Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Swiss Steak

Last weekend I gave myself an early birthday present and drove to a church parking lot in Tualatin to pick up my order of a split half of beef from Crooked Gate Ranch. They raise about 40 steer each year - their beef is raised exclusively on managed pasture and never goes to a feedlot.

So when I got home, I unpacked 3 boxes (approximately 100 pounds) of grass-fed beef. I piled stacks of white-wrapped frozen meat haphazardly on all of my kitchen counters and tried to get a handle on what I'd purchased. Of course, there was a ton of hamburger - but there was also numerous chuck roasts, short ribs, rib steaks, t-bones and even a tenderloin. There were also 4 large packages of round steak, which is a lean, beefy cut that needs to be braised for hours to get it even the slightest bit tender.

Round steak is underrated. It's actually one of my favorite cuts, because it's just so cheap and versatile. You can shred it, make chicken fried steak or beef jerky with it (which was actually the very first thing I did - I pulled out my smoker and made a batch of jerky!) But one of my favorite recipes for round steak I got from my dad several years ago. It's called Swiss Steak, and it's one of those recipes that you can find in pretty much any old cookbook - and each version is slightly different. I don't know where my dad got his recipe, but it's a good one.

Swiss Steak
2lbs round steak
1 tbsp bacon grease or canola oil

1/4 cup flour
2 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

Coat all sides of the round steak with the flour mixture. Using a meat mallet, pound as much flour into the meat as it can hold. Heat fat in a dutch over or large pan. Brown all sides of the meat, and then add:

1/4 cup Worcestershire
1 cup beef stock or water
1 medium onion, sliced
1/4 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced

Cover meat and cook on low heat until tender - about 2 hours, depending on the thickness of the meat. Sometimes I add chopped tomato, sometimes not.

Season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with garlic mashed potatoes.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Frito Pie

Since I've lived my entire life in the Pacific Northwest, I hadn't heard of the gastronomic delight known as Frito Pie until a few years ago. And I admit, I was underwhelmed by the idea of putting chili on fritos and calling it a meal. But then earlier this year, I went to a work-related conference in Melbourne, Florida and discovered an amazing hot dog place called Mustard's Last Stand, and after eating my way through the menu (side note: macaroni salad and nacho cheese sauce on a hot dog is not as good as it sounds!) I eventually ordered their Frito Pie - and then I finally understood what Frito Pie was all about. Salty, spicy, crunchy, oozy deliciousness.

So last weekend Kevin and I went camping on the coast, and I was running out of food ideas. I love camping, but I'm not very good at coming up with camping menus. But Frito Pie filled saved the day. It's a perfect camping food.

I'm still not sold on the idea of Cincinnati Chili, though. That's a regional food that I still can't understand.

Frito Pie
3 cups of beef chili, preferably homemade
Half of an onion, diced
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
Bag of Fritos corn chips (must be Fritos!)
Sour cream

Pour hot chili on top of plate of Fritos. Top with cheese, onion and sour cream and eat like a king.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

New and improved, with pickles.

My blog has returned! The Blogosphere is heaving a collective sigh of relief right now, I'm sure. My house was robbed back in February, and my crappy digital camera was stolen. And I realize that food blogs without pictures of food are a complete waste of time, so I didn't bother posting anything. Also, I'm a lazy bum who didn't feel like typing for 6+ months. But now I have a new camera, I've had my afternoon nap, my fingers are limber, and all is right with the world - so I'm giving blogging another chance.

Ever summer for the past 4 years I try making pickles, with varying degrees of failure. The first couple of years I did fresh pack pickles, which turned out edible but each batch always seemed a little "off" to me. The pickles were too soft, or too sour, or overwhelmingly strong. Then last year my dad gave me (after a lengthy begging period) my grandfather's old pickling/beer making crock - an 8 gallon ceramic goliath that I fell in love with on sight.

So, this amazing acquisition is what led me to abandon the fresh-pack method and try brining pickles instead. After my 10 pounds of cucumbers were submerged in their salt and water bath for a couple of weeks, the crock started to smell awful. Every time I uncovered the crock, I felt like I was transported to an episode of CSI - one where they had just discovered a body that had spent 3 months decomposing in a drainage ditch. The pickles looked ok, but the fermenting/death smell was just too much - and I couldn't bring myself to take a bite of even a single pickle. After a long period of intentional neglect, the smell of fermentation turned to something akin to zombie BO and the cucumbers started to disintegrate in the brine. I dumped the crock into the trash and declared I would give up on brining foods forever (after an equally smelly attempt at making sauerkraut.)

Fast-forward to the present. Honestly, the whole failed stinky-pickle experiment had been nagging at me. I decided to try again, on a smaller scale. I'd also determined that part of my problem was I was letting the pickles sit in the bring for too long. So, I put 3 pounds of pickling cucumbers in a smaller crock and combined a few different recipes. After 5 days, I put the pickles in the fridge to stop the fermentation and voila! Delicious, crispy pickles! Adding a little vinegar at the start seems to speed up the process enough that the pickles never got stinky.
Homemade Kosher Pickles

3 lbs pickling cucumbers, washed with the blossom end removed.
1 gallon cold water
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup pickling salt
4-6 peeled garlic cloves
1/4 cup pickling spices
1 or 2 dried chiles or a pinch of chili flakes, depending on how spicy you like your pickles
2 Tb mustard seeds
Grape leaves (optional)

Put a layer of grape leaves in the bottom of a large glass jar or a ceramic crock. Add the cucumbers, spices and garlic cloves to the container. Combine water, salt and vinegar, stir until salt is dissolved and then pour over cucumbers until completely covered. Use a plate or zip lock bag filled with water to keep them submerged.

Let the pickles sit in a room between 65-75 degrees. Start sampling the pickles after day 3. As soon as the flavor seems "pickle-y" enough, put the pickles in a glass jar and cover with the strained brine (top it up with more white vinegar, if needed.) Refrigerate.

These should last months in the fridge.