeve.  A quick press of a button - voila!  Bean puree in the blender and he won't even know he's eating beans!  Whaa-ha-ha-ha! 

I'm so tricky.

Ham and Bean Soup
If you are big on measuring cups and teaspoons, my apologies - I don't measure when I throw together things like this. Just trust your gut. And your taste buds.
1 meaty ham hock (haven't made ham lately?  Pretty sure you can pick up nice ham hocks at the butcher shop)
About 2 cups dried navy beans
3 stalks celery, sliced
3 carrots, sliced
1 bay leaf
Salt, pepper, and thyme to taste

Pick over beans, removing any pebbles or beans that look cracked or shriveled.  Place in a shallow bowl and cover with water; let soak overnight.  The more soaking the better, but if you forget to soak, don't worry; just cook the beans a little longer in the next step.

Drain the beans of their soaking liquid and place beans in a pot.  Add water until the beans are covered, then bring to a boil and reduce heat to simmer until beans soften up.  Ladle half of the beans and their liquid into a blender and puree until smooth; return puree to the pot. 

Add ham hock and bay leaf to the pot and continue simmering.  Beans will continue to soften and meat from ham bone just start to loosen as well. When beans are just about at the texture you like, add chopped carrots and celery, simmering for another 30 mins.  Remove ham hock, tear off meat and add meat to the pot.  Throw the bone to the dog.  Season to taste with salt, pepper and thyme.  Note that depending on how much water you used, you may need a few liberal pinches of salt.  Don't be shy, but always taste after each addition, noting that the flavors will meld more as the soup sits.  Remove bay leaf and serve.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tom and Jerry Batter, Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix, and Uncle Eddie

"So have you finished your Christmas shopping?"

Since when has this become a conversation opener?  I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this recently.  Always by women I only vaguely know who feel the need to start conversation.  The teller at the bank.  The desk person at the hair salon.  Like it's something that we need to just.  get.  through.  It's so painful, such an obligation, yet we slug through it every year and bond over the mutual drudgery of it all. 

Sometimes I play along, depending on how well I know the person. "Oh yeah, just about!"  But I'm really not a Christmas shopper, so most of the time, I just smile and say, "Well, it's not that tough when you just give cash!"

Ok, we do buy a couple gifts for our niece and nephew, and maybe a couple stocking stuffers for each other, but otherwise this holiday has been so lusciously laid back this year, I'm loving it. 

So here's hoping you've finished your Christmas doing very little shopping.  That'll give you more time to check out some R&V holiday posts from Christmas past.  It's like watching National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation for the 25th time - only a little tastier.

Tom and Jerry Batter

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix

Christmas Ornaments

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beans and Brats

Not gonna lie.  It's been pretty meaty at our house lately. 

Maybe it's all that snow shoveling that makes us want something warm and hearty to dig into in the evening. 

Maybe it's all the celebrating that's been going on this month and my body is craving protein to balance all that caramel corn I nibble on at work. 

Or maybe it's because my husband is the kind of guy that will stop by the butcher shop for $5 worth of sausage spices and come home with the spices and a $50 cut of prime rib. 

I know, Ben.  I know. 

Trouble is, sometimes I'm reluctant to blog about the meaty side of my kitchen for one simple reason: it's tough for me to take a decent meat picture. 

It's simple to make cookies look good in a photo because, well, they're cookies.  Cute, bite-size, lovely little sweet treats.  But meat.  The grizzly, masculine, big chunks of wild meat and homemade sausages that tend to get consumed in this house in the winter.  I have to accept it in its no-natural-light-at-7:30-pm glory.  And bratwurst present an even greater challenge, simply due to the odd phallic shape of them.  I mean seriously, do any of these shots work?


No way.

Maybe I should've used a different plate, or better lighting, or styled it up a little bit.  But unlike food stylists, I don't like Elmer's glue in my Cheerios, preferring to actually eat my food.  And despite the funny looking photos, this dish was too good not to share.

Beans and Brats
The brats are homemade venison brats; the beans are an adaptation from this recipe, and a mighty good one, I must say.  Anytime my "I don't eat beans" husband takes a third helping of beans, I know it's a winner. 

