Sunday, December 26, 2010

Carnitas: The Perfect Way to Start off the New Year

If you're looking for an easy, inexpensive festive way to kick off the new year, you can't go wrong with carnitas. Although it cooks for a few hours, it takes minutes to prep and takes care of itself on your stove top, leaving you free to do whatever it is that you do to kick off the year right. If you're hosting the day after party it's great for the hangover crowd, and it is hearty enough to please the sports fans gathered around your large screen TV for the bowls of the non-food type.

Carnitas means "little meats," usually braised until the liquid evaporates and then browned in the fat that has remained on the meat. It is usually made from the pork butt (shoulder), which can be cooked whole and then shredded, or cut before cooking and served in cubes.

Which is the way I prepared it here. The most basic recipe I found calls for just salt, pepper, and water. Many add orange juice and coca cola, but the possibilities are endless - cumin, oregano, chili powder if you want to keep the Mexican theme, or curry powder, paprika, and ginger for a more exotic twist. For my first attempt, I decided to keep it simple and just used salt, pepper, orange juice and water.

The original method calls for the meat to be cooked in melted lard, and then the mixture of orange juice and coca cola is added and either cooked over a higher flame on the stove, or roasted in the oven. The idea is that the sugars help the meat caramelize. Much as I love the idea of this and the fact that I actually do have lard on hand, and as delicious as I am sure it would be, that is just too much fat and sugar for one meal, especially since there is already plenty of fat on the pork butt. This method is healthier (ok, maybe only a little healthier), and is plenty delicious as is. The orange juice adds a bright sweetness that takes it over the top.

Carnitas make for a great serve-yourself taco buffet. They go especially well with a savory cabbage slaw, creme fraiche and tomato-jalapeno salsa. Round off the meal with guacamole and chips and refried beans and you have yourself a winning combination.

5-6 lb pork butt, chopped into 1-inch cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

Arrange the pork on the bottom of a large heavy pan (cast iron is preferable). Season heavily with the salt and pepper. Pour the orange juice into the pan, and then add water until the meat is just barely covered.

Bring the pan to a boil, the reduce the heat to low. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid has evaporated. This can take up to two hours (or more, depending on how much liquid there is).

Once the liquid has evaporated, raise the heat to medium and let the pork brown in the fat that has remained. When all of the pieces are dark and crispy, remove from the heat.

Can be served immediately, or refrigerated and then reheated for later use.

Makes 15-20 tacos

Adapted from Homesick Texan's adaptation of a Diana Kennedy recipe.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Baking Class: Criss-Cross Peanut Butter Cookies

This peanut butter cookie recipe is another old family recipe. It is one of those cookies that I would always forget about, and then something would remind me of them and I would make a batch and they were so good I would wonder why I didn't make them more often, and then I'd forget all about them again for more than a few years.

More recently, I had a different kind of dilemma with them. The original recipe called for shortening, and I don't use shortening any more. I have experimented with lard with good results on the savory side, but there's just a little too much pig to my taste for use with sweets.

I generally don't have a problem substituting butter for shortening, but for some reason I wasn't sure how well it would work with the peanut butter cookies. I think because the peanut butter also adds fat to the dough, it might be too much for butter alone to handle. But I have been doing my Christmas baking and was looking for something new to add to the rotation. Much as my friends love the things I do make around the holidays, I get tired of making the same things. This year I have been experimenting, and I thought it would be a good time to see exactly what a difference using butter instead of shortening would make.

As it turned out the difference was negligible. They were crispy, sweet, and full of peanut butter flavor, although I forgot that even though I prefer creamy peanut butter as a rule, for peanut butter cookies crunchy is actually better. That aside, I think I may have liked these even better with the butter.

The proportions of this recipe worked out well for me to make a half batch for my test, which was quick and easy. And four dozen or so cookies is nothing to sneeze at. I took some to work and some to my knitting friends and still had enough to enjoy a few at home without making me feel too guilty.
Home Cookin Chapter: Cookies


1 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, well beaten
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup peanut butter, preferably crunchy

Preheat oven to 400 deg. F.

Combine the brown and white sugars and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.

Cream the butter. Add the sugar and cream well, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the beaten eggs and the vanilla and mix it together.

Incorporate the flour just until the dough begins to come together, then add the peanut butter and make sure it is fully blended into the dough.

Roll the dough into balls the size of walnuts. Place one inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press each ball on one side with the tines of a fork, then press the tines over each cookie at a right angle to the previous lines to make a criss-cross effect.

Bake at 400 deg. F. for about 7 minutes, until they are just beginning to brown. Be careful not to let them burn. Check them after 5 minutes.

Makes approximately 10 dozen, depending on size.

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Feed Your Local Food Bank

It should come as no surprise that food banks are one of the few rapidly growing organizations in America these days.

I am constantly aware of how fortunate I am to be able to afford the food about which I write.

Because so many can't, and so many smaller, local providers are struggling, I try to spend my money where it most counts.

And I donate regularly to my local food bank. How about you?

Monday, December 13, 2010

DIY Condiments #3: Ketchup

Many years ago in Austin, a friend and I hosted a birthday dinner for a friend who worked with us in the library. That was during what I call my "social period," when I was quite the social butterfly. I'm not sure what happened since I'm such a stay-at-home gal these days. This was just one of many such celebrations. Our friend brought his current girlfriend, a nice-enough woman whom I had not yet met and never really got to know since I believe they broke up not long after this dinner. Not that the dinner had anything to do with their breakup. At least I hope it didn't.

At any rate, if memory serves, Mary made the dinner and I made the dessert - the famous top-secret chocolate cake.

Now keep in mind that, at that time, this was a quite special and, as yet, still secret family recipe. It was in great demand, and was always well received. Even if I had been a total social misfit, which I do not believe for one second, it would have been my ticket into any event I wished to attend.

