Chili

I can’t believe I’ve never written about chili here. It’s a great cold-weather food, freezes well, has an infinite variety of recipes, and comes with an impossible-to-resolve debate. It’s hard to think of another food that matches it for taste, flexibility, and entertainment potential.

We’ve been making chili for about thirty years, and it’s a bit embarrassing to realize how little our recipe has changed. A definite case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

It began as a fairly literal implementation of the one on the Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit box. (Have I mentioned that we’re lazy cooks?) Over the years, we’ve tweaked it for even more laziness–but also more flavor.

Yes, it’s heavy on cans. There’s that lazy thing again. And also yes, it is a crockpot recipe. That’s not laziness, that’s convenience.

As for that debate? We’re firmly in the pro-bean camp. We’ll cheerfully eat bean-free chili, but if we make it ourselves, it’s gonna have beans. Sorry “real” Texans.

Ready? Great.

Ingredients

  • One bottle of dark beer. Please, not whatever’s cheap. Get something you might actually want to drink. Lately, we’ve been using Guinness. Apologies to any Irish readers who believe contact between stout and solid food is sacriledge.
  • One fifteen ounce can of kidney beans. Go for the low-sodium version. There’s quite enough salt coming in from other ingredients.
  • One fifteen ounce can of black beans. Again, low-sodium. Sure, you could use two cans of black or red beans, but why? They’re both tasty. Embrace the power of “and”.
  • One fifteen ounce can of crushed tomatoes. Just tomatoes. No peppers, no spices. If you can find a salt-free or low-sodium variety, even better.
  • One six ounce can of tomato paste. I’ve heard people claim this is a thickener. Nope. Just a flavor magnifier.
  • Optional but recommended: One onion, chopped. It adds flavor and a little bit of texture. A very little bit.
  • Three tablespoons (plus or minus one, depending on how much of a kick you want) of chili spice. Not mix. This, by the way, is where most of the salt is going to come in.
  • Optional but recommended: Additional spices to taste. Got an interesting barbeque rub? Toss in a tablespoon or so. We think highly of Penzeys’ “Arizona Dreaming”.
  • One pound of stew meat. Beef is good. So is lamb. We’ve never tried it with poultry, but if you do, go for chicken thighs or turkey. Chicken breasts don’t have enough flavor to bother with.
  • One pound of ground meat. Again, think beef or lamb. If your provider offers a “coarse” or “chili” grind, go for it–unless they pre-spice it or mix in peppers. Bell peppers in chili aren’t an abomination in the same way mayo on a burger is, but they take the flavor profile in the wrong direction.

Preparation

  1. Combine the beer, beans, tomatoes, and tomato paste in your crockpot.
  2. Add the spices and stir well.
  3. Toss in the onion if you’re using it.
  4. Stir in the meat. Many recipes recommend browning the meat first. We don’t usually, but if you do, add the fat and liquid that cooks off. You don’t want to lose that flavor. If you don’t brown the ground meat, don’t toss it in as a brick, crumble it.
  5. Cook on low until you’re ready to eat, at least six hours. If possible, stir it once about halfway.

Be aware this makes a very wet chili. One might even go so far as to call it a soup, rather than a stew. Rather than thickening the pot with masa as many recipes advise, we lazily suggest allowing diners to thicken their own portions to suit their tastes:

  • Crumble in a good handful of crackers–we recommend saltines or oyster crackers, but we’ve been known to use Ritz crackers.
  • Serve with a substantial bread, something with a thick crust and dense insides. Dip the bread to soak up chili juice, or drop in bite-sized pieces. Done right, the bread can take on a very dumpling-like texture.
  • Maggie swears by Parmesan cheese as a thickener. I’ll refrain from comment.

As I said above, this chili freezes well. It also keeps well in the fridge and reheats nicely in the oven. Have some for lunch while you watch a Spring Training game!

Hot Cider

I had a lovely Christmas, thanks, and I hope yours was as pleasant as mine.

