Posted in Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

The Secrets to Perfect Every Time Homemade Caramel Sauce

When corn and all of its derivatives became persona non grata (food allergy) in my family, we had to go searching for the old homemade recipes from before WW1, when corn syrup made its debut into home pantries as an inexpensive alternative to sugar.

And – gratefully – I found among our family recipes “Bon’s Burnt Sugar Sauce.” Aunt Bon was my grandfather Joe Jones’s oldest sister Yvonne, whom the family nicknamed Bon. And she was my mom’s favorite candy-making expert. We also use her divinity and whipped fudge recipes at the holidays.

The good news: homemade caramel, whether you are making sauce or candy chews, is a really quick recipe – about 3 minutes to measure out the three ingredients to be ready, about 10 minutes from dry sugar to completed sauce, and another minute to pour it into a jar. And done.

The bad news: there’s about a 3 second line between caramelized and burnt so badly you can’t eat it. Melting and caramelizing the sugar is “the hard part” and a candy thermometer won’t help you.

So let’s get ready. This is a recipe where you can’t be measuring ingredients as you go. It literally happens too fast for that.

Tools needed:

  • enamelled cast iron 6-8 quart pot
  • non-reactive stirring spoon – like firm silicone – or a metal/silicone whisk
  • glass or ceramic container with a lid – if I don’t have any fancy mason or ball jars, I like to re-use spaghetti sauce jars as they are just the right size

Ingredients needed for roughly 24 oz (4 cups) of caramel sauce

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 12 Tbsp salted butter, cut into 1 Tbsp slices
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Alright, you’re ready to get started.

Step 1: pour the 2 cups of sugar into the bone dry enamelled cooking pot. Enamel is a non-reactive surface known to distribute heat most evenly across the large bottom of the pot so that no section of the sugar burns before the others; it’s also a non-reactive surface, so it won’t introduce metal elements or flavoring into your caramel like stainless steel, copper, and direct cast iron will. And you need it to be a pot rather than simply a large skillet because the later steps will result in the mixture bubbling and foaming up, and this will overspill a skillet.

Step 2: place the pot with sugar on medium heat. WARNING: do not use higher than medium or your sugar will burn before it’s all melted, and you’ll have to dump the whole pot and start over. Now, every stove is different AND your local environment (heat and humidity) will affect the stove setting that achieves your desired level of burnt. On my electric, glass-topped stove in Winter Park, FL, exactly medium achieves my preferred dark caramel and one notch from medium towards low achieves my family’s preferred standard medium caramel.

Step 3: to stir or not to stir while the sugar metls. This is a bit controversial because you’ll see the majority of online recipes insist that you not stir. In my experience, not stirring leads to a darker brown, slightly bitter caramel sauce; so if you like that, don’t stir. Most of my friends prefer the lighter to medium, milky sweet caramel sauce, and I find that minimal stirring makes this easier to achieve. And when I say minimal, I mean that once every 90-120 seconds, I use my spoon to “turn over” the sugar so that the melted layer is on top and the dry sugar that hasn’t gotten heat is on the bottom. That’s what I mean by stirring.

And as you can see, I prefer a spoon to a whisk. Like the pot, the spoon is an heirloom and is part of the history of making this sauce and others like it. Also, my experiences with whisks and a pot full of sugar have been meh, so I stick with the spoon that works.

When I see it color and bubble through the sugar layer, that’s when I scoop the sugar over to put the dry on the bottom to get melted.

Step 4: use your nose. Your nose is your best guage to the level of burnt you desire. If this is your first time trying homemade caramel, I encourage you to let it go to the too burnt to use state so that you can teach your nose “when it’s time” to stop burning the sugar.

Step 5: add the knobs of butter.Turn off the heat, but leave the pot on the burner. Drop in the knobs of butter and let them start bubbling and foaming up the sauce. Once it starts dropping back down, stir like crazy to really get the butter incorporated into the sugar sauce. This entire steps takes maybe 25-30 seconds.