4 bratwurst
3 oz. thick bacon (about 3 slices), cut crosswise into thin strips
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. chopped rosemary
1 large clove garlic, minced
1/8 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Two 15-1/2-oz. cans cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3/4 cup chicken broth
2 jarred roasted red peppers, cut into small dice
2 Tbls. lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
Kosher salt

Cook brats in pan of simmering water or beer until cooked through. 

Meanwhile, in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, cook the bacon, stirring occasionally, until it renders most of its fat and starts to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate. Chop up bacon and set aside.

Add oil to hot pan (optional), then add the rosemary, garlic, and red pepper flakes; cook, swirling the contents of the pan, until sizzling steadily and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the beans, chicken broth, roasted peppers, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil; then reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the broth thickens and the flavors meld, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in bacon and serve.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Turkey For You, Turkey For Me

Last weekend, Kent and his buddy Josh went turkey hunting.  While I was hosting my ladies' cookie exchange, my sweetie came home with this:

That's one big turkey.  No, I mean the bird.  :-P

I'm guessing the typical thing to do is roast the turkey, eat the big chunks of meat and toss the rest out.  My heart breaks a little when I see a perfectly good turkey carcass thrown away before being simmered for stock, torn apart for extra meat shreds, and given its last rites and sacrament before finally tossing the bones out.  It seems like the ultimate disrespect to the life of the turkey, not harvesting every last morsel out of its body, right down to boiling out the marrow of its bones. 

So when we get a turkey, which is twice a year for spring and fall turkey hunting seasons (assuming that my sweetie is a good shot), this is what we do to eek every last morsel out of that bird.

The Feast
Kent killed and cleaned the bird on Saturday.  We brined it on Sunday and Monday in a big cooler of salt water with a handful of brown sugar thrown in (if you are cooking wild turkey, I highly recommend brining it.  In fact, even for regular turkey, brining takes the flavor and moisture to another level).  On Monday after work when I got home, the first thing I did was turn on the oven to get it preheated so we could have a turkey feast.  Yes, on a weeknight.  Sure, we could've frozen the bird and saved it for later, but we wanted to enjoy this one fresh.  We invited a few other wild meat aficionados, roasted some sweet potatoes along side the turkey, and served up what basically looked like Thanksgiving at 8 pm.  However, before our guests arrived, Kent roasted the small turkey heart, about the size of a lime, sliced it thin, and we ceremoniously gave thanks for the bird giving its life so we could continue ours.

The Leftovers
Perhaps better than The Feast itself - the blessed leftovers!  Nibbling on turkey straight from the fridge, making a quick turkey cranberry sandwich.  Bliss.

The Stock
After The Feast was over, we cleaned the kitchen and since it was late, I didn't want to start the stock pot quite yet, so I threw the carcass back in the now-empty brining cooler and put it outside in the snow.  On Tuesday, Kent broke up the now-frozen carcass into chunks for me so I could fit it all in my massive stock pot.  I added a couple quartered onions, a few carrots, a few sticks of celery, about six whole peppercorns and a bay leaf and then filled the pot up with water and let it simmer away all evening, adding some salt towards the end and straining everything out so I had big bowls of lovely golden broth.  I made some carrot soup out of the turkey stock that night, then poured the rest into three large bowls to sit overnight.  The next morning before work, I skimmed the fat off the top, pour it into Tupperware containers, and put the containers in the freezer.  All together, it came to about 6 quarts of homemade turkey stock.  That'll make some amazing soup and risotto later this winter.

The Morsels
After making the stock, I pulled out the boiled pieces of carcass and starting tearing off the last bits of meat.  Maybe this sounds a bit vulture-ish to you, but it's just how I roll.  I put all those last bits (mostly from the thighs and legs) into a bowl and put it in the fridge.  The next day, I sauteed some onions and mushrooms, added marinara sauce and the turkey bits along with a touch of cream and served it over egg noodles for an imprompteu leftover turkey bolognese. 

Alas, 'twas the last morsel of turkey for the fall/winter season. With a heart full of gratitude to that big 'ol bird for the meals it provided us, I finally threw the bare bones in the trash.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Do Unto Others

On the back page of the 2011 Old Farmer's Almanac, there is a great little piece about The Golden Rule and how basically all the world's religions are based on this one principle:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Christian).