We slept late–one of the advantages of not having small children in the house–and waited until the caffeine was ready before we opened gifts. I’d like to be able to say we opened them slowly and with due appreciation, but…We’ve been bludgeoning adulthood into submission for enough years that we’re not about to go grown-up now.

We stayed in our jammies all day, talked to family on the phone, watched one of our favorite Christmas movies*, had a nice dinner, gave the Backyard Bunch gooshy fud instead of the usual Kitty Krunchiez, and largely ignored whatever’s was going on in the outside world.

* It’s got its flaws, but it’s also got some of the most quotable lines ever.

Oh, yeah. We also tried a new spiced cider recipe. Since it was wildly successful, I’ll pass along our modified version. For those of you stuck in colder realms, it’s the perfect drink to accompany watching someone else shovel snow.

Credit where credit is due: the original recipe comes from Christine Gallary at The Kitchn. We’ve merely tweaked it slightly and adjusted it for a smaller crockpot.

Hardware and Ingredients

  • A 3-quart slow cooker
  • A tea infuser, small cheesecloth bag, or other similar device for confining spices
  • 1/2 gallon of apple cider. Not the alcoholic stuff (much as we love that) and not the sparkling stuff either. If you can’t get cider, get juice–preferably unfiltered. The important thing is to check the ingredients. If there’s anything other than apple juice listed, put it back on the shelf.
  • 1 baseball-sized orange. Maybe a little bigger, but don’t get up into anything suitable for softball. And no, you can’t substitute a couple of those little clementines that are so popular this time of year. The ratio of flesh to peel and pith is all wrong. Cut it into quarter-inch slices and discard the ends and any other pieces that don’t have much flesh.
  • 3 cinnamon sticks.
  • 1/2 tablespoon of whole cloves
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of whole peppercorns
  • A few pieces of crystallized ginger (yes, a very precise measurement), cut into half-inch squares.

Instructions

  1. Pour the cider into the crockpot. Hardest thing you’ll do all day.
  2. Toss in the ginger, orange, and cinnamon. Gently: don’t splash.
  3. Restrain the cloves and peppercorns into a single packet and drop it in.
  4. Put the lid on the cooker, set it on Low, and leave it alone for two hours.
  5. Stir. Make sure to shove the orange slices under the surface of the liquid. They’ll float back up, but it helps distribute the flavor if they’re damp on both surfaces.
  6. Leave it alone for another couple of hours.
  7. Ladle it into thick-walled mugs and enjoy.

Note: You will get bits of orange and ginger in your mug. Don’t sweat it, just drink around them. Or eat them. Your choice. Mopping up the spills after you try to pour the contents of a hot crockpot through a filter into another pot just isn’t worth the effort.

Not a Health Food

Happy Independence Day. Yes, even you non-Americans.

I’m not saying anyone has to celebrate–especially those of you outside our borders–but why not have a happy day? All y’all, American or not, can enjoy the fact that for this one day our politicians are too distracted with celebration to bother you.

Or if that’s not enough of motivation, try this recipe. It’s been a while since I posted one, and since this one literally fell into my hands the other day, I figured I should share.

Yes, literally. We’re doing a major cleanup-slash-assault on the garage. Many of the boxes we’re sorting through haven’t been opened in more than two decades. Many things are getting donated or discarded*. But some things you just don’t get rid of.

* There were so many old magazines and other papers in the recycle bin last week, we were afraid the truck would tip over when the claw came out to grab the can. It didn’t–but it did creak quite loudly.

This recipe, which fell out of box of assorted papers, is one of the things you have to keep. It’s right in line with my “lazy cook” philosophy, but the results are tasty, indeed.

Cast your mind back to the late 1970s. A time when jogging was popular, Star Wars was huge, and granola bars were chewy.

Oh, you can still buy chewy granola bars, but back then it was the default choice. And so easy to make!

The origins of this recipe are shrouded in mystery. “Some magazine, I think,” was the best provenance my mother could come up with.

