Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Crock-Pot Kraut Dinner

I have a handful of Crock-Pot recipes I kept from last year's daily calendar and am slowly trying them out. This one turned out to amazingly delicious. I did take pictures but won't post them because, sauerkraut, cabbage, and brats aren't the most photogenic of foods, regardless of their flavor. Here is the recipe, with all the changes that I made to it:

Old-Fashioned Sauerkraut
4 slices bacon
1/2 small green cabbage, cored and shredded
1 can sauerkraut, undrained
4-5 bratwursts(I used chicken brats)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 Tbsp. butter
3/4 cup white wine(you could definitely use beer if you had any, but I had white wine that needed to used up and it turned out really good)
Pepper, to taste

1.) Place the cabbage in the crock-pot. It will come up nearly to the top. Place the can of sauerkraut, including the juice, over it. Then add the brats, onions, butter, and pepper to taste.

2.) Cook the bacon over medium heat in a frying pan until crisp.When the bacon is cool enough to handle, crumble it and place on top of the other ingredients in the pot. Then pour the bacon fat over that. Deglaze the frying pan with the wine and gently scrape off all the bacon bits from the pan and when the alcohol has burned off from the wine, pour it over the top of the food in the pot. Place the lid on the pot and turn on high. It will take at least 4.5-5 hours, and you will need to take the lid off once in a while and gently stir everything around as the cabbage begins to cook down.

This will make 4-5 servings and is good served with roasted potatoes or buttered noodles. I was really pleased with how delicious this was. It reheats well. I froze two portions so I can see if it thaws well. Not sure if it will, but I'm sure it'll still be tasty.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dining In-A Culinary Tour of America: Monterey Park, California

The City: Monterey Park
Why Monterey Park, you might ask. I chose this city because it is one of the smaller cities in California with the highest percentage of Asian/Asian Americans in their community. One of my only rules about this series is that I cannot choose a city I have been to before. Being that it is the Lunar New Year celebration right now, I wanted to feature that in this week's blog post. Since I have been to San Francisco, which might be the obvious choice for California and Lunar New Year, I had to get creative in where I chose to "visit". Other cities around the nation that have large Asian and Asian American populations are already slated for posts later on in the year for other events I want to feature in this series.

The population of Monterey Park, as of 2013, was 61,085. Of that total, 62.9% of the people are Asian or Asian American. 47.7% of those people are Chinese or Chinese Americans. The next greatest percentage of the total population is 30.3% being Hispanic. The East Los Angeles College, located nearby, is the city's largest employer.

Monterey Park is 10 miles east of Los Angeles, in southern California. It was founded on May 29, 1916. By the 1920's, Asian farmers began to come to the area to work and live. Over the years, attempts were made to limit the amount of Asian people moving to the area, but none of them were successful. In the 1970's and 1980's, the city council tried to pass "English only" ordinances two different times, and both attempts failed. In 1985, they successfully passed an ordinance that forced all business within the city to display English language signage on their signs. By 1990, the city became the first in the continental United States to have a population with an Asian/Asian American majority. There is a large Taiwanese community there and the city is even known as "Little Taipei". 

The Dish: Chop Suey and fried rice

Why Chop Suey, you might ask. Well, for one thing, I've never had it before. I've never made it before. For another, I am intrigued by its history. Nobody actually knows the true origin of this dish. In case you did not know, this dish, along with the fortune cookie, are actually American dishes. They are not Chinese at all. So why do it for Lunar New Year? Because America is about blending things together. People from other nations come here and they bring their own culinary traditions with them and from there they are altered to fit the tastes of their local communities. These Americanized dishes are a success story. They show how we all fit in together and work together and come together, particularly at the dinner table. I think it's beautiful and worthy of celebrating. That's the entire point of this blog series. 

Legend has it that chop suey, which basically means a hodge-podge of leftover vegetables and meat, stir-fried and served with a sauce, was created at a restaurant in Chinatown in San Francisco in the late 1800's. It was a great way to use up all of one's inventory and pass it off as authentic to unsuspecting American tourists. It became a great hit. But another legend says that it was created at a hotel for a Chinese diplomat who had come to visit. The chef invented the meal in hopes of appealing to both Chinese and American taste preferences. Some say that it really was invented in China and the name has been changed over the years. Nobody truly knows, and that's what makes it fascinating.

