Thursday, February 11, 2010

Elk meatballs - with video!

Thanks to Adam, Andy got to go hunting in December. It was his first time, and he loved it! Andy doesn't know how to shoot, but he loved helping Adam stalk the herd of elk, track down the one that was shot, and cut it up and carry it out.



I mostly eat vegetarian and when people ask me why I don't really have a simple answer. It's a combination of things - I just don't love meat and I stopped eating some kinds in high school. Maybe more importantly I don't like the way the industry works. So many resources go into the crops that are used to fatten animals, and then the waste products from the animals pollute water systems. In principle, free-range meats make more sense in regards to those two specific problems, but still, if all the world's population was eating meat, free-range or not, we'd pretty quickly convert our grasslands to desert and/or destroy our water systems. Hunting for your own meat takes the industry out of the equation, and I'm a lot more comfortable with that. In fact in many areas elk are overpopulated due to a lack of predators, so hunting elk is a good thing for the environment. I realize that I do lots of things that are unsustainable, so this is just one battle I choose to fight, at least partly because it's easy for me to do so since I love vegetarian food.

In summary, I'm totally in favor of eating what you hunt, and the elk has been pretty delicious. It's very lean and has a nice sweet taste to it that I previously haven't associated with meats. It has hints of butter, honey, and sweet herbs like thyme or basil. I guess that's what people mean when they say free range, grass-fed meat tastes better. Although, I can't really eat very much or it makes my stomach feel a little weird :)

A few notes on the recipe: I think my favorite part of cooking elk is the smells... maybe you can imagine it by watching the video below! This recipe accentuates some of those flavors I mentioned above by mixing in herbs and sauteeing the meatballs in olive oil - which works well since the elk is so lean - and the aromas are just amazing. The ratio of meatballs to pasta to sauce are a little screwy. This probably makes enough meatballs for at least 8 servings but the pasta is only enough for 4. So if you make this, you'll have some meatballs leftover for sandwiches. Or you can cook a second pound of pasta.

video


Ingredients

1.5 to 2 pounds ground elk
3 cloves garlic
1/4 c. packed parsley leaves
2 T. fresh thyme
1/3 c. freshly grated parmesan
1/2 c. bread crumbs
2 handfuls Rice Krispies, slightly mashed up in your hand
2 t. salt
freshly ground pepper
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
4 eggs
olive oil
2 jars tomato sauce (I prefer a simple tomato sauce like tomato-basil or marinara, over mushroom or pepper flavored or a spicy, etc.)
1 pound long pasta, such as linguini or sphaghetti
More freshly grated parmesan for serving.

1. Put garlic and herbs in food processor and chop till very fine (or do by hand).
2. Mix together elk, garlic and herbs, parmesan, bread crumbs, Rice Krispies, salt, pepper, and red pepper.
3. Lightly beat the eggs and then incorporate them into the mixture.
4. Form meatballs.
5. Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with olive oil. Heat over medium.
6. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs, but don't crowd the skillet or they will be hard to flip. It'll require cooking in 3 or 4 rounds.
7. Flip when the meatballs are nicely browned. Nicely brown the other side of the meatballs. The goal here isn't to cook the meatballs through, just to brown (because browning reactions are delicious), so it'll only take 2-3 minutes per side.
8. Remove the browned-on-both-sides meatballs to a plate or bowl, and add a bit more olive oil in between each batch.
9. When all the meatballs are done being browned, return them to skillet, and pour in one jar of tomato sauce. Cover, lower heat to very low, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes. This will complete the cooking of the meat, and the meat and tomato flavors will meld together.
10. Cook pasta according to directions, and heat some extra sauce from jar #2 (if it fits in your skillet feel free to just add more there. With all the meatballs, I couldn't fit enough sauce to dress my pasta to my liking.)
11. Serve with more parmesan!

