Sunday, January 30, 2011

Simple Pleasures in Life

Gluten-Free Brownies

One simple pleasure in life is gathering products from nature, taking them home, and using them as ingredients in recipes. Doing this reminds me of the many pioneer stories that I have read.  Recently, my family and I were out walking in our neighborhood and amused ourselves by stopping to pick up pecans that had fallen in the street.  Some of them we cracked right away to test.  A few were thrown away because they were dried in the shell, but most of them were a light golden brown, meaty, and delicious. And of course, along the way, my dad would give us a lesson in the different types of pecans.  Some were long and skinny, and some were big and fat.  Dad said one type was a seedling pecan. The good pecans were taken home, the shells were cracked, and the "meat" extracted.  These pecans were the basis for my dessert of gluten-free brownies. (Brownies, by the way, are one of my family's favorite desserts.)

This was my second attempt at making gluten-free brownies. The first batch was immediately trashed after I tried it. In the first batch I used mostly white rice flour which produced a grainy textured brownie.  The reason I baked with the white rice flour is because besides sorghum flour, that is the only gluten-free flour I have at the moment.

After researching natural treatments for myasthenia gravis (an autoimmune disease my dad was recently diagnosed with), I found that a diet of no white flour, white sugar, red meat, etc. can help people with the disease. Since my dad's diagnosis about two weeks ago, I have been cooking for him and my family using natural ingredients. I use agave to sweeten oatmeal, homemade lemonade, fruit desserts, etc. I have also experimented with Stevia.

When preparing for baking the brownies, I decided to use cane sugar. Cane sugar is better because it is the raw sugar that hasn't been refined. I didn't have a fine ground cane sugar but I decided to use the cane sugar I had. Next time, I will use a fine cane sugar because it melts easier and gives a smoother texture.

With my second successful batch, I used a combination of flours. My choice for the combination came from the gluten-free flours I had at my house as stated earlier. I used white rice flour, sorghum flour, and cornstarch. You might be wondering how I would know, a newbie gluten-free baker, what combination to put together. I searched online for ingredients needed to make gluten-free brownies. I didn't have many of the gluten-free flours needed. One ingredient was almond meal. The site stated to use blanched almonds and process them in a coffee grinder. Since I don't have a coffee grinder I decided to use my food processor. Then the instructions stated to sift the ground almonds. After frustratingly sifting the ground almonds, I only ended up with a tablespoon of almond meal (fine ground almonds). The rest of the ground almond pieces were too large. After all my work, I was not going to discard my one tablespoon of almond meal.

One ingredient that I added in this batch that I didn't in the first was the baking soda. This ingredient is an important component in order to achieve the cracked topping of the brownie.

And this is the recipe for my second attempt at a Gluten-Free Brownie.

Gluten-Free Brownies

5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate (I recommend Ghirardelli)
1/2 cup butter
2 eggs
1 cup cane sugar (fine)
1 Tbsp. almond meal
¼ cup brown rice flour
¼ cup sweet sorghum flour
¼ cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/3 cup chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 8x8 inch glass baking dish with cooking spray.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally until melted. Let cool slightly.

Beat eggs in a mixing bowl. Stir in sugar.
Gradually add chocolate mixture into egg mixture until combined, stirring constantly.

In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients: almond meal, rice flour, sorghum flour, cornstarch, salt and baking soda; whisk together. Stir in the dry flour mix into the chocolate mixture, until combined. Add the vanilla, chocolate chips, and pecans.

Scrape into the baking dish. Smooth batter with the back of a spoon.
Bake for 36-40 minutes. Depending on how fudgey you like them.

Enjoy warm fudge brownies!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Off with the New, In with the Old continued.....

Off with the New, In with the Old

More and more, this seems to be the theme for this year.  My husband, John, has been diagnosed with MG, myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune, muscular weakness disease.  Because of this, Whitney and I have become very intense in researching ways to help him healthwise.  Of course, this means, trying to do moderate exercise and eating healthy.  Eating healthy has always been important to us, but never more important than now.  My husband also has food allergies so he has been on prescribed diets before where his sugar and white processed flour intake, etc. were virtuallly eliminated, so we are familiar with taking these steps. Recently we have visited a health food store and Whole Foods.  Whitney has been experimenting with new recipes that incorporate natural ingredients ...stone ground cornmeal, rice flour, organic milk, natural sweeteners, etc. All of these products bring us back to that thought of simple and "old-fashioned" foods.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
My ninety-five year old grandmother, Whitney's great-grandmother, recently purchased chickens to obtain fresh eggs.  Almost all of her life, she has raised chickens and gathered eggs.  Even Grandma has gone back to "old" times.  In a conversation at my grandma's dinner table last week, talk turned to the past. My dad and my aunt began discussing their memories of preserving food.  My aunt, as a young girl, learning to cook remembered meat stored in a large crock being preserved by "lard" or fat being poured over it.  My dad, being the boy and working outside on the farm, remembered meat being preserved by layering it with salt in a barrel and also being hung up in the smokehouse.  They were asking my grandmother to confirm their disagreement over methods.  She actually confirmed the use of all of the methods, the difference being that my aunt was thinking about cooked meat and my dad was thinking about raw meat that was being smoked in addition to salted. Then the talk continued about preserving other foods.  Grandma said that she remembered her mother drying fruit  in the sun. She would slice the fruit and place it, covered with cheesecloth to protect it from insects, on top of the smokehouse to dry in the sun. The fruit was eaten as it was.  It was easy to carry when traveling.  My great-aunt added that it could be rehydrated with liquid to be used in making pies. My grandmother said that for making pies, however, they mainly used canned fruits. I am very interested in these old ways of preserving fresh fruits, for sentimentalty sake as well as now for health's sake.