The dish itself is rather uneventful. I found a good recipe online to base mine off of but I changed a lot about it. The biggest alteration I made was to veganize it. It called for pork tenderloin, but that can be so expensive and also depending on how it's prepared, the flavor can get lost. Since this was going to have a lot of other flavors vying for attention, I didn't want to spend all that money on something that would be drowned out in the end. I am not a tofu fan, so I chose tempeh, which is a fermented soy bean product that has a nice firmness to it that tofu doesn't have. I got the kind that is marinated in a soy/ginger sauce and it turned out to be pretty good. I used vegetable broth instead of chicken and oyster mushroom sauce instead of oyster sauce, which I can't bring myself to eat. I already had the mushroom sauce on-hand. As for the vegetables, the biggest one I swapped out was the celery. Celery is a big component of chop suey(probably because it's cheap), but I cannot stand celery. I put in carrot slices instead and I think it was fine. I left out the green bell pepper since I'm not a huge fan of those either. (The name of this blog is "Persnickety" and now you are learning why...!) I used baby bok choy, cremini mushrooms, snow peas, onion, green onions, a can of water chestnuts, a can of bamboo shoots, which for some reason do not smell good at all, and canned bean sprouts. Yes, canned bean sprouts...We now live in a world where I cannot get fresh bean sprouts from a grocery store because everybody is afraid of getting sick from them. I cannot even begin to express my outrage and dismay over this. Do you know the horror of using bean sprouts from a can? Probably not...But I do, and it is not ok.

To accompany the chop suey, I made homemade fried rice. I have made this in the past, though I have usually used one of those mixes from the store for the flavoring and I think this recipe was good and easy enough that I would never need one of those mixes again. Actually I'm a bit ashamed to admit to having used a mix at all now that I know how simple it truly is. I kept this one vegetarian too, though I included the scrambled egg, so it depends on your definition of "vegetarian" if you consider it to be truly so or not. The biggest alteration I made was to switch out the frozen peas for snow peas that I trimmed and sliced thinly. I have never liked frozen peas and knew I'd just pick them out if I used them. I love snow peas and thought they would work just a well, and they did. They gave it a little added crunch which was very nice. I used reduced sodium soy sauce and found it needed a lot more than the one teaspoon the recipe called for.

The actual assembly of the food was pretty simple, though it took a bit of time to stir-fry each item individually and take it out of the pan before moving onto the next. The biggest time consumer was the prep work. It took nearly an hour and a half to prep everything for both dishes. The above picture, from end to end, is all the food that went into the meal. At the bottom are the eggs and veggies for the rice. Next to that is the veggies for the chop suey. The smaller bowls are the bean sprouts, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, the sauces, and the sliced tempeh that was later marinated. And at the far end is the pre-cooked rice I made earlier this afternoon. I portioned it out and spread it flat on a sheet pan that I put in the fridge to cool down properly. I can see now why Chinese food at restaurants is so expensive. It's a very labor-intensive cuisine. They definitely earn whatever profit margin the dishes are set to.

I'm not sure I would ever make chop suey again or even order it in a restaurant when there are other more interesting dishes out there, but it was a lot of fun to make and enjoy today. It was a good way to celebrate the Lunar New Year, in my opinion. The holiday is becoming more and more popular in America, and will probably evolve and change into something unique in time, just like dishes I made tonight did, once upon a time.

Gung Hay Fat Choy/Gong Xi Fa Cai!




Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dining In-A Culinary Tour of America: Valentine, Nebraska

The City: Valentine, Nebraska, aka, "America's Heart City"
According to the 2010 census, the population of this town is 2,737. Of this total, 86.3% is white and 9.1% is Native American. As of the 2000 census, the per capita income was $22.715, and 6.4% live below the poverty line.

Valentine, just north of the Niobrara River, was founded in 1883 when the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad came through that part of the country. As we saw last week in Pocatello, Idaho, railroads were a big factor in when and where cities in this country were established.

The city was named after Congressman E.K. Valentine, who won an election just prior to the city's founding. During its first few years, the population tripled, which brought with it a huge increase in violent crime. Eventually, a "no guns in the saloons" policy was enforced, and helped to curb violent crime.

Fun Fact: Valentine participates in a mail rerouting program. During the time before Valentine's day, mail is rerouted through the city's post office, where it is given a special Valentine postmark as well as a Valentine's day message stamp.

The Dish: Runza
I had never heard of this food before I started looking around for cities that I could associate with Valentine's Day. When I ran across Valentine, Nebraska and started researching foods of Nebraska, this word popped up over and over again. Runzas are apparently so popular in Nebraska that there is even a chain of fast food restaurants name after it. When I looked it up I got really excited because of its history and knew I had to do it. Runza, also known as bierock, fleischkuche, or Kraut Pirok, is a meat and cabbage-filled bread dough that hails from the same German colony in Russia that my great grandfather and his family were from.

Almost every culture has a dish like this. Think of pierogies of Poland, humbow from China, or pasties from Britain. Samosas and empanadas are other examples. A dish that is small enough to be held in your hand, has a hearty filling, but with a casing that keeps it from making a total mess when you eat is important. You can make them ahead of time and take them to work or school and eat them on the go if need be. I was very happy to see that my own heritage has its own contribution to this delicious and practical culinary tradition.

