Thursday, July 25, 2013

The meat experiment

When we committed to our month of eating unprocessed foods, one of our goals was to reduce our meat consumption, find a local source for meat, switch to grass-fed/free-range, try the farmer's market. I think it was the goal we were least successful with. Mostly because, while committed to making healthy choices, eating unprocessed foods, doing what's best for our health and the health of the planet, I'm also a cheapskate. I've always been. My desires to be earth-friendly are always in conflict with my desire to save money.

Organic produce (especially when using the dirty dozen lists, so not needing to buy absolutely everything organic) isn't that much more expensive. But meat is so expensive, and we eat so much of it. My hubby grew up in a meat-and-potatoes family, and while he's gotten good at appreciating the occasional vegetarian meal, he generally doesn't consider a meal a meal unless there's meat. And our family is full of big eaters, and we like to host dinners, and that adds up to a lot of meat and a lot of money.

But after we returned from our trip out west, I was grocery shopping and (as I always do) debating my meat choices, and I saw this package of organic, grass-fed, free range hamburger. "Oh, why not?" I decided. And then next to it, I saw our normal package of grocery store brand hamburger. about an experiment?

I brought them both home. I decided to doctor them as little as possible, so that the flavor of the meat could shine through: about 3/4 teaspoon of freshly ground salt and pepper for each pound of meat.

Grocery store = left, Free range = right
I mixed them lightly and then carefully weighed out 3.25 ounce portions and gently formed them into burgers.

Grocery store = left, Free range = right
Hubby cooked them for the same amount of time. I made our usual buns, but mini versions so we could each try both of the mini burgers.

We tried to explain the differences to the kids, introducing the concept of feed lots and free range cows, talking about the different foods they were fed, and whether or not they're given medicines. Over the course of the conversation, they became Happy Cows and Grocery Store Cows.

Grocery store = left, Free range = right
The verdict? There was a definite difference. The free range meat smelled fresher, tasted meatier and more flavorful, the texture was less chewy/less processed. The free range meat was definitely better. I'm fairly certain that if you gave me a burger at a barbecue, I would not be able to tell you if it was from a grocery store cow or a free range cow. But it's true that in addition to being better for the environment, more humane, and unprocessed, this meat is also yummier.

Grocery store = left, Free range = right
What does that mean for us? I'm not sure, but it was an interesting and fun experiment and will surely inform our future meat choices. In fact, last week at the farmer's market, we made contact with a local butcher and purchased some of his hamburger and bacon; it was fun to talk meat with the supplier, and I'm sure we'll continue this experiment.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cooking out West

As I said yesterday, we have just returned from spending almost a month with my in-laws. Last summer, their house was in complete disarray; they were in the process of putting in an addition, as well as doing a complete kitchen remodel. Last summer, my mother-in-law moved all of her kitchen into her dining room and survived by cooking with only a microwave. But this summer, we got to enjoy the fruits of the labor, and I enjoyed every minute working in the new kitchen.

While we were there, my in-laws welcomed some friends whom they hadn't seen in twenty years. My mother-in-law and I had great fun preparing a dinner to feed 13 people, centered around her famous garden linguine recipe. I made two batches of Peter Reinhart's pain a l'ancienne (recipe here), most of which I turned into garlic bread. (A couple loaves were left plain for the non-garlic lovers.)

I also baked a batch of these banana split brownies to go with my sister-in-law's homemade Tagalong ice cream.

The next morning, my hubby baked a batch of his famous fancy scrambled eggs (eggs with onions, ham, and cheddar), and, having had both cinnamon rolls and blueberry muffins requested, I made both! I used Peter Reinhart's all-purpose sweet dough recipe for the cinnamon rolls (recipe here) and a Cook's Illustrated recipe (via Tracey's site) for best blueberry muffins. I actually baked the muffins twice over our vacation; they truly are the best.