Note that these are not healthy granola bars. You want those, go buy ’em. Or find your own recipe, starting with making your own granola. This version is loaded with fat, sugar, and everything that makes junk food worth eating.

It’s also probably the simplest recipe I’ll ever post here.

Gooey Granola Bars

Ingredients

  • 6 cups granola – You can make your own if you want, but that violates the core principle of the lazy cook. Buy it ready-made. And get one with something more than just oats. Dried fruit, maybe, or some interesting nuts. I used Trader Joe’s ginger and almond granola, and the bars turned out very well–though Maggie says it needs more ginger.
  • 1 can condensed milk – The sweetened, sticky stuff. If your store has a low-fat or fat-free version, ignore it. Get the real thing.
  • 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips – Or more. Two cups is better. More chocolate than granola might be excessive. I suggest using a dark chocolate, something with just enough bitterness to contrast with the sugar from the milk. And if you’ve got a local confectionery, hit ’em up for chocolate chunks.

Steps

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F and grease a baking pan with butter. No, not non-stick spray. Butter.
  2. Mix granola and chips in a large bowl, then mix in the condensed milk.
  3. Spread the mixture evenly into the baking pan. Push it into the corners, and pack it tight.
  4. Bake for 20 minutes.
  5. Allow to cool, slice, pry out of pan, and enjoy. Hint: If the bars crumble or compress into cubes when you try to remove them from the pan, you probably didn’t let them cool long enough.

Unseasonal

It’s been a damned long winter, but signs of spring are everywhere.

I’ve finished my current bag of oatmeal–Bob’s Red Mill Rolled Oats. I don’t insist on the organic variant, but Amazon doesn’t seem to have the inorganic variety–and it’s warm enough I feel no urge to replace it.

The Chron is beginning to run baseball stories that have nothing to do with the As’ attempts to relocate outside of Oakland. According to the latest story, their slogan this year is “Rooted in Oakland”. I’d suggest they reconsider, but since they’ve already filmed commercials using the phrase, it’s probably too late. (To clarify, “root” has several meanings, not all of which convey the sort of message the As probably had in mind. In particular, the Australian slang interpretation makes it a darn good summary of the organization’s attitude towards the team’s fans over the past decade or so.)

And, arguably most importantly, the recent rains have resuscitated our lemon tree. After more than a year of producing next to nothing, it’s suddenly covered in lemons.

Let’s get one thing clear. I know some of you outside the Bay Area are thinking “Whoa, that writing thing must bring in pretty good money if he can afford a house with an attached citrus grove.” Untrue. It’s one tree. And, to be blunt, lemon trees are common around here, only slightly rarer than indoor plumbing. Granted, ours is a little unusual, in that–until the drought took its toll–it produced so many lemons we thought it must be part zucchini. But realty listings don’t even bother mentioning lemons; they’re just assumed.

But I digress.

It’s not exactly the season, but what can you do? When your lemon tree gives you lemons…

So there’s a jug of lemonade in the fridge, made to an exacting, complicated recipe:

  1. Combine one part sugar, two parts lemon juice, and six parts water.
  2. Mix well.

(You can make this at home, even if you don’t have a tree. Do not get packaged lemon juice, especially the kind that comes in a little plastic lemon. The flavor just isn’t there. Buy lemons and squeeze ’em yourself. Better yet, get the kids to squeeze ’em. It’ll keep them out of trouble for a few minutes and give them a sense of accomplishment.)

I know some of you are thinking “Sugar? No, honey!” It’s a valid point. But I’ve never had much luck with honey. It doesn’t dissolve as well as sugar.

And, while I’ve had some tasty honey-based lemonades, IMNSHO the flavor of the honey distracts from the pure lemon-sour/sugar-sweet contrast that’s the soul of the beverage.

Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to Spring Training on Sunday. Have a cold glass of lemonade and enjoy the turning of the season.

A Simple Method for Simple Minds

Since my brain decided to take today off, allow me to present a recipe–or rather, a cooking method–that requires no brain power whatsoever.