Whitney :)
In my search to cook healthy for my dad, I have discovered agave and Stevia which are natural sweeteners. Agave comes in a liquid form. It looks like thin honey. It comes in two colors light (delicate flavor) and amber (rich flavor). I use the agave for multiple purposes. The light is good to sweeten homemade lemonade or iced tea. The amber is good to sweeten fruits for a fruit crisp dessert. I recently made a homemade candy bar. I called it a Southern Candy Bar. I cooked grits in fresh coconut water and milk. Then I sweetened it with Stevia. I poured the sweetened grit mixture in a small glass baking dish. I let it cool and set up. Once the grit mixture was set, I cut it into little rectangles. I pressed a whole almond in the grit bar and then covered it in dark chocolate. It is my take on a healthier, Southern version of an Almond Joy.
My blog will continue in this direction. I want my discovery for using natural and fresh ingredients, to help anyone who has health problems. I pray it will help my dad.
Stay tuned...........

Please keep my dad and my family in your prayers

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Today's Food Ingredient Mysteries- Russet, Yukon Gold, vs. Red Potatoes?

Do you think our great grandparents had to worry about the choices we face today when we are shopping in the grocery store? What potatoes to use to make the perfect mashed potatoes or potato salad? or What ground meat makes the best hamburgers?

I don't think so.

My great grandparents had a garden and grew their own potatoes. I think whatever variety they grew was used for any and every application in the kitchen. My mom told me how her mom's mom would take leftover mashed potatoes and make potato pancakes for breakfast. We would say she was being economical with her potatoes. She would probably say I wouldn't think of doing anything different because that was the way of life. My great grandmother didn't waste anything. My mom also told me that if my great grandmother had a tablespoon of potatoes or other vegetables leftover from a meal that she would add it in to make a vegetable soup.

Hamburgers......What ground meat makes the best hamburgers? If I would ask my other great grandmother, she would probably say a butchered cow. She raised cattle and butchered the cows for meat. Talk about fresh. cow-> meat -> hamburger all right at your home.

Today some of us do not have this "luxury" of reaching in the ground for our own poatoes (no one in my immediate family has a green thumb) or butchering a cow for meat. We walk into a grocery store to buy our potatoes and meat.

So, because of the decisions facing us today,  I am going to let you in on a few secrets to the mysteries my mom and I uncovered about potatoes and meat.


I hate to say it, but I grew up not worrying about the difference in potatoes.  My grandparents had gardens.  I can remember digging the mounds to get the potatoes, being careful to not cut the potatoes.  As the potatoes were harvested, any that were not being used would be piled up under a tree and lime would be sprinkled on them as a preservative.  I ate potatoes fresh out of the garden and they were wonderful.  I had boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, potatoes and dumplings, and fried potatoes. Maybe somewere baked...I don't remember these much.  I think that whatever was cooked was made to serve multiple servings economically. I don't really even remember seeing many russet potatoes, mostly red.  We ate a lot of tiny red new potatoes.  They were delicious, especially added to fresh green beans, etc..
                                                                                                                                                       As a cook (and restaurant customer) in the past years, I became more acquainted with russet potatoes, but mostly I thought of them as baking potatoes.  I used red for everything else.  Then, along comes Whitney and her consuming interest in the food world.  I suddenly discover that I might not be cooking potatoes in a way that utilizes them the best according to their various textures and tastes (and of course, I have been learning a lot about starches).  Oh, and to make choices more interesting, a new potato enters the picture, the new "gold or yellow butter" potatoes.