Finally, we took our annual camping trip to Yellowstone. In previous years, we've just brought cold foods in the cooler and visited Yellowstone restaurants, but this year, hubby decided we should actually cook at the camp site. As we pulled into the campgrounds, dime size hail began to fall on the car, and my intrepid hubby built our fire through a continuous rainfall.

For dinner, I'd prepared hobo packets. Hubby was expecting the traditional simple ground beef, potatoes, carrots, and a little butter, but since I was preparing them at home, I decided to go a little fancier. I was inspired by this post on 100 Days of Real Food, and I used her marinade (olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic, basil, thyme, oregano, and salt). In the packets, I included chicken sausage, onion, potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and a green pepper (only in hubby's...the rest of us don't like peppers). With our packets, we had yogurt and fruit. We, of course (we were camping after all), enjoyed s'mores for dessert.

For breakfast the next morning, we made campfire eggs-in-a-nest, which was about the most delicious way possible to start our day.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nurse Rachel's Ice Cream Celebration Cake

Well, hello, little blog. Long time, no see!

We just returned from nearly a month out West, staying with my in-laws and cooking in my mother-in-law's gorgeous new kitchen. I'd assumed that I would spend much of my time there cooking, baking, and catching up on my blog. Instead, I spent my time cooking, baking, and catching up on my very-neglected old-favorite past time: reading! Ever since I discovered food blogs, I have spent my precious little reading time on the web: reading new recipes, studying new techniques, following my friends' kitchen stories. This trip, I never even pulled out my computer, spending every non-family minute plowing through book after book. It was marvelous.

But it also meant that I never told you about my sister's super amazing celebration ice cream cake that I made a full month ago. My baby sister (I'm sure she won't mind if I tell you...) struggled in school. There was a time when we were worried she wouldn't graduate high school. So we were especially proud when she discovered her passion and decided to go back to school to become a nurse; this June all of her hard work paid off, and she graduated from nursing school with honors.

We hosted a family graduation party for her, and I wanted to make an especially special dessert. I thought of these ice cream sandwiches that I'd made last year, but we were hosting 20 people.... What could be better than an ice cream cake?!

As with the ice cream sandwiches, I started with Dorie's devil's food cake, splitting a full recipe between two half-sheet pans. After baking and cooling, I wrapped the cakes and placed them in the freezer. Then I made a batch of Jeni's vanilla ice cream and, after churning, dolloped it onto one of the layers. I wanted the traditional ice cream cake crunch, so I also made a batch of Dorie's cocoa crumbs. I sprinkled these on the layer of ice cream and pressed them in gently. Then I placed the other cake on top, and returned the whole thing to the freezer.

I debated a lot about the frosting: traditional ice cream cakes seemed to be covered in something almost like buttercream. But many of the recipes I found actually used more ice cream, or ice cream combined with cool whip. I decided to go with a simple sweetened whipped cream.

I am no good at fancy frosting and decorating, so to make the letters, I used some of Jeni's magic shell. I cut out a sheet of parchment paper and put the magic shell in a baggie, cut off the corner, and wrote letters on the parchment until I was happy with them. Then I stuck them in the freezer until they hardened and placed them on the top of the cake.

The cake was such a hit. The kids had a great time picking out which letters they wanted to eat, and everyone gobbled up every last bite. Because the cocoa crumbs made the layers a bit slippery during cutting, I thought I might leave them out next time; one bite convinced me that they were a necessary, crunchy, and delicious component. My only other complaint was that the cake was too thin; I think I would make a double recipe next time, so each cake would be a full layer tall.

Wouldn't you know it, today Deb posted a fantastic-looking ice cream cake recipe on Smitten Kitchen, and I am eager to try some of her additions: adding a layer of chocolate ice cream, as well as hot fudge. The second flavor of ice cream may mean that I could get away with only one recipe of cake (she didn't use cake at all). I'm also curious to try her homemade oreos and compare them to the cocoa crumbs.

Regardless, you can't go wrong with ice cream cake: such a fun-to-make, amazing-to-eat treat!