And now a bit of a tangent in which I wax poetic about Volga Germans and my own background. Back in the mid 1700's, Catherine the Great, who was German but had married into the Russian royal family, took over as Queen(apparently there was a whole thing and a deposition of her husband and a conspiracy to assassinate him and all sorts of drama) and invited Germans into the country to settle the vast prairie-like lands along the Volga river. They were given complete autonomy and did not have to pay taxes or serve in the military. They spoke their own language, established their own churches, and kept to themselves. My great grandfather was born in Saratov, Russia, which was in the middle of this area. When he was a very young child, the attitude in Russia was changing towards the Volga Germans. They were told they had to start paying taxes, serving in the military, and basically to completely assimilate with the greater Russian population. Many of the people, my family included, didn't want to do this, so they left. Many of them settled in the Midwestern states of the US, but my family want to Canada and settled in Calgary, Alberta. These areas in both the US and Canada have a similar environment to the land they had known in Russia. Not everybody left, however, and the majority of those who stayed behind would end up being rounded up during the Second World War and shipped off to Siberia, seeing as Germany was an enemy state to Russia. A lot of people died there, but those who survived ended up staying and there is still a large population of ethnically German Russians in Siberia today.

Ok, now that I am finished with that, I can get back to the actual dish. I found a few good recipes online and used those to base mine off of. I had planned to make the bread dough myself but I had a time crunch at the last minute and when I compared prices to buying a bag of bread flour versus buying those bags of frozen dough(I used Rhodes brand) and seeing it was pretty much the same price, decided to get the already made dough instead. I would like to do this again sometime and make the dough myself.

The filling was really simple. I switched out ground chicken for the ground beef and kept the seasonings exactly as it called for in the recipe. I used only fresh cabbage in mine but I can see how using sauerkraut or a mixture of both could be amazing. If you like sauerkraut, that is. Which I do. You could even add diced cooked potato in this too if you wanted, but then you'd be dangerously encroaching into pasty territory.
 After being filled and resting a second time. Just before putting them into the oven. I wasn't sure how big they'd get so I put them on two sheets.
After coming out of the oven. I moved them all onto one sheet to rest for a few minutes before trying one.

I wasn't able to fit as much filling in them as I would have liked. The recipe said to divide the dough into 8 pieces and it's possible that if I'd made the dough myself it would have made enough to create bigger pieces, but it was still filling. The cabbage is slightly bitter which works well with the salty, savory flavors mixed with it. The dough was delish and held its own against the filling. There was no mess and it was really easy to eat. I am not going to write out the recipe since I largely used one I can link to, so I will post the link to it here.
These were amazing! I forgot to add the egg wash on the top like the recipe said to do. Obviously it looks different without it and it might have been a bit crunchier with it, but I didn't miss it, personally. I followed the bread package instructions for cooking temp and time and did 25 minutes. I think the full 30 would have been too much time.

The next time you have a hankering for German food but want to try something a little different, I would highly recommend this. It was pretty simple to make and really good. I was originally going to serve this with roasted potatoes with caraway seeds, but I just made soup instead. Two of these plus the soup was a perfect-sized meal.

Sources: Just a reminder that I am not posting anything from Wikipedia, just assume that I use that as the base of my research and it's easy enough to look it up there so I don't feel the need to post a link to it. I just post links to the other sources.

The Recipe

Runza History

Valentine City History


City Picture

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Dining In-A Culinary Tour of America: Pocatello, Idaho

The City: Pocatello, Idaho

Why Pocatello, you might ask? Well, there's sort of a family connection to this name. I've never been there, but it's a name that my cousin, when she was very young, used to call my uncle, as a sort of nonsensical "insult". I think it was before I was born, but I think about that every time I hear the name.
Pocatello was named after a Shoshone chief, though in 1918, a linguist named Sven Liljeblad did research and determined that the name wasn't actually a real name, but a combination of several Shoshone root words. The chief's daughter confirmed that her father had never been called Pocatello, but went by the name Tonzaosha, which means "buffalo robe."
Pocatello was established as a stop for the first railroad in Idaho, during the gold rush of 1860. When the gold rush ended, farmers and ranchers came to the area and settled in.(Those who made it alive, that is, and didn't succumb to such tragedies as dysentery or wagons falling off rafts and drowning all on board. Or those who didn't get distracted with hunting buffalo...I am dedicating this tangent to my Oregon Trail days in computer class in elementary school. If you never played this game, then you missed out on some pretty awesome fun!)
The city is the home of Idaho State University and has a population of about 54,255, according to the 2010 census. According to the 2000 census, the city is about 90.5% white, and 7.2% Hispanic or Latino. 75.4% of the population is Mormon.
Pocatello fun fact: In 1948, after a particularly harsh winter, the city mayor passed an ordinance which made not smiling illegal. It was never repealed, and on December 10, 1987, the city was declared the "U.S. Smile Capital". There is even an annual "smile event" to celebrate this!