Being a former teacher and fond of analyzing and researching, I decide to test out the three kinds of potatoes and learn firsthand about them and their tastes, textures, and best uses (from my family's viewpoint).  I was interested in making a great mashed potato and potato salad.  Which should I use? I cut each type into cubes and boiled. When mashed, I discovered the russet and gold to be creamier than the red.  The majority of my family preferred the taste of the russet for mashed potatoes.  (Whitney liked the "gold" better.) From my research, russet is the starchiest and because of this makes the fluffiest mashed potatoes; some professional chefs use them.  However, I learned that some people do not prefer them over gold because they said they don't like the starchier taste. . The gold is an all purpose, medium starch potato and does produce fluffy potatoes with a buttery taste.  Obviously, there seems to be differing opinions about which makes the best mashed potatoes. (Which do you prefer?)

 By the way, Whitney has taught me to use a food mill to make my mashed potatoes creamier.  It works great! Believe it or not, her food mill was her only asked for Christmas present. Recentlly, I found an antique food mill at a flea market.  Upon researching, I learned that the food mill was used in canning; it helped to strain out skins and seeds as well as puree fruits and vegetables. It was used in making jams and jellies, even apple sauce. It could be used to make baby food. Basically, it is a cross between the modern day strainer and food processor.

On to potato salad....because of the texture of the red potato, I think it works best .  The red potato is the least starchy potato and holds its shape.   

Whitney :)

I wanted to know what ground meat makes the best hamburgers so I decided to test out the differences between ground beef, ground chuck, and ground round. I didn't know what the differences were going to be except that each of these have different ratios of lean to fat.

Ground Beef-   73% lean  27% fat
Ground Chuck- 80% lean 20% fat
Ground Round- 90% lean 10% fat

I prepared a patty from each of these ground meats. I flavored them all the same with salt, pepper, and a little marinade. I didn't want to mask their flavors but showcase them. After I cooked the three patties, it was time for the taste testing.
The Results:

Ground Beef- moist, light texture, flavorful
Ground Chuck- moist, flavorful
Ground Round- dense, flavorless

I enjoyed the ground beef and chuck. I don't think you could go wrong with either of these ground meats. I would not use the ground round for burgers unless you mix it with the ground beef to compromise the leanness of the ground round with the fattier ratio of the ground beef.

If you would ask me what the best combo of ingredients on my hamburger, I would say my spicy pimento cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato= Southern BLT Burger


Monday, January 3, 2011

Cooking Inspiration

My mom is who inspired me to cook. When I was very young she had me and my sisters in the kitchen. Preparing meals was always a family affair.

                            Me, Leslie (older sister), & mom in the kitchen preparing New Year's meal

Today I am sharing with you cooking through my mom's eyes where her cooking inspiration began.

Out with the New; In with the Old?

This title for Whitney's previous blog writing started my creative writing juices to flowing. Whitney had been reading prarie stories and I had been reading an Amish story over the Christmas holidays. All the descriptions of the simple lifestyle and especially the homecooked breads, desserts, and meals reminded me of my grandparents (Whitney's great-grandparents) and earlier times. A widely used phrase today is "Farm to Table."  The idea behind this was nothing new to me; this was exactly how I grew up.  Both sets of grandparents lived on farms, raised animals for meat, and always had a garden.  One of my fondest memories is of my grandma (McCarter) with her thin flowered dress and bonnet, hoeing the rows of cabbages and other vegetables in her garden. In my mind, she was a real pioneer.  When dining at Grandma's house, meals would include iron-skillet cornbread with fresh churned butter, a large variety of vegetables from the garden, and inevitably some terrific dessert such as homemade apple crisp made with apples from Grandma's tree or a berry cobbler made with berries I had picked earlier in the day. Grandma's meals could not have been more fresh!  She milked a cow and made her own butter.  At one time, I can remember a hog being raised for bacon and ham.  Eggs were gathered from the chickens. Fruit was picked from a variety of fruit trees: apple, pear, and peach. Grandma was very frugal, having lived during the Depression.  Any foods that were not used immediately were preserved in some way, whether it be canning or freezing. Also, I can remember Grandma often having a pot of soup on the stovetop, a great way of incorporating any timy bits of leftover vegetables. This  hot soup combined with her crusty cornbread and cool and crunchy coleslaw made for a filling and comforting meal. Grandma never had any formal chef training, but her food was truly great Southern cuisine. Inspired by the stories I have read, memories of my grandparents, and the not so new back to basics trends, I have set about making memories of my own with Whitney in the kitchen.  She and I have tag-teamed to try and invent the best butter cake recipe. On the first try, mine turned out basically perfect but lacking the depth of flavor I wanted.  Whitney cooked the next one, with a few changes, producing great flavor but still not quite what she or I wanted in texture. The challenge continues, but along the way, memories are being made, lessons learned, and a content feeling gained from doing things the old-fashioned way.  

By guest blogger,
Mary (Whitney's mom)

Thanks mom for always being patient when teaching me to cook when I was younger. Thank you for now being my right hand "woman" with recipe testing. Lastly, thank you for being my traveling buddie. I know you enjoy eating our way through our travels as much as I do.