This is one of our go-to choices for the end of the week, not just because it’s simply, but also because it’s flexible, tasty, and a darn sight healthier than other no-brain meal options.

I’m talking about salmon.

“What?” I hear somebody say, “Doesn’t that require all sorts of annoying paraphernalia like cedar planks, and finicky cooking over open flames?”

Nope. I mean, you can do it that way, and it’s good eating, but for everyday* cooking, something simpler seems warranted.

* I don’t recommend doing this every day, though I suppose you could. The FDA recommends two meals a week of “fish that are low in mercury” and provides a list that includes salmon. And varying your spices can dramatically change the taste of the fish. But I still think seven meals a week is excessive.

Ready?

Start with the fish. Since we’re going for simplicity, don’t get a whole fish and fillet it yourself. Let someone else do the work. If your local market doesn’t have salmon fillets–fresh or frozen–find a new market.

I’m not going to recapitulate the entire argument about wild-caught versus farm-raised. I’ll just note that the majority of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List’s recommendations for salmon are for wild-caught. And, by the way, their choices overwhelmingly favor Pacific salmon, not Atlantic.

So, start the oven pre-heating to 500.

While you’re waiting on the oven, find a cookie sheet or broiling pan large enough to hold your fillets and a piece of aluminum foil twice as long as the pan. Place the foil in the pan so that it only hangs off on one side. Set the fish on the foil, skin side down.

Here’s the part where you can get creative. Sprinkle the top of the fish with the spices of your choice. We usually start with Old Bay and some dried shallot, then build up from there. Salmon is strongly-flavored on its own, so that might be enough, but we’ve also had good results with coriander and garam masala, a few different barbeque rubs, or thin slices of lemon. Don’t use salt or a spice mix containing salt: that sucks the moisture right out of the fish. Bleah!

Once your fish is well-decorated, fold the foil over the top and fold the edges together. Make sure you crimp them tightly together so there’s no way that steam can escape*.

* Assuming you’re not trying to make salmon jerky, that is. If you want dry, chewy salmon, leave a few openings around the edges of the foil.

Hopefully your oven heats faster than ours; we usually have the fish ready to go well before the oven is up to temperature. If yours is like ours, the time can profitably be spent on a side dish. Rice is a good choice.

Once the oven is hot enough and the fish is flavored and tightly sealed, put the fish in the oven and set the timer for ten minutes. Don’t worry that your fillets are too thick or thin. Only once in our years of cooking salmon this way has it come out underdone, and I can’t remember a case of it being overdone.

When the timer goes off, pull the fish out. Don’t open the foil yet. Let it rest for two or three minutes, then carefully* unfold the foil and serve.

* Very carefully. Hot steam will escape and parboiled fingers will ruin your enjoyment of the meal.

A Guilty Pleasure

OK, let’s take a moment to get real.

Tuesday’s election don’t show that the majority of Americans are racist, sexist idiots.

Nor do they confirm that “Americans want change”.

They don’t even show that we need to get rid of the Electoral College.

What the results really tell us is that 44% of Americans don’t care who governs the country.

According to the estimates of the United States Elections Project, there were 231,556,000 people eligible to vote in the election, yet only 130,840,000 ballots were cast (and let’s not forget that not all of those ballots included a vote for president).

This is not a call for mandatory voting. If people don’t care enough to go to the minimal effort of requesting an absentee ballot, filling it out in the comfort of their own home, and dropping it in the mailbox, they’re not going to go to the effort of studying the issues just because they’ll be fined if they don’t vote.

All I’m saying is that if, after a year and a half of promotion of the election as the most important one in history*, nearly half of the population still doesn’t think it matters who’s running things, then, regardless of the result, we’ve gotten the government we deserve.

* Whether that’s right or not is really irrelevant.

And that’s the last thing I’m going to say about the election.

Moving on to something more cheerful.

This is definitely one for the “Guilty Pleasure” file. It’s also a work in progress.