Make sure you have these two ingredients cut and measured and ready to go at your fingertips.

Step 6: add the cream. Move the pot off of the burner and pour in the cold cream. Once again, the sauce will bubble and foam up. And once again, as it starts to drop back, stir until all of the cream is incorporated and the sauce turns a uniform color and is mostl shiny on top.

It’s one thing to say it will bubble and foam up, and another to see it before it happens to you for the first time.

Step 7: let the sauce sit for a few minutes just to cool off a bit. Since you’ll be using a glass jar or glass or ceramic bowl to store the sauce, you can pour it in hot, but it’s still a good idea to cool a bit, just in case there are any flaws in the container that might make it break. There’s nothing sadder than 4 cups of freshly made caramel sauce dripping down the front of your cabinets and pooling on the floor.

Step 8: run scalding hot water in your cooking pot immediately. This will melt any remaining sticky sugar and make cleaning your pot for the next batch of caramel sauce quick and easy. Do the same for your stirring spoon or whisk as well.

Ways to Use 4 Cups of Caramel Sauce:

  • Popcorn topping
  • Coffee add-in
  • Dessert topping
  • Oatmeal topping (in place of things like brown sugar, maple syrup)
  • Ham glaze
  • Pancake/Waffle topping
  • Fruit dip
  • Fondue – in place of chocolate
Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

Prep-ahead Clean Lunch for $3.72: Ginger Chicken, Brussels Sprouts, Asparagus, Roasted Potatoes

You know those prep-ahead clean eating lunch videos – often from Tasty? Well, I decided to give one a whirl.

Here’s the basic concept: pick 1 protein for 3-oz servings, 2 vegetables, and 1 gluten free carbohydrate (rice, potatoes, quinoa).

IMG_2144Mine: chicken breast with ginger aioli, brussels sprouts, asparagus and mushrooms, and creamer potatoes.

I took some help from my local Harris Teeter produce: cut and salt/pepper/garlicked brussels sprouts and asparagus pack ($3.99 each) and a ready-to-bake-in-pan package of creamer potatoes (also $3.99). The potatoes came with a seasoning packet, which I chose to use because the sodium was really, really low.

The only thing I made was garlic aioli. How? Peel some garlic – about 2 inches worth – and pour 1/4 cup of your good oil (olive, grapeseed, coconut) and a pinch of salt into your bullet blender and let it go. Then I brushed it directly onto my chicken breasts. I drizzled the little bit left over onto the brussels sprouts, just because.

Into a 450°F fully preheated oven for 30 minutes. That’s all it takes.

IMG_2148Let it cool and divvy it up into four microwave safe food storage containers. Voila. Lunch for the week – for me, at least, since I have only four days with a fixed lunch hour.

Cost Analysis

  • $2.90 – Chicken Breast – one giant one from a 6-pack, cut into 4 pieces
  • $3.99 – pre-cut asparagus with sliced mushrooms and minced garlic
  • $3.99 – pre-cut brussels sprouts seasoned with salt and pepper
  • $3.99 – creamer potatoes already in a baking pan and including seasonings

Total = $14.87

Cost per lunch = $3.72

Posted in Being Healthy, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

Day-of Homemade Baked Beans

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That splatter around the rim is a result of the sauce reduction process. Yum!

Earlier this year, I made from dry-bean-scratch baked beans for a group of out-of-towners, and well, I think it blew their minds. And I get it. Even my family’s “Aunt Von’s Baked Beans” come from the 1940s, a time when country cooks like Aunt Von would have made most bean meals from dry beans, but even her recipe starts with Campbell’s Baked Beans – already seasoned and sauced.