So imagine my surprise when this girlfriend announced to me in the kitchen, as I was icing the cake, that she had stopped eating sugar and would not be having a piece of my cake. (What she was doing in the kitchen with me I do not remember, but I have a clear memory of the two of us together in the kitchen as she told me this.) Imagine my dismay: how could I impress her with my wondrous baking skills if she didn't eat any of my cake? But she was resolute, and was not even tempted.

But there was one thing, she admitted to me, that she could not give up, and that was ketchup. Ketchup? I didn't know there was sugar in ketchup! (This was my pre-label reading days, in case you were wondering.)

And ever since then, I can't think of ketchup without thinking of 1) sugar, and 2) that night. And I have realized that is probably why I love ketchup, seeing as how I lean heavily towards sweet. But I have been avoiding it, since I have been avoiding commercially processed foods. The few times I use it are those few times I order a crisper and fries (ok, sometimes a cheeseburger) from Eat a Pita and shamefully have it delivered to my door. If I am completely honest, I will admit that fries are merely the vehicle for my ketchup fix.

All things considered, I think I have been most excited about making ketchup. So why did I wait so long to make it? I still had some Heinz ketchup that I needed to work through and, since I use it so seldom, it took me a while to work through it all. But a nice batch of okonomiyaki with its attendant sauce took care of that, so last weekend I was ready to make some ketchup.

Like its DIY Condiments predecessors, ketchup is surprisingly easy to make. You just saute onions and garlic, add the rest of the ingredients, let it simmer for a while, and then puree it with your super duper handy dandy stick blender.

Although it looks nice and tomato-red in the picture, at least on my monitor, the reality is slightly less red. It had that deep ketchup red in the pot, but after I pureed it the onions were just enough white to dilute it to more of a pinkish orange. But looks aren't everything.

As for the taste, I think it has definite possibilities. It is a little too sweet even for my taste, but that might be a result of over-packed brown sugar. But it ends with a lovely tang of spiciness that counteracts the sweetness, and the flavor has intensified as it has sat in the refrigerator.

I might do some more experimenting with it, but not much. Now I just have to find some uses for it - it's too good for french fries. I do already have some ideas.
Home Cookin Chapter: Sauces

1 (28- to 32-oz) can whole tomatoes in juice
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 Tbsp tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 whole star anise
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar

Puree the tomatoes with their juice in the can with a stick blender until smooth (or use a regular blender).

Heat oil in a 4-quart heavy pot. Add onion, garlic and salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is browned

Add the spices and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the pureed tomato, tomato paste, brown sugar,and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then immediately lower the heat and cook uncovered until very thick, 45 to 55 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure the liquid doesn't burn on the bottom of the pan.

Use the stick blender to puree everything together. Let cool and pour into a glass container. Refrigerate.

Keeps chilled approximately 1 month.

Makes approximately 2-3/4 cups.

Adapted from recipe by Ian Knauer for Gourmet Magazine (RIP) (June 2009)

Exported from Home Cookin 6.46 (

Monday, December 06, 2010

Mexican Inspired Pizza

I've been watching a show on the new Cooking Channel called "Kelsey's Essentials." Kelsey Nixon was one of the contenders on a previous Next Food Network Star show. I don't remember which season. I think the main reason she was knocked out was because she was just out of cooking school and the judges often expressed their thoughts that she was too young.

A few years later, she has her own show. And every time she mentions her husband, which is at least once a show, I can't help but think that it's an effort to make her seem older than she is. She also has an annoying habit of using the same few stock phrases over and over again and it damages her credibility. She does know what she is doing, but she tends to say things should be done a certain way because it's better, but she doesn't do a good job of explaining why, in my opinion. And I do not consider myself to be an expert in the kitchen by any means, but so far I have not learned anything new from her.

In this week's episode she grilled corn and then coated it with a "Mexican inspired-sauce," as she put it. She mentioned it several times, calling it the Mexican-inspired sauce. And all I could think was, "Oh, the poor sauce, it doesn't have a name." I don't know why, but it bothered me.

And it stuck in my head, so last night when I went to make pizza with my second pizza crust and realized that I had forgotten to buy more mozzarella cheese, I decided to follow Kelsey's example and make a Mexican-inspired pizza with the cheddar cheese I had in the refrigerator.

Whatever you want to call it, it was delicious. Most of the ingredients were the same I use for regular pizza; I just switched the seasonings and threw cilantro on top when it came out of the oven. I had the last of some napa cabbage I received along with the mustard greens with which I was gifted the week before last (I'm amazed at how long that lasted) and having made okonomiyaki twice already I decided to just throw the rest on top of the pizza. Cabbage matched my Mexican theme pretty well.

I wasn't sure it would work out, but I would make this even if I did have mozzarella in the house. Every once in a while I want something different, and this fits the bill.
Basic Pizza dough*
1/4 cup strained tomatoes
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp oregano
3/4 - 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
salt to taste
1/4 small napa cabbage, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped green olives
6 cloves minced garlic
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Shape dough as desired for pizza. Spread the tomato around the base, leaving about half an inch uncovered around the edges. Season to taste with the salt. Sprinkle the cumin over, then the oregano. Pinch the oregano between your fingertips to release the oils as you sprinkle it over the sauce.

Spread the cabbage evenly over the sauce, then cover with the cheese. Next, spread the olives evenly over the top, and finish with the garlic.

Bake on the bottom rack of the oven for 18-20 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the top is browned and bubbling.

Remove from the oven and spread the chopped cilantro over the hot pizza. Serve hot.

Note: These days I make my pizza dough with 1 cup white whole wheat flour, 1 cup bread flour, and 1/2 cup semolina flour, but any combination totaling 2-1/2 cups of flour should work.
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