Our local supermarket sells Salt and Vinegar Chicken Wings. They are incredibly tasty. They’re also incredibly bad for me: based on my history of kidney stones, fried foods and high sodium foods are both strongly contra-indicated.

The other problem is that I’m not really crazy about wings. The meat to bone ratio is too low, especially when you’re buying by the pound.

So we don’t have the supermarket product often.

We’ve looked for an alternative, something using thighs instead of wings, and preferably baked or roasted instead of fried. Most of the recipes we’ve turned up have involved crushing salt and vinegar potato chips and using them as breading for the chicken.

Not only is that cheating, but it keeps all of the flavor on the outside of the bird. Great for the skin, less so for the meat down near the bone.

We decided to experiment and work out our own recipe. We took a wing recipe (and thank you, Cheyanne, for coming up with it) as our starting place. It’s been through a couple of iterations, but there’s still some work to be done. More on that below.

Ingredients

  • 2 lbs chicken thighs – that’s 6-8 thighs, and you want want bone-in thighs with the skin, because part of the appeal is that crunchy skin.
  • 1/2 cup white distilled vinegar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 3 tsp kosher sea salt
  • 1 tsp dry ranch dressing mix
  • 1/2 tsp granulated sugar

Preparation

  1. Combine all of the non-chicken ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Ideally, all of the sugar and salt will dissolve, but don’t sweat it if a few crystals are left.
  2. Put the chicken in a Ziploc bag, then pour the marinade over it. Press as much air as you can out of the bag, zip it closed, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.
  3. A couple of times during the marination, take the bag out and smoosh the contents around to redistribute the marinade across the bird.
  4. Preheat the oven to 320.
  5. You want some space under the chicken so it’s not sitting in its own fat while it cooks. We use a broiling pan, but a wire rack in a large skillet would do just as well. Make sure the chicken is skin side up.
  6. Cook for an hour (slightly less if the pieces of chicken are widely separated).
  7. Remove from oven and let stand for ten minutes. This will allow the skin to crisp up a bit more.

As I said above, this still needs some tweaking. The salt level is about right, but even thought we’ve almost doubled the vinegar, it still doesn’t have enough punch. We’re considering supplementing the marinade with a light dusting of dried vinegar just before the bird goes in the oven.

If anyone out there has other suggestions, we’d be delighted to hear them.

Versatile Sauce

Peanut butter is good. But what else can you do with that jar of peanuts sitting in your pantry? Aside from just munching them whole, I mean.

How about a very versatile peanut sauce?

We’ve got one we’ve been using for thirty years, give or take. It’s an excellent dip for vegetables, goes well on grilled beef and chicken (try marinading the meat with lemon juice, soy sauce, and ginger), and makes a spectacular pasta sauce (use a noodle with plenty of folds: shells, rotini, or bowties). However, I don’t recommend it in PB&J–unless the J is pepper jelly.

It keeps well in the fridge for several days. Make a big batch and use it on sandwiches with grilled meat and pickled vegetables one night, and over pasta a few days later after the flavors mature.

The recipe is adapted from one in Cynthia Wine’s Hot & Spicy Cooking. The book came out in the mid-80s, so new copies don’t come cheap–that link says they start at $88. After three decades, I don’t think Cynthia would be too offended if you picked it up used.)

Our version has evolved over time; here’s the current version:

Ingredients

  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup shelled, roasted peanuts – depending on your dietary restrictions and mood, you can use salted, unsalted, or flavored. We’ve had excellent results with chipotle- and barbeque-flavored nuts. Err on the side of generosity: the nuts are the star of the dish, after all.
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 to 3 cloves minced garlic – or more, if that’s what floats your boat.
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon crushed dried red chiles – approximate measure here, and to taste. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to use up those packets of pepper the pizza delivery place insists on bringing.
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice – yes, fresh. I know I often encourage laziness in cooking. This is not one of those times. Buy a lemon and squeeze it yourself; don’t use the bottled stuff. Ever.
  • 1/2 cup water – tap water is fine, don’t feel you need to use bottled–unless you’re in California, in which case, please use a brand bottled outside the state. There’s a drought on, you know.
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil

