Monday, January 30, 2012

Venison Chili and Cracklin Cornbread

We had an influx of free food at the end of December, making me thrilled to have our big freezer!!  My hotel gives us each a free turkey for Thanksgiving, Shawn received a box of steaks, chicken and burgers as a gift, and my wonderful coworker gave me ground venison and a venison tenderloin.  I've learned that venison is one of those meats that you don't really buy in the store.  You need to be in the loop with hunters, butchers, or friends who know those hunters and butchers to get it.  You can probably find it in a store, but its going to be more money than its worth.  That's what I'm told, anyway.  So when I mentioned to said coworker that I had only had deer once or twice and wasn't 100% sold but open to trying it, she was kind enough to share some of her recent gain with us! 

Now, I'm finding this venison to be a little intimidating.  I keep hearing about gaminess and remember the last time that I tried deer (at a country club where I worked and had recently witnessed the actual deer becoming that evening's special) and I wasn't a huge fan.  I've been really interested in trying it again and decided that chili would be a good way to ease us into the flavor.  I make chili all the time and have heard its a great venue to start with.  Chili and cornbread go hand in hand in this region but my baking skills (or lack thereof) have kept me from making cornbread in the past.  I decided to go for it!!

Suprisingly, none of my cookbooks had recipes for venison.  I went online and found a chili variation on that sounded basic but tasty.  I usually wing it with my chili, but wanted to be sure that my spices were to par.  I also found a recipe for cornbread in Shawn's "Smoke & Spice" cookbook that sounded really good.  I definitely wanted to use my cast iron skillet and like the idea of using bacon grease as the fat addition in the recipe.

We started early in the morning when I made pancakes and bacon for my boys.  I needed bacon grease and they were kind enough to take one for the team!  I saved the grease and went on with my day.  Later in the morning, I busted out my brand new food processor.  Would you believe that with as much as I cook, I've never owned one until this Christmas?  We don't have a dishwasher and I've always thought it would be a pain to clean.  I do, however, spend a ridiculous amount of time on food prep and decided that this would be a good day to test it out.  Since I was using it, I ended up chopping up extra onions and garlic and put them in containers to use later in the week.  Love it!  So much quicker and much easier on the eyes.  Not a total pain to wash and as long as I'm getting myself prepped for the week it saves a ton of time in the long run.

I opted to steer away from the trusty crockpot and took out my large stockpot to keep the chili on the stove throughout the day.  I sauteed up the deer and removed it, covering the dish to keep it warm.  A cup each of chopped peppers and onions went in next with 4 cloves of chopped garlic.  I sauteed it on medium high for about 10 minutes and then added the spices.  Followed with the venison, a can of diced tomatoes, a can of chicken broth, and a touch of tomato paste.  I added the can of rinsed kidney beans before noting that it should have been added toward the end of cooking.  I didn't really notice anything off, so I wouldn't say that it was a necessary step.  I did, however, add a 1/4 cup of frozen corn at the end.  It wasn't in the recipe, but Shawn really loves corn in his chili.  I left it all on the stove, on low, stirring every 20 minutes or so, for 4-5 hours. 

About an hour before dinner, I mixed together the dry ingredients for the cornbread and then mixed together the wet separately and combined them with a little frozen corn and some melted butter.  Then I warmed the skillet on the stove and added a tablespoon of bacon grease, swirling to coat the pan.  When the oven was ready (400) I poured the batter in the pan, creating a fun sizzle sound, and transferred it to the oven.  The recipe called for it to cook 20 minutes and I left it in a few minutes longer (I know my oven) and tested with a toothpick.  All was ready!

The chili was fantastic!!  I could only taste a hint of gaminess, but the texture was a little different from beef or ground turkey.  It was a slightly finer consistancy, which went really well in a chili form.  I've heard that venison meatballs are good and I could see why.  The spices and tomato consistancy were perfect!  I omitted jalepenos from the recipe, out of preference, but found that the cayenne, chili powder, and cumin gave a nice subtle heat.

