Hacks from my Happy Place – XXII

It’s been a long while since I wrote about my happy place. After nesting, making my usual broths and freezing them to be ready for soups and stews, back in the late fall of 2021, I just didn’t have the gumption to spend a lot of time in the kitchen trying and also creating new recipes. I’m happiest when I’m cooking to share with others – usually my brother and my bestie. My brother and I haven’t gotten together since early December 2020 because of the pandemic, and with the price of gas right now, I don’t expect we’ll be doing so for a while. And I do always share items with cabbage with my bestie, since I know she doesn’t make them.

I’m coming to realize that I don’t find pleasure in making homemade meals in the quantity of one and understanding why one-meal prepared items are the way to go.

I’ve been looking – a lot – on the internet at recipes, hoping to find ones that would inspire me to try them. So many of them require spices or ingredients that I don’t have and would have to purchase just to make this one recipe, never to be used again. I often wish that one of these TV food chefs would do a show about spices, what they taste like, and all of the ways they can be used. It doesn’t help that my bestie is lactose intolerant, and her husband is low sodium and gluten free only.

I did gather a new recipe or two there, and I also decided that it was time to clean out my recipe box. It was overflowing with pages printed and from magazines of recipes that looked interesting, but now that I don’t expect to ever cook for dinner parties and/or to impress people with my culinary skills, it became quickly obvious how many of those recipes no longer made sense to keep. I gathered up the many – and I mean many – recipes I decided not to keep and passed them on to my bestie. She surprised me by saying she kept about ten of them, since easy recipes are her way to go (keeping lactose, salt and gluten in her mind).

Of those recipes I did decide to keep, I made a promise to myself that any of them I haven’t made in the past 5 years will get made before the end of this year.

For the first time in forever, last fall I decided to make some ham with broth as well as my usual beef and chicken broths. I bought three ham shanks (not counting the one I somehow lost between the store and the car when I was with you, Brad!) and cooked them in a large pot that simmered for several hours. If you’ve ever worked with a ham shank (my grandmother called them ham hocks), there is very little meat to acquire from them, and so I also bought a couple of slices of ham and diced them up and threw in with the shanks while they cooked. I managed to get 3 quart-size zipper bags of meat and broth for the freezer. Pretty quickly I thawed one and made some ham, green beans and potatoes; it was so good that I didn’t share it! I also knew I wanted to make ham and bean soup, but I didn’t get around to doing so until recently. As I started to put the soup together, I suddenly remembered about the neighbor across the street growing up who made what she called Hunky Bean Soup. It was a recipe she learned from her Serbian ancestors. Basically, you start with your thickened ham broth, add diced potatoes but then use kidney beans instead of some kind of white bean. What makes Hunky Bean Soup so different is that you also splash in apple cider vinegar about halfway through simmering it. You add the vinegar to taste, and the longer it simmers, the milder the vinegar flavor tastes. I made some of that out of the broth I had for regular bean soup, and it was a treat!

As a side note, you thicken any broth in the same manner for which you thicken gravy. Both cornstarch and flour can be used if you make a slurry (A slurry is generally made with liquid (often water or broth) mixed with either cornstarch or flour and added to a hot liquid to thicken it. Because a slurry is a concentrated starchy liquid it will thicken sauces and gravy). My mom always made a slurry with cornstarch; I remember my grandma doing the same but with flour. A second option is to make a roux, using flour (A roux is a cooked mixture of equal parts flour and fat. When flour is cooked in fat, the fat coats the flour’s starch granules. This helps keep lumps from forming when the roux is combined with liquid such as milk or stock, yielding a silky-smooth, uniform sauce) and then adding the broth to it to thin it down to consistency.

I’ve done both, but I always use the roux option for any thickeners I’m making for a light-colored sauce. I have learned the magic trick of how to make a light-colored gravy look darker! The trick is to brown the flour! And yes, you indeed CAN brown flour! Simply add flour into a pan, enough to coat the bottom of the pan completely but not more than that (unless you want to be at your stove for a long time!). Turn the heat on to medium and place the pan on the burner. Relax, because it will take a while before both the pan and the flour will be hot enough so that the flour begins to darken. You can check it every so often by just putting a small indent into the flour to see the underneath side. Once it begins browning, stir it up and continue cooking, stirring every 15-20 minutes. Continue until you are satisfied with the darkened color of your flour. Remove from heat and use just as you would use white flour!

I don’t know if anyone other than me has the problem, but I have difficulty in baking a potato (in the oven or cheating with the microwave) that doesn’t end up hard on the bottom. I’ve loved eating the baked skins of a russet potato for as long as I remember. Whether he remembers it or not, I’d often trade the insides of my potato with my younger brother for the outside of his because I love them that much! When the skin is still nice and hot, I like putting pats of butter inside and letting it melt, then picking them up and biting into them. Yes, the butter drips down my chin, but it’s totally worth it. Anyhow, I get upset when there’s a part of the skin I can’t enjoy because it’s rock hard. My bestie bought me one of those cloth bags to put your potatoes in for the microwave, but that didn’t stop my problem. I did find that, if I folded up a full sheet of parchment paper and placed it on top of a piece of foil that I’d folded at least three times, it lessened that amount of hardness at the base of my potato by at least 65%. Better, but still not good enough, you know? And then, one day, the Internet showed me a video about exactly my problem, and I was told to make sure that I do two things I wasn’t doing. First, don’t just poke holes in the top of the potato to let steam escape, but on the entire potato because the reason the bottom gets hard is because there is nowhere for that steam to escape. The second suggestion was to rub olive oil (I think most types of cooking oil would work) over the entire potato after you’ve added the holes. Apparently, as the oil evaporates, the skins get more firm.

I tried it. It worked. I’m now enjoying baked potato skins as well as loading up the soft baked potato from the inside with butter, sour cream and chives, adding bacon and/or shredded cheddar cheese depending on my mood.

I will be gathering up recipes I want to share with you and will try to get them together in the near future. As the saying goes, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”. Life is bombarding me with reality and situations with which to deal, so my time – and energy – to write has been slacking off. I apologize for that.

BONUS KITCHEN HACK: Did you know that the lid from your standard size Parmesan (sprinkle) cheese will fit on a mason jar??? Imagine how much easier it will be to leave the big sugar container up high in the pantry and just grab this jar to do things like sprinkle sugar on cereal! I’m excited about this because I have certain spices I use a lot of and tend to buy in large containers, then fill small spice jars – often, it seems. I need to start using up a lot of the ‘sprinkle’ cheese so I can use the containers it comes in!

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