Preparation

  1. Using your favorite blender, grind the peanuts. Don’t try to get it too smooth. Even if you prefer creamy peanut butter, leave a few small chunks of nut to add some texture.
  2. Combine all the ingredients except the peanut oil in a small saucepan.
  3. Simmer for at least fifteen minutes. You’ve got a lot of latitude here. It should go long enough for all the ingredients to combine and thicken slightly, but not so long that it turns into a paste.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in the peanut oil.

PB & ?

Something a little different from the cynicism of the past couple of weeks.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is arguably the centerpiece of the classic American lunch. If you grew up in the U.S., you probably can’t begin to count the number of PB&Js you’ve eaten. There’s a reason for that success: the combination of the rich, slightly salty PB wraps the sweetness of the J; at the same time, the tart aftertaste of the J cuts the unctuousness of the PB. Complementary pairs.

You’ve probably got your favorite variation, the one you go to automatically; the one you eat every day for a week without a qualm. White bread, chunky peanut butter, and grape jelly. Whole wheat, creamy organic, and homemade ginger-apricot jam. But no matter how much you like your favorite, every so often you need a little variety, right?

To my mind, one of the most fascinating things about the PB&J is that most people are only willing to consider changing one of the three ingredients. Change the bread? No way. Change the peanut butter? Are you insane‽ In both cases, people might reluctantly change brands, but not the style. Fans of crunchy will turn up their noses at creamy. Those who prefer a “natural” peanut butter flee from pre-stirred varieties.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of room for experimentation with the “jelly” element. Even the change of mouth feel in switching from jelly to jam can be enough to satisfy your desire for novelty. Apple jelly is different from apple jam, and apple butter is different from either.

But what if you want to go further? Break from convention, abandon the J, and let your taste buds roam free*? What combines well with the immutable pairing of PB and bread?

* OK, that’s a disturbing image.

You could try marmalade. You could. I won’t stop you. I don’t think you’ll enjoy it, though. It would take an unusually strong peanut butter to stand up to marmalade and make a balanced PB&M.

Allow me to make a couple of suggestions.

Honey–Sometimes you just want to rot your teeth*. Honey cranks up the sweetness level beyond the ability of jelly, without the guilty feelings that sprinkling your sandwich with processed sugar would bring. And there’s as much variety in flavors of honey as in jellies.

* Let’s face it: 90% of us are never going to brush after lunch.

Cream cheese–Feeling sugared out? Try cream cheese. Not one of the abominations that come mixed with smoked salmon, chives, strawberries, or, God help us, pumpkin. What are you, sick? Just a simple, pure schmear. It works better with crunchy peanut butter, so you get a bit of textural contrast, but even with creamy PB, the slight bite of the cheese plays nicely against the smooth legume.

OK, the floor is open. What do you all use when you want to break free of the standard PB&J?

Bits and Pieces

Some quickies for a slow Thursday.

First, a prediction I got right. In talking about Google’s addition of automatic tagging to their Photo app, I said “If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco.”

Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that the app was tagging photos of two black people as “gorillas”.

Google handled it well: they immediately removed the tags, apologized publicly, and worked with the man who reported the problem to tweak the facial recognition code.

But honestly, this can’t be the only offensive incorrect recognition lurking in the code. New prediction: we’ll see more such stories about Google, Flickr, and any other photo storage and display software that assigns tags automatically.


You may have heard that a new debate has been sweeping the Internet lately. More polarizing than what color the dress is, more riveting than escaped llamas, it’s The Great Peacamole debate!

A couple of years ago, Melissa Clark, a New York Times columnist wrote about a guacamole recipe based on green peas. The world ignored it. Yesterday she wrote about it again, and the Internet–Twitter in particular–exploded.

Tweets from both sides of the political divide condemned the recipe:

And yet Ms. Clark remains defiant:

The thing is, this recipe not only includes peas, but also, God help us, sunflower seeds.