But c’mon, what’s it gonna cost you to experiment and really understand and control exactly how your baked beans taste instead of trusting what comes out of a can with ingredients made or refined in a lab? These are my day-of baked beans – the only difference is that I start with plain, unseasoned, unsalted canned beans because they are pre-soaked for me. Everything else is the same as my regular dry-bean recipe:

  • 2 cans of great northern beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced tiny
  • 1 small or 1/2 large sweet onion, diced tiny (try to get Vidalia or Wadmalaw)
  • 1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 can of tomato sauce (try to get no salt added)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup brown sugar – for my family, I use 1/2 c, for out-of-towners I use 1/4 c
  • 1/3 cup worchestershire sauce – I use a gluten free, corn free, soy free version
  • 1T apple cider vinegar (more if you like it more tart than sweet)
  • 1t salt
  • 1t pepper
  • 1t ginger (ground for sweet, fresh diced for spice)
  • 1/2t all-spice
  • 1 pinch red pepper flakes (literally 10-15 flakes)
  • 3-4 slices of bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

IMG_2083Mix everything together in a bowl at least 2 hours before you need to start baking (at least 4 hours before serving). Taste to see how sweet, tangy, tart, spicy it is and add seasonings as desired. Keep in mind that at this stage, the tomato sauce is the main source of tangy and that will mellow into sweet during baking; be careful not to go overboard on sweet at this stage.

Ingredients that contribute to sweetness are tomato sauce, sugar, bell pepper, onion, garlic, and ground ginger.

Ingredients that contribute to tangy- or tartness are tomato sauce, apple cider vinegar, worchestershire sauce.

Ingredients that contribute to spiciness are garlic, fresh ginger and red pepper flakes.

Cover with plastic wrap or lid and let marinate on the counter for at least 2 hours. It’s important to NOT put it in the refrigerator because that will slow down the marinating – not ideal for day-of beans.

IMG_2084Pour into 8×8 or 9×9 casserole dish and top with bacon pieces. Put in 350F oven for 90-120 minutes. Test at 90 minutes by lightly jiggling the dish. If it moves like liquid, makes a ripple, it’s not done yet. You’re looking for the liquid to reduce to a thick glaze and fully cooked bacon on top, not a thickened sauce and still-white fat on the bacon. And the bacon won’t really start to cook until the liquid stops touching it.

Another way to think of the ideal consistency of baked beans is that when you spoon then onto the plate 1) you don’t need to use a slotted spoon to drain them and 2) you don’t have to worry about the juice contaminating anything else on the plate.

Naturally, these are my ideals as a Southern cook in South Carolina who learned to cook from a Texas and Oklahoma ranch or cowboy style of cooking. Think about it: you can’t ride a horse around with a pot of juicy beans sloshing around.

 

 

Posted in Being Healthy, corn free, gluten free, soy free

Gluten-free Italian Dinner: Pesto Chicken and Tomatoes and Rice

IMG_2078Gluten-free means you can never have authentic Italian food again, right? WRONG! There’s so much more to Italian food than pasta. Here’s one of my favorite 1-pan Italian dinner bakes that hits the rights notes with the whole family.

Ingredients (in order of use):

  • 1.5 cups white rice (long grain, jasmine, basmati, whatever)
  • 1 14 oz can of diced tomatoes with Italian seasonings already included
  • 2 cups water, chicken stock, or combination (especially if you have some you just need to use up in the fridge)
  • 2 lb. chicken breast and/or thighs, skinless, boneless (roughly 4 pieces, 1 per person)
  • 1 8 oz container of pesto

NOTE: this is the semi-homemade version, as Sandra Lee might say; you can certainly make your own chicken stock, dice your own tomatoes, and blend your own herbs into pesto if you’re so inclined.

Pre-heat your oven to 350°F.

In an 8×8 or 9×9 baking dish, combine the rice, diced tomatoes, and chicken stock (or water). Put in the oven for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove and stir mixture; most of the rice will still be small and hard – don’t worry – that’s normal!

Add your four pieces of chicken. Spoon roughly equal amounts of pesto over each one – approximately 3 Tbspns – and spread to cover the chicken.

