Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Black beans in the crockpot

I really need to write a separate post on the challenges of cooking at altitude, but for now let me address one specific problem: getting beans fully cooked. This has become a goal of mine, since beans are one of the few foods (tomatoes are the other) I continue to use in canned form and I remain very concerned about bisphenol-A. So I set out this past weekend to make it work.

I tried a crockpot refried bean recipe, but even though I cooked on low for 10 hours, the beans still weren't nearly soft enough and I lost patience. The short version of the problem is that water boils at a lower temperature here and just does not get as hot as I might need.

This time, I set out to give them as long as they needed. I just realized in looking for the refried beans recipe that Stephanie has black bean directions similar to mine, but I actually devised this on my own with some tweaks for the altitude.

I started with 1 1/2 pounds of dried beans from the Whole Foods bulk bins. They cost me just over $2.00 and were organic. I probably could have gotten a cheaper bag for around $1.00 per pound, but this seemed reasonable to me. In the end, I got a little more than 5 ziplocs with about 2 cups of beans. (I mashed up the extra 1/2 cup or so to make Scooter's black bean quesadilla.) Given that a can would usually cost me a little under $1.00, this was a good return.

The "recipe" itself is very straightforward. I started around noon, specifically so I could leave the beans overnight. I used my old 4-quart; the beans nearly filled it, but something about the cylinder shape struck me as better suited than my oval 6-quart. (By the way, I have absolutely no idea if there's any truth to that and I suspect that larger batches would be fine in the 6-quart.)
  1. Rinse beans and discard those that don't look right. The batch I had were really good and so I didn't have to discard many.
  2. Place beans in crockpot and cover with water. Let soak for 6-8 hours.
  3. Drain water, which will be dark. Add new water to a couple inches above the beans.
  4. Turn beans up to high. Most recipes I've seen keep the heat at low, but I think this was key for getting the beans up to a high enough temperature at altitude. I probably did this around 6 or 7 pm.
  5. Before bed, check water level and add some more if needed. Turn crockpot down to low. Go to bed. I did this around 10:30 pm.
  6. First thing in the morning, check beans again. This was 6:15 am for me. Add more water if needed--I didn't need to. I also turned the temperature back up again.
  7. At about 9 am, I turned the crockpot off and took the lid off to let the beans cool a bit.
  8. To speed the process of preparing the beans for freezing, I dipped some out, trying not to get too much liquid with them, into a mixing bowl so they'd be spread out a little more. Once they were cool enough, I put just under 2 cups into each freezer bag.
So the process takes nearly 24 hours, but there's not a lot of hands-on time. The biggest issue was making sure I planned it for when I'd be around at the critical times (we sometimes spend the night at my in-laws' on the weekend) and when I hadn't already planned another use for the crockpot or the counter space where we set it up.

I've also got white, kidney, and garbanzo beans in the pantry, so you can bet I'll be doing this again. Just not tomorrow, as I'll be using some of my black beans in a delicious tamale pie.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quick "baked" pear

On days when I have ballet in the evening, my eating schedule is, by necessity, a bit odd. I try to have something that's not too heavy just over two hours before class. And then I try not to snack anymore (which is really hard for me).

By the time I get home, it's 8:30ish, so a full dinner seems like too much. And after working out like that, it seems ridiculous to indulge in anything too extreme.

Tonight, I grabbed a few corn chips to satisfy the carb-desire, but I wanted something sweet and healthy. A baked pear sounded wonderful, but I didn't want to heat up the oven and then wait 30 minutes for a single piece of fruit.

So I used the microwave.

  • One pear (I quartered it, cored the quarters, and then halved each of those)
  • Cinnamon (optional)
  1. Put pear, cut into eight pieces, in microwave-safe bowl and sprinkle on cinnamon, if desired.
  2. Microwave for about a minute, then move pieces around.
  3. Microwave another minute or so.
I did mine for a total of 2-1/2 minutes. It was soft and sweet and cinnamon-y, just what I had wanted.

(We'll ignore the fact that I also had a couple of Scooter's Valentine's Hershey's Kisses.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

An easy anniversary meal

The Valentine's Day before Trillian and I started our relationship, mere days before, we looked through the special ads in our university newspaper and cackled over the mushy proclamations on a Hallmark holiday.

Now, with our anniversary so soon after the holiday, Valentine's Day feels a bit superfluous. We might do things like a fun dessert--any excuse for chocolate!--but we save our special meal for our anniversary. Sometimes we'll take the opportunity to try a particularly nice restaurant, but we've also been known to cook up a nice meal at home.

This year, I looked at the calendar and sighed. Not only is our anniversary on a weeknight, it's on the one night I have to take Scooter to Capital City for gymnastics. We'd be able to have a late-ish dinner, but the thought of starting to cook that late when I knew I'd be tired was not appealing.

And then the epiphany: why not a crockpot meal? I started to look through recipes I'd saved, but Trillian knew immediately what she wanted. It's a recipe I originally wanted to try because of how very simple it is: Sundried Tomatoes and Feta Tri-Tip. Even better, it tastes wonderful.