Sesame-ginger granola

I've been on a granola making kick lately. Fairly often I find I'm not in the mood for breakfast cereal. Besides the fact that they're super expensive for the ingredients that are actually in them, I just find them very boring. The main advantage I see to making your own granola are that you can control what goes into it, thus you can make a breakfast food that you are totally psyched about eating in the morning. A basic granola recipe is 6 cups rolled oats ("old-fashioned," not quick or instant) plus 2 c. seeds, nuts, and/or other grains, spices, and half a cup to a whole cup of honey or other sweetener, and up to a half a cup of oil or nut butter. I don't really like dried fruit in my granola so much, but you can add as much of that as you want to - just add it after baking so the raisins don't turn into tooth-destroying little rocks.

I love anything with sesame in it, so I was looking to make a sesame heavy granola. I think this one worked out really well. The texture is interesting and perhaps not very typical - somehow it ended up containing lots of chewy bites of oats, sesame seeds tahini and honey. The tahini I used was kind of old and thus very seperated into the solids and the oils; even heating didn't not homogenize it well. The chewy bites contrasted nicely with an overall crunch. It's almost like having sesame candy for breakfast. If you prefer a thoroughly crunchy granola I think you could just bake it longer and/or hotter.



The granola below is less than 2/3 the price (per ounce) of Bear Naked granola, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, or even Cheerios, and it is way more interesting. The main cost is actually the tahini, so you can see how making a more basic granola (with just nuts and raisins, for example) would be even cheaper. I've listed the costs of the ingredients for illustration - I just grabbed prices off of online listings pretty quickly - the honey seems too expensive, I think if you buy the 1/2 gallon containers like I do it's a lot cheaper. It's also super easy - the active working time is just a few minutes. The only tricky part is making sure it doesn't burn. At only 300, burning is much less likely, but you should still check on it and stir. Most recipes I've seen call for 325 or 350 but using tahini (or peanut butter) makes it easier to burn, so I think 300 is best.

Ingredients
6 c. oats ($1.52)
1/2 c. sesame seeds ($1.04)
1/2 c. wheat germ ($0.30)
3 T. ground ginger ($0.67)
1/2 t. salt (negligible)
1/2 c. honey ($1.49)
1/2 c. tahini ($1.61)
1 T. canola (or other neutral) oil (negligible)
2 T. orange juice (negligible)

1. Pre-heat the oven to 300.
2. In your largest mixing bowl, stir together oats, sesame seeds, wheat germ, and salt.
3. Over medium-low heat, stir together honey, tahini, oil, and orange juice until smooth (if possible).
4. Pour the hot liquids over the oat mixture and toss till well coated.
5. Spread the mixture onto two jelly roll pans (cookie sheets with sides).
6. Put in the oven for 25-30 minutes, stirring about every 5-8 minutes, and switch oven positions halfway through. Keep an eye out for any burning.

Total price: $6.63
Total weight: 32.1 ounces
Price per ounce: $0.21
Price per serving (8 servings): $0.81

Variations
They are infinite. But one of my other favorites has pumpkin seeds, pecans, a few tablespoons of cocoa powder, and 1/2 c. peanut butter instead of the tahini.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sardines! Sardine-jicama-orange-avocado salad

On Saturday I woke Andy up in the middle of the night saying that I needed to give Alton Brown the salad. I don't remember any of this, but I started writing this blog posting that day, so I must have been dreaming about it. I wonder if I meant I had to give him the recipe or the salad itself?! The title of this recipe may give you pause; sardines have a bad rap as a smelly, oily fish. But I encourage you to read on and then give them a chance (except Matt, you're exempt).