The cornbread was simply gorgeous.  Golden brown and crisp.  I was disappointed to see that the center was underdone, despite the toothpick test.  I cut the bread from around the edges and popped the skillet back in for another 20 minutes, since it had already cooled.  The center cooked up wonderfully.  It did need something, which we had a hard time putting our finger on.  A little touch of sweetness, perhaps?  Maybe even a touch more salt?  Shawn suggested creamed corn instead of frozen.... I'll try another recipe to get it down eventually.  Love the cast iron skillet method, though!!

My favorite way to eat this was created by a suggestion from my deer benefactor.  I put the cornbread in my bowl and topped it with the chili.  Then put a little sour cream and a little cheese on the side to add as desired.  I've always eaten the bread on the side and thought this would be weird, but I trust her and gave it a shot.  Wow.  Simply, wow.  The textures and flavors of this all together was simply brilliant!!  Yum. 

Venison Chili-

Cracklin Cornbread- Smoke & Spice
*ask if you want the recipe

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Slow Cooker Ribollita- Food Network Magazine

The picture in this recipe looks soooo good and I love the fact that it uses my slow cooker. Seriously, click on the link below to see the picture and you'll be making this, too.   My time with my crock pot is almost over....  15 years and kicking for this amazing, $30 piece of equipment.  There's a crack in the crock (lol) that'll pop one of these days, causing me a huge mess and anguish but I just can't bear to replace it yet.  I've cooked hundreds and hundreds of meals in this thing and am now pretty convinced that its indestructible.  My next one will totally be another Rival. 

So, this is a somewhat embarrassing meal for me to blog about, but I'm going to go for it!  I've been making soups more often than normal these past few weeks.  Soups are one of those things that get easier and easier the more you make them.  I remember once, in my early twenties, having a really strong craving for homemade chicken noodle soup.  Maybe I was sick, nostalgic, who remembers.... but I decided to make some soup from scratch.  I roasted a chicken, pulled it apart, made the stock, made the soup.... 8 hours later I had a just-ok bowl of homemade soup to work with.   A decade later and I've learned to manage my time a little better and, thankfully, the taste as well.  What's funny about these soups is that I'm pretty much the only one who likes soup in the house.  John will try a little bit and Shawn will eat a bowl because he feels obligated.  I just take the rest for lunch or freeze for when one of us gets sick.  There is NOTHING like homemade soup when you're sick. 

I had the ingredients for this at hand, with some light variations, and decided to try it out.  On Friday night (yes, I stay home and prep veggies some Friday nights) I cut up 3 carrots and 3 stalks of celery.
 Then I sauteed up a few pieces of diced bacon, removed most of the grease, and sauteed the veggies a touch.  You don't have to sautee vegetables before putting them in the crockpot, but it really does improve the flavor a bit.  While everything sauteed, I rinsed some small dried white beans and picked out the broken and off color ones.  I combined the beans, the veggies, the bacon, some bagged cabbage, and a 1/4 cup of tomato paste; topped with water and turned it on.  Then I went to bed.

Note- my sense of smell is terrible.  My unprofessional diagnosis is that its part allergies and frequent sinus infections and partly because I smoked for so many years. 

I woke up on Saturday morning and asked Shawn if it smelled good.  He didn't smell anything.  Uh-oh.... I checked the crockpot and it was on low.  Then I realized..... I didn't plug it in.  Total rookie mistake!!  I was so annoyed with myself!!  I debated for a while on what to do next.  Part of me thought I should throw it away, part of me thought it would be ok to proceed.  So, I put it out to my friends at  Common consensus- Bacon is a smoked product that wouldn't spoil and I used water and not chicken stock.  Proceed.  I turned on the pot, rethought our lunch plans, and went on with my day. 