I’m sure the recipe is as delicious as Ms. Clark claims–but it isn’t guacamole. If it had been billed as what it is, Avocado/pea dip, we would have avoided this whole debate.

But still, there’s a bright spot in the debacle. We’ve found an issue that unites President Obama and Texas Republicans. Maybe, just maybe, they can build on that agreement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something so wrong as peacamole led to an agreement on gun control, immigration, or abortion rights?


In sadder news, Tama, the feline stationmaster of Japan’s Kishigawa railway line, died last week. Her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners.

I’ve written several times about cats working to promote their own selfish agendas or achieve world domination. It’s a pleasant change to take note of a cat working to improve her life by helping the humans around her.

Tama rose from poverty–a former stray–and single-pawedly saved the rail line from bankruptcy, and drew more than a billion yen in tourist income the the region. In recognition of her efforts, she’s been appointed to the post of “honourable eternal stationmaster” and has been deified.

Her apprentice, Nitama, has taken on the role of honorary stationmaster.


And finally, CNET and other venues are reporting that Amazon will be changing the way it weights reviews. Instead of simply averaging all reviews’ ratings, they’ll begin giving more weight to “useful” reviews.

Although the expect the weightings to change over time, currently the plan is to give more weight to verified Amazon buyers’ reviews, newer reviews, and reviews customers flag as helpful.

I have mixed feelings about the change. I can see it making a lot of sense in some areas. Giving more weight to newer reviews and “helpful” reviews of appliances, toys, and tech gadgets makes sense to me. As similar products come out, reviews that compare multiple options and weigh the tradeoffs should get more weight.

On the other hand, I don’t think that’s as true in other fields. Is a recent review of Twilight automatically more useful than one that was written when the book came out? Should a review of Jurassic Park that compares it with Jurassic World be granted more weight than a review from last year? How much weight does a multiply-helpful-flagged review of Madonna’s Like a Virgin from 1984 get compared to a review from 2014?

I’ll be watching to see how this develops.

Mac and Cheese and Horseradish

Whenever it’s cold and wet out, I want to write recipe posts. It’s raining here, and temperatures are dropping, so here you go.

I’m not going to assault you with a recipe that involves macaroni, cheese, and horseradish. That sounds like it would fall somewhere between dubious and horrifying. I’ve got two recipes, one a family classic perfect for cold, wet nights, and one new one that we’ve been experimenting with.


Traditional Mac and Cheese

This is Maggie’s family recipe. It’s simple and filling, and keeps well for up to a week in the refrigerator. Definitely comfort food, and it gets much of its charm from its simplicity, so don’t crud it up with fancy additions. No ham or bacon, no greens, and above all, no bell peppers. Anyone caught adding peppers to this dish will have their kitchen privileges revoked. Permanently.

Ingredients
Note: This makes enough to feed four hungry people with leftovers. We generally get two dinners and a couple of lunches out of a batch.

  • 5 tablespoons butter. Real butter, please, not some weird substitute. We prefer unsalted, but suit yourself there.
  • 5 tablespoons flour.
  • 5 cups milk. Yes, low fat is acceptable. I don’t think I’d try it with non-fat.
  • 20 oz sharp cheddar. Think sharp. Extra sharp. The sharpest you can find. Think big. It’s better to use more cheese than not enough. Traditionally, Cracker Barrel extra sharp is the cheese of choice, but we’ve started using Cougar Gold*.
  • Salt and pepper to taste. You don’t need much. Go easier than you initially think, especially on the salt, and double-especially if you’re using Cougar Gold.
  • 2 pounds (one bag) of macaroni. Avoid the smallest and largest sizes of noodles; the medium ones hold the cheese best.
  • 5 tablespoons breadcrumbs. Panko, of course.
  • 2 more tablespoons of butter. You got a problem with butter?