Let's discuss sardines first. I bought some canned brisling 2-row sardines packed in olive oil at King Soopers the other day after being inspired by, who else, Alton Brown (I realize this is the third post in a row where I mention him...) On a recent show, he extolled the virtues of sardines as a healthy and tasty food, and made open faced sandwiches that I made the other day - they were great! The health benefits and tastiness are definitely true, but more importantly in my mind is that sardines are a sustainable fishery. They are abundant and very low on the food chain. Because they are low on the food chain, they don't require a lot of inputs and don't create much waste - essentially the oceans can support a lot of them. Compare sardines to, say, canned tuna. Tuna are high on the food chain, thus they require more inputs and the ocean can support fewer of them...making them prone to overfishing especially when they are a super popular fish. Another outcome of being high on the food chain is that they bioaccumulate toxins as they consume the fish that are below them on the food web; most notably mercury and PCBs. I've made a table to compare canned tuna and canned sardines. All the nutritional information is for equal serving sizes (by mass) of the fish, canned in oil. The cells highlighted in green show which fish shines in that category. Yellow and red highlights where you might want to be cautious. You can see sardines are higher than tuna in a number of beneficial nutritional measurements: calcium, fatty acids, vitamin D, among others.



Sources of data:
Sardine nutritional data
Tuna nutritional data

Monterey Bay Aquarium factsheet for sardines
Monterey Bay Aquarium factsheet for canned tuna
Mercury measurements

So, having made the case for sardines, here's the recipe. I think that the citrus helps moderate the oilness of the sardines.

Ingredients

2 cans of 2-row brisling sardines packed in olive oil
Juice and zest of 2 limes
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
1/4 t. chili powder
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 of a medium-large jicama or 1 small jicama - the equivalent of about a grapefruit sized volume
3 oranges
2 avocados

1. Drain the sardines reserving the olive oil.
2. Whisk together 1 T. of the sardine oil, the juice and zest of the limes, the cilantro and chili powder. Add some pepper.
3. Add the sardines to the dressing, lightly break up the sardines with a fork into bite sized pieces. Marinate the sardines in this dressing for 30-60 minutes.
4. Cut up the jicama into bite sized pieces... I like it in fat matchstick shapes. Cut up the orange and avocado into small bite sized pieces. Remove most of the oranges' pith if you're picky.
5. Toss everything together, let the flavors coalesce for 15-30 minutes or so, and serve.

This is best served the same day it's made.

Variations

I think this could be made with a variety of fruits or even vegetables. I can see sardine-watermelon-banana salad, sardine-jicama-grapefruit (with honey!), sardine-potato-raisin (with vinagrette, a potato salad variation)...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

My favorite veggie chili (just in time for the Super Bowl)

Chili is all about chiles. With an "i," chili is the spicy bean and tomato stew. With an "e," chiles are the fruit (yes, fruit, seeds are inside and they can grown into new plants!) that make chili spicy. Now that that clarification is out of the way, here's the bottom line: the chili powder makes all the difference. It is SOOO much better if it's homemade. Why? Not sure, but my guess is that 1) the chiles you put into it are fresher... and once ground and sitting on a Safeway shelf for months, a chili powder loses freshness quickly. 2) you can use any variety of chiles you want. My guess is that most commercial chili powders are the cheapest chiles available.

You can make your own chili powder a million different ways, but here's one incredible recipe from Alton Brown, my favorite TV chef. I've made mass quantities of AB's chili powder and given it as Christmas gifts before. AB's chili powder recipe takes care of all the spicing requirements. The only additional spices I add are fresh garlic (cause garlic makes everything better) and cinnamon, which kind of magically melds the flavors together. I try to add just enough to accomplish this, but not overwhelm the chiles. It's easy to add too much, so be light with the shaker.

Since I'm not a meat fan, I like to add some bulgar wheat to chili. Not as a meat substitute, but to give the chili some extra al dente appeal. I make it with quinoa instead sometimes but bulgar is better. Also, a writer at Serious Eats has done a much more scientific analysis of his chili recipe, it's a very good article. The part about the meat is especially interesting for you meat-eaters.

And for serving, be sure to provide all the fixins (listed below the recipe), along with some cornbread.