7 hours later, my beans were cooked and the dish was ready for the next step.  The recipe calls for stale bread, but I had half of a really good roll that had hardened over night.  I put that in the cooker and let it sit a while.  It took 2-3 times longer because of the crust and I needed to break it up after a while.  The bread disintegrated into the soup, thickening it up nicely.  Then I stirred in a 1/4 cup of parmesa cheese and some parsley.  I skipped the toasted bread step, and sauteed sliced garlic in oil, adding it to the soup before serving. 

The soup looked really, really good.  Thankfully, it tasted really really good, too!!  I liked the addition of the tomato paste.  It gave it a nice note of flavor and color without the acidity of actual tomatoes.  The cheese gets a little melty on your spoon as you eat it, which I enjoy.  I can imagine that if I had spooned the soup over toasted bread, as suggested, that the cheese would stick to the bread a bit.  I just am not a fan of wet bread. 

There's a bunch leftover, so I look forward to enjoying some soup throughout the week.  I'll give this a go, again.  Oh, and I'll always check the plug before going to bed (hangs head in culinary shame).

Slow Cooker Ribollita- Food Network Magazine

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mexican Mac & Cheese- Better Homes & Gardens

This month, I've been cooking and experimenting more often.  I'm aiming to work with the food in my freezer and pantry as often as possible to cut back on spending a bit.  I went through my handy dandy clipped recipe binder and pulled out those that I could make with whatever I have on hand, give or take an ingredient or two.  Then I gave those recipes to Shawn to weed out the ones that he wasn't interested in trying.  Its interesting to see what I think he'll like versus what he'll actually try.  It surprises me sometimes!  This one looked delicious and he seemed pretty interested in it, so I gave it a shot. 

Some background on the recipe: Better Homes and Gardens magazine has a section where they give you a topic each month and people can contribute recipes for prizes.  I aim to win this one day!  In the meantime, I clip other people's recipes to try new things.  This recipe won the $500 prize for "new ways with sausage" back in March 2011.   I submitted my breakfast potatoes and didn't hear back.  Their loss!

Recipe planning can be a little hard when you're working out of the freezer because you have to get your timing just right.  You have to get the meat defrosted in time to cook but you can't always guarantee what you'll want to eat the next night.  So, I had the sausage all ready to go for the evening and Shawn wasn't feeling pasta.  I wasn't feeling sandwiches, so I made the pasta for John and I and cut aside some sausage to make him sausage & pepper sandwiches. 

I used bulk sausage and sauteed up about 2/3 of the package with a chopped small onion in a sautee pan.  I drained the fat, then added the meat back to the pan with a jar of salsa.  I had about 3/4 of a jar from a local farmers market with a little heat to it.  While this was going on, I cooked up approximately 12 oz of rigatoni.  I've learned with time and practice to always undercook pasta when you're going to be baking it.  It'll finish cooking in the oven!  I got a hodge podge of cheese together- some colby jack, reduced fat cheddar, and a little sharp cheddar to finish it off.  The recipe called for a pound, but I used around 2/3 of a pound to match the rest of the scaled down recipe. 

I took a baking dish, coated with spray, and added a layer of pasta, a layer of meat, and a layer of cheese.  Repeated the layers- snuck a bite to make sure it tasted good (it did) and put in the oven for 35 minutes.  I topped it with some chopped tomatoes and cilantro. 

Ooooohhhhh, I love baked pasta.  Any kind, really.  Its just one of those dishes that I can eat way more than I should.  This was like a cross between mac and cheese and baked ziti, but with a Mexican flair.  Aka- it was absolutely and ridiculously amazing!  The cheese and meat sauce stayed separate, but kind of melted together at the same time.  The edges were crispy and the salsa made it all pretty spicy but the chopped tomatoes helped tone it down. 

One of my proudest moments was when John took a few bites and said it was spicy.  Then he asked for a drink and kept on eating it.  My little foodie in training!!!  Leftovers were not as plentiful as they should be (I really love baked pasta) but heated up really well the next day.  I'll definitely do this again with some turkey sausage and light cheese to lighten it up a bit.  I bet some chopped peppers would be good, too.