Return to oven for 30-45 minutes, depending on how large/thick your chicken pieces are.

This dish is really great for Southern American families where red rice is king; the minor change up in herb seasonings helps keep things fresh without completely blowing picking kids for a loop.

TIP: make ahead and reheat or freeze. When you thaw it out, add about 1 cup of stock or water to make sure the rice doesn’t dry out when heated in a 350°F oven for about 30- minutes (assuming thawed to room temperature.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

Greek Chicken and Rice

IMG_2004
Greek Chicken and Rice with Feta Cheese, accompanied with marinated cucumbers and onions (refrigerator pickle)

I’m not trying to present anything authentically Greek like your native or first-generation Yaya made, but rather to elevate the simple chicken and rice dish with the flavors most Americans associate with Greek or (generically) Mediterranean food. In fact, if you leave off the Greek-ish additions, you could just say this is Lemon Pepper Chicken and Rice and stop there :-).

To easily change up a wonderful dish when it’s getting a little stale in the dinner rotation, consider adding lemon juice to your chicken and rice bake and serve with a sprinkle of feta cheese and olives.

Ingredients for a 4-serving bake

  • 1 cup uncooked white or brown rice (jasmine, basmati, American long grain, whatever)
  • 2 cups water or chicken stock or combination
  • 1-2 lemons, juiced (1-2 T prepared lemon juice) – to taste
  • 4 4-6-oz pieces of boneless chicken – any combination of breasts and thighs
  • 1t salt (only if using water because even low sodium chicken stock already has salt)
  • 1t – 1T black pepper – to taste
  • 1 package of crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped kalamata olives (or black or green if you like those)

NOTE: you might think that dicing the chicken before putting it in the bake will make this easier, but the smaller pieces cook so much more quickly than the rice that they become dry and rubbery. Not pleasant, IMHO.

IMG_2001Preheat oven to 350°F.

Layer rice, water/stock, juice, chicken, salt, and pepper in a 9×9 baking dish in the order listed above for the least messy assembly.

Bake uncovered for 30 minutes. Stir – this is essential for all of the rice to get cooked.

Bake uncovered for 10 more minutes.

IMG_2002Use two forks to shred the chicken. Stir to mix thoroughly with the rice.

Serve with a sprinkle of feta cheese and chopped olives.

LEFTOVERS: if you have any leftovers, they make for a great cold rice salad with artichoke, cucumber, tomato, and sweet onion and a drizzle of olive oil or Greek salad dressing added to the feta and olives. Mmmmm, lunch!

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free

PaPa’s Fish Stew from my Grandfather’s Personal Recipe Book

IMG_1993My dad and brother go on a fishing trip every year in August, and brought back some shark that we’ve been wondering how we want to cook. And about a week ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I was flipping through my grandfather Joe Jones’s personal cookbook and came across his Fish Stew recipe, complete with variations for 21-, 15-, 10-, 5-, and 2-gallon batches. I rubbed my hands together and giggled with fanatical glee: PaPa would LOVE shark in his fish stew!

Bonus! This is such a pantry meal since every ingredient is a staple in our family pantry.

As I’m interested in batches for a standard 4-5 person family, I made just a few adjustments, mainly in the liquid ingredients:

  • 3 slices of bacon, chopped into strips or dices
  • 2 medium sweet Vidalia or yellow onions, chopped small
  • 1.5 lbs potatoes, diced (roughly 3 cups)
  • 2 14 oz cans of diced tomatoes (recommend fire roasted with garlic)
  • 2 cups V-8 juice (recommend original or low sodium)
  • 1 cup fish or chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce or white wine (but not both)
  • 1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce or soy sauce (but not both)
  • 1/4 cup hot sauce (like Tabasco or Texas Pete)
  • 1 T Old Bay seasoning (or similar)
  • 2-3 lbs white fish (shark and gator work well also)
  • Optional ingredients: shrimp, crab, clams, lemon juice.