The Food:
Both of tonight's recipes come from my Idaho Cookbook, that I got on my whirlwind trip to Yellowstone National Park with my sister and my cousin back when I was a student at the University of Washington. I try to collect cookbooks from every state I visit, if I run across any. When I think of foods from Idaho, besides the very obvious potato, I think of trout. There are a lot of rivers in this state, so they catch a lot of trout there. I went with this as opposed to potatoes. I also found a roll recipe I tested as well. The trout recipe was shared by somebody actually from Pocatello, so it's even more authentic! I will be copying the recipes exactly as they are written and will put my own notes in parentheses. I do not own these recipes. I am providing a link at the end for you to order the book for yourself or see if you can get it through your local library if you are interested in exploring the book more.

Garden Grilled Trout:
3 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup dry white wine
4 trout, cleaned (I used fillets. I was going to get a whole trout but then I decided that I did not want to deal with the head or the tail. That's just gross. So I got two fillets for pretty much the same price as a whole one. I did keep the skin on, which is important to keep it from drying out.)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh herbs(any combination basil, thyme, dill and tarragon) (My note: Look for a package that has a blend of herbs to save money. I found one that was organic dill, parsley, and thyme, specifically made for seafood.)
5 green onions, chopped

Melt butter and stir in wine. Generously brush each trout, inside and out with wine mixture. Sprinkle salt and pepper over skin(really you want to do it over the flesh, you don't eat the skin) and spoon herbs and onions into fish cavities.(I carefully put the herbs and onions on top of each side of the fish and then carefully sandwiched them together. This seemed to work pretty well.) Grill over charcoal, basting often.(I used my grill pan and it worked just fine.) Cook until skin starts to crack and meat is white. Garnish with parsley and lemon.-Dean Anderson-Pocatello

I am not terribly experienced with trout, I have eaten it as a kid but for some reason I thought it was pink, like salmon. I always thought of trout as "poor man's salmon" but it really isn't at all. It was white and very delicate. It needed a lot of lemon to bring out the flavor. There are a lot of bones, I have heard this many times and that might be why I avoided it. If you have needle-nose pliers, though, and are willing to give it a few extra minutes, you can remove all the bones and it's just fine. Don't spend extra money on the super expensive kitchen pliers, just get the cheapo ones from the hardware section of a store. They're exactly the same at a fraction of the cost.

Before baking
 After baking

Pull Apart Onion Rolls
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 pkg. dry yeast
1/4 cup milk
2 Tbsp. margarine(I used butter)
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg
Onion Butter Filling:
2 tsp. Instant minced onion
2 tsp. water
3 Tbsp. melted butter
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese(I'm not a snob, I used the stuff from the can and it was just fine)
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds(mine were toasted)
1/2 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. garlic powder

In large mixer bowl, combine 1 flour salt and yeast. Set aside. In a saucepan, heat milk, margarine, sugar and salt, stirring constantly until butter is almost melted. Add to flour mixture. Add egg and beat at low speed for 1/2 minute, scraping sides of bowl constantly. Beat 3 minutes at high speed. By hand, stir in enough remaining flour to make a moderately stiff dough. Knead on floured surface until smooth and elastic. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise until double. Punch down, cover and let rest 10 minutes. Roll dough into an 8-inch square. Combine filling ingredients and spread over surface of dough. Cut dough into 16 squares and place, filling side up, in a greased 1 1/2-qt. casserole.(I used a 9"x13" pyrex dish. I found that it was very difficult to lift the topped dough and place it into the dish without the melted butter mixture running all over the place. I cut it in the dish. I would recommend placing the dough in the dish first, then topping it, then cutting it. Or you could cut it and then spoon the topping over it. But get it in the dish first or you'll make a huge mess.) Cover and let rise until nearly double. Bake in 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes(I did 25), covering with foil after first 15 minutes. Cool in dish 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto serving platter. Serve warm.-Ruth Elliott-Viola

The rolls smelled really good going into the oven and I was surprised at how bland I found them when they'd baked. Maybe they needed more salt and Parmesan in the topping. That probably would have helped. Maybe if I'd sauteed fresh onions instead of using minced that would have helped too. Also, they were a little dry. I'm not sure if maybe I let them rise too much or in too warm of heat and it made them dry out, or what. I think they have potential though.

I was surprised at how not fishy the trout was. My apartment smells like herbs, not fish, which is really good. I might need to experiment with this fish more in the future. Sometimes it's hard though, when you live in salmon country, to branch out and try other fish. But fish is so good for you that I should probably make that effort. I served this with rice pilaf, and no vegetable because I was too lazy to make one. There's green stuff on the fish, that counts, right?