Are you a Cook or a Chef?

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It seems like a very simple distinction but it is  a vital one in my opinion.  Chefs, admittedly my definition, are those individuals that go to culinary school and rigorously follow a recipe for the most basic things.  Cooks are those that learned from a loved one or are self-taught and that know that the best tasting food isn’t necessarily going to grace the cover of Bon Appetit anytime soon.

I’m a cook and I’m bloody proud of that fact.  I’m not afraid to open the pantry and the freezer and experiment with foods and spices.  Sometimes those experiments are horrible and the dogs thank me, but most of the time the experiments are successful and tasty.  I admit when I glance at recipes it is more for inspiration  than directions.  I don’t follow recipes.  The picture is one such lovely experiment that resulted in the best pot roast we’ve ever had.  I will share the recipe this week, I’ve been meaning to but I’ve been caught up in finishing writing my novel.

Chefs follow recipes and try to make food as intimidating and scary a possible.  All of those cooking shows are trying to sell cookware or cookbooks more than they are about getting people to try and cook for themselves.  They make it sound like making a loaf of bread or a batch of cookie dough is clinical science.  Sure, there’s science behind cooking but there were excellent cooks and amazing food long before it was reduced to cold, clinical measure that and measure this science.

Be bold, be adventurous.  Stop using so much salt that the “professionals” use in their recipes and experiment with other spices and ingredients instead.  Get the basics down and know what flavors and spices taste good to you and yours.  Once you know the basic recipe, then you will be free to experiment in changing up the basics.  Experimentation leads to the tasty goodness that is hiding in your cabinet waiting to bust out.

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Spicy Carrots

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Cooked carrots are not a hugely popular or frequent dinner choice of vegetable but sometimes you just have to suck it up and make cooked carrots.  We hosted New Year’s and still had a lot of leftover baby carrots that I needed to utilize before they went wonky and the next thing you know, there are delicious cooked carrots sitting alongside grilled flank steak and baked potatoes.

Spicy Carrots

Leftover carrots, cut into various shapes and sizes

Honey

One, or more, dried chili peppers

Salt and pepper to taste

This recipe is really that simple.  I combined enough honey to cover the bottom of a small sauce pan and added the chili.  I then allowed the honey to melt slowly and the pepper to soften and infuse the honey with the spice.  I then added the cut carrots and allowed to be warmed through and thoroughly coated in the spiced honey.  The intent wasn’t to cook the carrots to mush, but rather to warm and be coated in the glaze.  The carrots did cook down some but were still firm and crunchy when eaten.  The amount of spice and honey will vary depending on the amount of people sitting down to dinner, these won’t hold up very well to reheating.

Versatile Ranch Beans

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Those simple raw ingredients pictured above when combined with liquid slow transform themselves into a wonderful concoction that feeds us for weeks.  Best thing about making your own beans?  They are easily transformed into flavors that suit your palette or the meal you have planned.  Yesterday we had taken out pork ribs for dinner and fish tacos are on the menu as well this week.

For this batch of beans I used the following:

1 1/2 cups of pinto beans

2 small red onion, quartered

1 tablespoon of beef bouillon

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon dry mustard

2 dried red peppers

Liquid to cover

2 Roasted  and diced Poblano chilies

I placed mine in my four quart crock pot and cooked on low all day.  Seasoning changes based on mood, these beans weren’t meant to be terribly spicy so the spices were mild. 

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I didn’t use stock this time because it definitely flavors the beans intensely and I was going for subtle, same reason I didn’t use smashed garlic cloves.  There is no salt or pepper called for in the base recipe because the bouillon is salty and over salting the beans will cause them to be tough.   Pepper is also omitted from the base recipe based on how potentially spicy the dried peppers utilized are.  I happen to know the dried peppers I use are on the spicy side.   The beans cooked slowly all day, the aroma was intoxicating, and I stirred the pot a couple of times during the day.  It helped break up the onion chunks and evenly distribute the spices as the beans cooked. 

When completely softened the beans are ready to be served.  Be sure to taste and check for seasoning.  Salt may be needed based on how salty the bullion used was and your personal preference. 

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At this point, I divided the beans in half.  I reserved one half of the cooked beans in my two quart crock pot and creamed the other half of the beans.  To the reserved half of the beans I added one roughly chopped roasted Poblano Chili and returned to warm until dinner was ready.  The remaining half of the ranch beans I subjected to the immersion blender and creamed.  Be sure to include enough cooking liquid but not so much liquid the final mixture will be too loose and runny.  It is easier to add liquid from the reserved beans if necessary. 

IN a small frying pan, I added the rough chop of one roasted Poblano Chili to a pat of butter.  Once the butter was melted and the chili heated through, I then transferred the creamed beans into a frying pan to heat through.

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The beans were a little looser than my personal preference but luckily, like all bean recipes this one is very forgiving.  Continue to heat gently until the beans are hot and the consistently you like.  Just be careful to avoid being burned by bubbling beans when stirring. 