* Cougar Gold contains no actual cougars or cougar milk. It’s made by students at Maggie’s alma mater, Washington State University. And my ex-boss would undoubtedly suggest a warning label at this point: the cheese does sometimes release a little liquid in the can. This can make it slippery (accusations of sliminess have been made). It may make handling difficult or uncomfortable, but the flavor–and post-cooking texture–is not affected.

Preparation

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F
  2. Cook the macaroni according to the package directions, but undercook it slightly. If you normally prefer squishy noodles, stop at al dente; if you normally go for al dente stop at just slightly crunchy.
  3. Melt the smaller quantity of butter and mix in the breadcrumbs.
  4. Grate the cheese. Or crumble it. Coarse chop. Whatever floats your boat. The idea is to break it up into small pieces that will melt quickly and evenly. Set a small amount of the cheese aside for later.
  5. In a small pot, melt the larger quantity of butter over low heat. Stir in the flour until smooth.
  6. Add the milk, stirring well. When the milk is warm and starting to thicken, increase the heat.
  7. Add the grated cheese a little at a time, stirring until it melts.
  8. Here’s where you add that salt and pepper.
  9. When the macaroni is done, drain it and put it in a large casserole dish. Or if you’re lazy, throw it back in the pot you cooked it in.
  10. Stir in the cheese sauce.
  11. Top with the reserved cheese, then further top with the butter/bread crumb mixture.
  12. Stab the top of the mac and cheese with a fork six to eight times, deeply enough that the top of the fork’s tines are about half an inch below the surface. According to Maggie, this is the most important step. But then, she’s got a thing for aesthetic cooking. Left to herself, she’ll use the reserved cheese and the breadcrumbs to draw pictures. (The actual benefit is that you get little pockets of crunchy breadcrumbs through the dish, instead of having all the crunch on top.)
  13. Bake for fifteen minutes, then let stand for five.

As I said above, it keeps well in the refrigerator–but it doesn’t freeze well at all. To reheat, put the covered casserole dish in an unheated oven, then turn the oven on to 300F and leave it alone for an hour.


Horseradish Hamburgers

This recipe started life as a horseradish crusted prime rib of beef, courtesy of Tyler Florence. Once we tweaked the proportions a bit, it turned out well–try marinating a steak in it for several hours–but let’s face it: we eat burgers a heck of a lot more often than we do prime rib. Or even steak.

Ingredients

  • 5 garlic cloves, smashed. Feel free to adjust to your tastes. And yes, pre-minced garlic is perfectly acceptable. Take that, Tyler.
  • 1/4 cup prepared horseradish. Or a little more if you want your meal to bite back.
  • Needles from two fresh rosemary sprigs. Feel free to add more. What, you mean you don’t have rosemary growing in your yard? Why not?
  • Leaves from four fresh thyme sprigs. You don’t have fresh thyme either? That’s OK, neither do we. The supermarket will be happy to sell you enough thyme to make a dozen batches.
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt. Tyler called for half a cup. I presume that either his tastebuds are dead, or he has chronic low blood pressure.
  • 1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper. You can cut this back a bit, but despite what I just said about Tyler’s taste buds, don’t cut back too far, especially if you’re using previously-ground pepper.
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
  • Ground beef. Figure on 1/3 pound per burger.

Preparation

  1. Tyler says to combine all of the ingredients except the beef in a small bowl and mash them into a paste. You can do that if you want. We prefer to use a stick blender. The paste is smoother, and you don’t risk getting bits of rosemary stuck between your teeth.
  2. In an appropriately-sized bowl, mix the paste with the meat. I suggest you start with one tablespoon per burger; you can always use more (or less if you’re feeling wimpy) on the next batch.
  3. Form the mixture into patties and broil or grill as you prefer. Note: You probably don’t want your burgers extra rare, as the paste benefits from a bit of cooking. Keep the flipping to minimum. Ideally, you’ll only flip them once.

The paste keeps well in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Cover it tightly, though, unless you want everything to taste like horseradish… We suspect–without having tried it–that it will freeze well too.