IMG_1989In a large stock pot over medium heat, drop in the bacon and onion and let sweat and sizzle for 3-4 minutes, just until the bacon starts to firm up and the onions start to get clear but NOT browned or caramelized.

Add the potatoes, diced tomatoes, V-8 juice, white wine/fish sauce, Worchestershire/soy sauce, hot sauce, and seasoning.

Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

IMG_1992Add the fish. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Use your stirring spoon to break up the fish into smaller pieces. Flakier fishes like catfish and flounder will “melt” into the stew. Sturdier fishes like mahi mahi, snapper, shark, or swordfish will hold up as chunks.

Serve with cornbread or breadsticks or any sturdy bread. Soft breads like croissants or yeast rolls will get gummy and chewy. For this night (photos), I heated some leftover Papa John’s parmesan breadsticks in the oven for 15 minutes on 350°F.

Confession: I HATE tomato juice and tomato soups, which extends to PaPa’s fish stew, but my family loves it. It’s often what we make with any leftover fish from a fry or a restaurant rather than reheating (stinky!) or choking down cold, dry fish.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

Easy Spanish-style Sausage and Rice

My best friend has her abuela’s pot for making Arroz con Pollo, but my family is much less discerning of that level of authenticity. Instead, we get close with this flavorful sausage and rice dish.

You’ll need

  • 1 family size package of Vigo Spanish Rice (with seasonings included in the package)
  • 2 lbs cooked link sausage, such as kielbasa, turkey sausage, venison sausage, etc.
  • 1-2 packages of frozen peppers and onions (roughly 1-2 cups of chopped frozen or cooked peppers and onions)
  • 1/2 – 1 cup whole green Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos
  • 1 poblano pepper, diced (optional)

Cook the rice according to package instructions.

While the rice cooks, slice cooked sausage into coins and brown in skillet.

Note: Vigo seasoned Spanish rice is not corn-free. Use unseasoned white or yellow rice and Sazon with Saffron seasoning.

Thaw/steam frozen peppers and onions (with poblano pepper if using) in the microwave. Or, if using fresh veggies, sautee in skillet after sausage is all browned.

Spanish_Sausage_and_Rice.jpgWhen rice is finished, mix in browned sausage, warmed peppers and onions, and olives. I leave my olives whole because all of my peeps like them; feel free to slice or chop yours up if you need to hide them ;-).

Serve directly from the rice pot, accompanied by fresh fruit salad or seasonal marinated vegetables.

Tip: maintain healthy overnight blood sugar by skipping the “bread on the side” with dinner when you already have rice, pasta, or potatoes. Even non-diabetics can experience unhealthy blood glucose levels when consuming extra complex carbohydrates.

Posted in Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free

Colombia Restaurant 1905-inspired Summer Pasta Salad

I’ve eaten at the Colombia Restaurant just once and was most impressed by the simplicity and the goodness of their signature salad with their 1905 salad dressing. But I can’t eat lettuce, so I looked for a way to make this a robust salad without it. Enter pasta…or quinoa or even rice for a Northern Italian-style dish.

Here’s what I used for the “salad”:

  • 1 box of orzo pasta, prepared according to package instructions (GF: use any small piece gluten free pasta; GF & CF: use quinoa)
  • 3 standard cucumbers, seeds removed, quartered lengthwise, chopped
  • 6 roma tomatoes, sliced in rings
  • 1 cup green Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos, whole or sliced (I like whole)
  • 8 slices of swiss cheese, cut into 1/2-inch squares (or julienned if that’s easier)
  • 1 package of diced prociutto (4 oz)
  • 1 package of julienned Citterio ham (4 oz)
  • 1/2 cup pepperoncini rings (optional)

For the dressing, which is based on the Colombia Restaurant 1905 dressing:

  • 1 cup good oil (EVOO)
  • 1 cup ACV
  • 1/4 Worcestershire sauce
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, minced finely
  • 1t dried oregano
  • 1t black pepper
  • 1/2 t salt

Whisk up the dressing and let it sit out on the counter to marinate for several hours before you dress the pasta salad.