I admit, I love ranch beans both ways.  My husband does too, although he would prefer the onion chopped a little finer next time. 

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Pumpkin Bread

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I wanted to bake this morning but nothing in my usual rotation was striking the right inspirational chord with me.  So I went looking on allrecipes.com for inspiration and the results are fantastic.  The inspiration recipe can be found here but I made serious changes to the recipe. 

Recipe

1 can pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie mix)

4 eggs

3 cups sugar

1 cup applesauce

1/4 cup to a cup of Apple juice

4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon Vanilla Extract

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

2 tablespoons Cinnamon

1 teaspoon Ginger

1 teaspoon Cloves

 

1.  Preheat over to 350 degrees and prepare two loaf pans.

2.  Combine eggs, applesauce, sugar, and pumpkin until smooth.

3.  Next add the dry ingredients slowly to the wet.  Combine until batter is well combined and the reasonably tight.  Depending on your humidity and how loose you like your quick bread batter, add apple juice as required.

4.  Evenly divide the batter into the two pans and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

 

Tips

 

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As usual, spices measurements are approximates.  Spice the bread based on what flavors your family prefers.  We prefer more ginger and cinnamon, but I know others prefer more cloves paired with pumpkins.  Allspice and nutmeg would also be wonderful additions, I just didn’t have any in the spice pantry.

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This is the consistency of my batter.  It fell from the paddle slowly and in large sections, rather than dripping quickly in small portions repeatedly.  I let the batter rest for a couple of minutes before dividing the batter.

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I poured half the batter into a measuring cup lined with cling film and placed it in the refrigerator to set-up before transferring it to a container to place in the freezer.  With just the two of us, we won’t eat two loaves prior to one of them going to waste.

The remaining batter I added a couple of handfuls of dried cranraisins and mixed them in well.  I didn’t pre-flour the additions but you can to prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the mixture.  The mixture is incredibly receptive to additions.  Future additions will be butterscotch chips, apples, and nuts.  I am thinking grated carrots or grated zucchini will also make this bread even healthier, although adding either of those definitely means being sure to reduce the liquid in the batter because of the moistness of carrots and zucchini. 

The bread was a hit with my husband and our parrot, Pickles, couldn’t get enough of it.  I think the bread is dense enough to make wonderful French toast over the holidays, and versatile enough to make a savory stuffing.  I know it will be amazing toasted with a smear of cream cheese.  The recipe is actually pretty healthy, the applesauce is a perfect replacement for the vegetable oil called for in the inspiration recipe.  Personally, I always replace oil with applesauce whenever possible.

What does cooking mean to you?

Heritage cooking is all about preserving and passing family recipes and traditions, not just recipes and traditions for my family, but for your family too.  The importance of the family sitting around the dinner has become the stuff of legend in modern society.  Parents are working, children have schedules that account for every waking hour, and fast food is becoming the easiest way to feed our family while answering the smartphone and throwing a load of clothes in the washer. 

We are all so busy, or so we think, that taking a half an hour to sit and down, at the table, and eat a healthy meal has ceased to be important for many families.  Which of course raises two key questions, when do you then find out what is going on in your children’s lives and how are you passing on food traditions when you pick up dinner at the drive-thru window?

We all have food memories, from the smell of coffee brewing while blueberry muffins bake to Dad outside grilling hamburgers.  In my family there are some seriously strong food traditions, pumpkin pie for my Dad’s birthday cake and my mother never tinkering with her apple pie recipe immediately come to mind.  Those are just two that pop into my head amongst many others, but not a single one of those memories involve dinner from the local drive-thru. 

I learned to cook almost passively to be honest.  My mother is a great cook and I grow up watching her cook.  She always offered to let me help but I never accepted the offer.  When I got my first place during college, I quickly realized that I hated frozen dinners and that getting another dining hall pass wasn’t the answer either.  Thus began my great learning curve of learning to cook, an adventure I’m still on today.  I never attended culinary school and I have never worked in a food establishment of any kind.  I am a cook, not a chef, not a foodie, just a simple, plain, old fashioned cook. 

Twenty plus years later, I find myself amazed at the news reports on the declining family dinner table and the prevalence of fast food.  While we may be a nation of self-proclaimed foodies, how many of us cook everyday?  How many of make an honest attempt to pass on family recipes to younger family members?

Not having children of my own, I found myself at a crossroad wanting to pass on my cooking heritage but not having anyone to pass the knowledge to in our home.  The the little light bulb over my head went off last week, I can write the cookbook my husband has been after me to write for a couple of years now and pass the knowledge to my nieces and nephew who live just outside of Houston, we live outside of Phoenix.

So, having broached the idea with our oldest niece I started this blog.  It will keep us both motivated, it will help me focus on writing, and she’s agreed to be my recipe tester.   In the coming months, I will share experiences, recipes, and feedback for the test kitchens.