I'm planning on trying my hand at the crockpot creme brulee recipe a day or two earlier so that I can just broil it a little before dinner. And I'll serve the tri-tip with some of our frozen haricots verts. A fancy, satisfying meal with a minimum of preparation!

Sundried Tomatoes and Feta Tri-Tip

  • 2 pounds of tri-tip steak (it's a triangular cut from the sirloin butt--I don't remember exactly what cuts I've ended up using, but this has worked well with any cut I've tried.)
  • 1 jar of sundried tomatoes, drained (I've also used some that were vacuum-packed without liquid and just threw in a tiny bit of oil.)
  • approx. 8 ounces of feta cheese--or more, which is Trillian's preference
  • 1/3 cup liquid (the recipe calls for white wine, I've used chicken stock successfully.)
  1. Put the meat in the crockpot, frozen is fine.
  2. Put the tomatoes on top of the meat, repeat with the feta. Toss in the liquid.
  3. Cook on low, 6-10 hours, depending on the thickness and frozen-ness of the meat.
Seriously, it's that easy. And so delicious. I'm looking forward to enjoying it with whatever excellent wine Trillian picks to go with it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

For my valentine: chocolate truffles

On most Saturday nights, we have dinner with my in-laws, cooked by my in-laws. Even though this coming Saturday is Valentine's Day, I kind of figured they didn't have plans to go out. Much like us, they're avoiding unnecessary expenses--and a nice meal out definitely qualifies. So we'll all be dining together. I offered to bring dessert, wanting to do some small thing to mark the day.

My first thought was chocolate. Not only because it's fairly traditional for Valentine's Day, but also because Trillian is a chocoholic. (And both of my in-laws also enjoy their chocolate.) I was going to go with fondue, but decided it would be hard to transport all the bits I'd need and would require cooking on the spot, possibly getting into others' way.

So I went with chocolate truffles. Seriously, what could be better than a good, dark chocolate truffle?

There are a lot of recipes out there and all sorts of opportunities to experiment with flavor. But at their base, truffles are cream and chocolate, a basic ganache. I found an "Easy chocolate truffles" recipe and went from there.

  • A bit more than 1 1/4 cups of finely chopped chocolate. It was supposed to be 8 ounces, but I guesstimated. I cut a bunch off of a block of semi-sweet dark chocolate (the stuff in plastic wrap) and a little from the unsweetened Ghirardelli bar. I used a very sharp knife and found it cut the chocolate very nicely.
  • 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream.
  • 2 Tbsp butter.
  • Whatever you want to cover the truffles.
  1. Cut the chocolate and place in a bowl that can hold at least twice as much as the chocolate.
  2. Heat the cream and butter in a small saucepan. Stir frequently to avoid scorching and to mix the butter in. You want to get it up to a simmer/low boil.
  3. Pour the cream mixture over the chocolate. Cover the bowl and let sit 5 minutes.
  4. Whisk the cream-chocolate mixture until it starts to thicken a little.
  5. Cover the bowl tightly and put it in the refrigerator. I left it there overnight.
  6. Prepare your dusting ingredients. I put some hot cocoa mix (also dark chocolate, the type that usually needs milk to prepare), chopped walnuts, and shaved chocolate (from the bar I used for the truffles themselves) on small plates.
  7. Scoop small amounts of ganache and roll into balls. I used our cookie-dough scoop. The truffles were a little big, but the scoop makes it easy and less messy.
  8. Roll the balls in the topping of choice. Set on parchment paper.
I set aside a total of 12 and placed them in silicone cupcake holders--red, as it happens, so perfect for Valentine's Day. Plus, putting three of them in a holder almost makes a heart shape.
I had enough left over to set 3 aside for Trillian to have before Saturday.

And one to try right now. Smooth and chocolatey.

The dangerous thing is that they're not at all hard to make. Perhaps too easy. And we frequently have the basic ingredients on hand. Trillian's not at all opposed to this development.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My favorite shrimp recipe (plus chard)

For once, not a crockpot meal! So this requires cooking time in the evening, but it is so worth it! The trickiest part for me is remembering to put the shrimp into the fridge to thaw. (We always keep at least a pound there.) But a nice thing about shrimp is that it's so easy to defrost, even if you don't remember until a little before. Just put some cool water in the bag, change on occasion, until the ice is gone. Remove the shell, if still on, and pat dry.

In a skillet, heat oil--I use olive or safflower. Then I sprinkle in some chili flakes. We keep some dried chili that we got from the farmers' market and use this. Sometimes I throw in a couple cloves of garlic. Toss in the shrimp and squeeze (or pour, if you're using bottled) lime juice over the top. Scoot shrimp around, turn as necessary, until opaque.

What I usually do at this point is put the warm shrimp onto a plate and tent with aluminum foil. Because my favorite thing to serve as a side is sauteed chard. Using the same skillet as I used for the shrimp, I cook up the chard (which I have already washed and separated from the tough stalk), stirring it around until it's wilted. It picks up some of the chili (and garlic if in there) taste.

Serve up and enjoy. Try not to grab a few more shrimp as you walk by the plate.