Dress and serve at is or over a pile of lettuce to make it more “salad-y.”

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, corn free, gluten free, nut free, soy free

1-pan Dinner: Chicken Marbella with Roasted Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts

IMG_1859For a family of 2-4, this meal can be made using 1 cutting board, 1 chef’s or chopping knife, 1 mixing bowl, and 1 large baking sheet. You can make clean up even easier by lining your baking sheet with foil.

For this dinner, you’ll need

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or comparable chicken strips or chicken thighs)
  • 4 medium potatoes, scrubbed and diced (Yukon gold, red, russet – whatever kind you like)
  • 1 lb brussels sprouts, cleaned and halved
  • 1 Vidalia or sweet onion, large diced (optional)
  • 2-4 T good oil (olive, grapeseed, coconut)

For the Marbella marinade, you’ll need

  • 4 prunes, chopped roughly
  • 6-8 green Spanish olives stuffed with pimentos, chopped roughly
  • 1 T capers, chopped roughly
  • 1 large clove of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup good oil (olive, grapeseed, coconut)
  • 1/4 apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1/4 t pepper

The night before you’ll be cooking this dinner, combine all of the Marbella marinade ingredients and whisk to mix well. Pour over the raw chicken (yep, it can even be frozen still); make sure the chicken is one layer when you put it in the fridge. It is super important that you marinate the chicken overnight.

For baking, prehead the oven to 375°F, line your baking sheet with foil and spray it down well with cooking spray.

Toss your diced potatoes and halved Brussels sprouts in good oil and salt and pepper. You can certainly add any other spices you like at this time; for pairing with the Marbella flavors, I recommend lemon pepper or dijon, something with a strong, tart flavor to contrast with the salty and sweet of the Marbella.

Lay out the chicken in a row across one end of the pan, layer the potatoes in the middle in one layer, and layer the Brussels sprouts and onions on the other end of the pan. Pour any remaining Marbella marinate over the chicken.

Place the pan on the upper rack in the center of the oven, and set the timer for 30 minutes.

Posted in Being Healthy, Cooking, nut free, soy free

My Mom’s Mother’s Day Special: Salmon Croquettes, Charleston Macaroni Pie, Marinated Cucumbers and Onions

According to my blog, it’s been more than five years since I last made salmon croquettes. These have always been a super special occasion food, mostly because salmon is so expensive. So when I told my mom that I was thinking of making salmon croquettes for dinner on Mother’s Day 2017, she immediately rounded out the meal with Macaroni Pie a la Charleston Receipts and marinated cucumbers and onions.

Marinated Cucumbers and Onions

Start at least 1 day ahead by peeling and slicing kirby pickling cucumbers and Vidalia sweet onions into a container with a lid. Add 1.5 T salt and 1.5 T black pepper. Fill with apple cider vinegar halfway up the pile of veggies. Add water until veggies are just covered. Put the lid on and refrigerate. And if you’re like me, put a sticky note on the lid warning away the snackers lest you find the container empty before dinner.

Macaroni Pie a la Charleston Receipts

Charleston has a side dish variation on macaroni and cheese that we call “pie” because it uses an egg-milk custard to firm up into nice, cheesy, cuttable squares. You can make this ahead and heat it up for 30 minutes at 350°F, but it’s better to make it fresh, especially for special occasions.

Salmon Croquettes

Make the salmon croquettes fresh using canned salmon, being sure to remove all of the skin and bones (especially the spine) and breaking up the salmon well. These pan-fried salmon patties rival crab cakes as the best seafood “pattie” food on the coast, even though salmon isn’t native to our waters. Check out how to make them here.