Ingredients

0.75 cup bulgar wheat
1.5 cups water or tomato juice
2-3 T. oil
salt
at least 3 T. homemade chili powder
3 onions
lots of garlic (6-10 cloves)
2-3 carrots
2-3 green bell peppers
2-3 jalapenos
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
0.25 to 0.5 t. ground cinnamon
1 bag soaked and cooked black beans, or any mix of black, red, kidney, pinto, black-eyed peas. Cans are fine too, use 3 or 4.
molasses, to taste (I maybe use 0.25 c.)
soy sauce, to taste (just a few dashes)
optional add-ins: frozen or fresh corn, spinach


1. Cook bulgur according to package directions (in the water or juice, usually a 1:2 ratio). Set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a big pot over medium. Cook the onions, carrot, salt, and chili powder till the crunch is just barely taken off. Stir often.
3. Add the garlic and peppers. Saute till the crunch is barely taken off the peppers. Stir often.
4. Add the tomatoes and cinnamon. Turn the heat to low, and cook for at least half an hour (an hour is better), stirring occasionally. The tomatoes should lose some acidity and turn a more orangey shade of red.
5. Add the beans, bulgar, molasses, soy sauce and corn and spinach (if using), and cook another half hour more. Add additional water or tomato juice if it is too thick for your liking.
6. As you are going, adjust seasonings. I usually end up adding a LOT of chili powder. The cinnamon shouldn’t really be tasteable, but somehow it tends to bring all the flavors together.

Serve with grated cheddar cheese, sliced avocados, plain greek style yogurt (I can't get enough of Mountain High plain lowfat) or sour cream, shredded green cabbage or lettuce.

Quick "roasted" squash side dish

I think squash is best roasted, but sometimes, I'm just too hungry to wait that long. This was the case last night after a long day in the lab. The point of roasting a vegetable (or meat for that matter) is to get some browning reactions going. Browning reactions convert simple sugars and proteins into more complex flavors. This 1953 article in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry by John Hodge, one of the great food chemists, identified and integrated some of the early postulated reactions into a unified theory. Quite remarkable considering how much is still not understood about the mechanisms that make grilled steak or roasted veggies so delicious.



But back to the squash at hand... I decided to try to shortcut the research presented above; by first boiling the squash, then dehydrating it a bit, and then broiling, and making up for the lack of browning reactions with peripheral savory, sweet, complex flavors. I had one small, sad acorn squash that had been in the fridge for quite some time, and about 1/4 of a very large butternut, about 1/2 lb in all. Any firm winter squash would work. I left the skin on, cause again, I was hungry! I had picked up some thyme at the store the other day, having remembered how much I like it because Mary and Erin cooked with some at our Estes Park/RMNP mini-vacation last weekend. That along with some smoked sea salt takes care of the savory flavors; brown sugar is a shortcut to the sweet caramelized flavor roasting usually imparts, and the butter brings it all together. The bread crumbs are for a little crunch and visually, for some browning.



Ingredients
~1/2 lb. firm winter squash, sliced into fairly large chunks (peeling is optional)
1 T. butter
1 T. fresh thyme (leaves removed from twigs)
2 T. brown sugar
large pinch smoked sea salt
ground pepper to taste
bread crumbs (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 and boil some water.
2. Cook the squash in the boiling water, till just tender, about 10 minutes.
3. In a casserole or baking dish, toss the squash with the butter, thyme, 1 T. of the brown sugar, and the salt and pepper.
4. Sprinkle the remaining 1 T. of brown sugar, and some bread crumbs on top.
5. Cook for about 10 minutes in the oven (to dehydrate), and then switch to broil. Broil for a few minutes till the bread crumbs and squash are starting to brown.

Variations
I think it would also be great with some parmesan cheese in addition or instead of the bread crumbs. I used some homemade wheat bread crumbs I have stashed in the freezer, but I think the crunch factor would be improved with crunchy Japanese style bread crumbs (panko), which are available in most supermarkets.