That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind (Islam).

Love your neighbor as yourself (Judiasm).

Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself (Ba'hai).

Never return Tupperware empty (kitchen wisdom).

"Never return Tupperware empty."  Have you heard this saying?  Basically, if someone gifts you food, it's best to fill it up with your own home-cookin' before returning the container. I don't know where it came from, but I like this rule.  I'm not 100% always sticking to it, especially since my recently retired mother cooks all day and loves to pass the food on to us so we don't wither from hunger but I barely have time some days to blow my nose, let alone whip up extra servings for the container's return trip home, so understandably sometimes I'm returning an empty container but I think she understands (love ya mom!). 

So when mom gave me a Mason jar filled with vegetarian chili last week (which served as an excellent work lunch for most of the week), I took a note from a gift idea article out of the latest Midwest Living magazine and filled up the jar with cranberry bran muffin mix, all pretty and layered with a recipe attached. 

She really liked it and maybe, just maybe, I'll be seeing some cranberry bran muffins come back my way in the near future.  Karma's cool like that.

Want to make a layered jar for yourself or for a gift?  Here are the contents (recipe from
Midwest Living); make a funnel from a piece of parchment paper to make the layering go more easily.

Layer 1: mix together the following
1 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Layer 2
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (crumble it up again before pouring into jar)

Layer 3
1 cup whole bran cereal (like All-Bran)

Layer 4
1/3 cup dried cranberries

Layer 5
1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Combine in a small bag to pack on top of the layers
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

(Here are the instructions to include with the jarred mix)

Cranberry Bran Muffins
Remove bag of streusel topping.  Shake remaining ingredients in jar to mix.  Prep 12 muffin cups.  Combine 1 egg, 1 cup milk and 1/4 cup vegetable oil.  Stir in jar contents until just moistened.  Spoon batter into muffin cups until two-thirds full. For streusel topping, in a small bowl cut 2 Tablespoons butter into streusel topping mix for coarse crumbs; sprinkle over batter in cups.  Bake at 400 degrees 15-18 minutes or until done.  Serve wam. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lessons from a Holiday Cookie Swap

Last week, I sent out a note to a few girlfriends:

Hi Ladies! So here's an idea - I want to have a cookie exchange! It's simple: make a bunch of the same cookie, package them up in little baggies or boxes of six, then come over to my place for a yummy ladies lunch (got kids? bring 'em along!). We'll all trade, nibble (cookies and champagne go together, right?), chat, and listen to terrible holiday music. Shall we say Saturday, Dec. 4th from 1-2 pm? Let me know if you're in - I'll get a count so everyone knows how many cookies to bring. :)
My friends must have been drinking the same Kool-Aid, because they were totally in...even when I told them that they'll each need to bring four dozen cookies.  Ok, four dozen doesn't seem like a ton, but many of these ladies have jobs, school, babies, toddlers, husbands, and/or some combination thereof.  Which is why I purposely mentioned booze in the invite.  And hey, it worked. 

It's so nice just to gather with the girls, we don't do it nearly enough.  We talked, we laughed, we got Emily's car unstuck from the snowbank in front of our home.  And yes, we ate cookies. It was so fun that I'm hoping to do this again next year.  After reviewing some other articles about hosting cookie swaps, here are my lessons learned:

1. Lots of cookie exchange advice will tell you to have each attendee make a dozen per person.  Depending on the number of people you're inviting, this can be extreme.  Exchanging six cookies each is fine.  I think five dozen would be the max amount I would ask people to bake (unless we were all retired and bored; then I'd double it, if only to give everyone something to complain about).

2. Ask everyone to pre-bag their cookies into packages of six, one for each attendee plus an extra six to nibble at the party.  This worked great. 

3. A meal is optional.  I made a lunch with pasta and salad, but this could totally work with just cookies and a few non-sweet nibbles.  However, I like having a few beverage options.  We just had mimosas at our exchange, but next year I'll make coffee too.

4. Invite the kids.  They set an excellent example of how to eat cookies with gusto. 

If you've been to a cookie exchange and have some tips for next year, I'd love to hear it.  In the meantime, wanna stop by?  I can't eat these all by myself - but I'm going to have fun trying.