eagle brand, schmeagle brand: sweet jars of DIY heaven

Sweetened condensed milk

What do fudge, iced coffee, caramel, ice cream, cream liqueurs & pies have in common?  Sweetened condensed milk, that’s what.

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I don’t have a great answer to explain my snootiness about store-bought sweetened condensed milk. It just seems super commercial and over-processed which is not my cup of tea.  And, it’s never been a sacrifice. I had no use for it, so it was easy to ignore.

But, once I started down the caramel candy, ice cream and cream pies rabbit hole,  avoiding sweetened condensed milk began over-complicating my life. The thought my results could be better if I weren’t so stubborn started  creeping into my brain.  Finally, the Huffington Post pokes me with  proof that Sweetened Condensed Milk is the best stuff on earth.

UNCLE. I give. How did I not know what an international phenomenon sweetened condensed milk is?  And so, this time, I have to admit I may be a little bit wrong.

I say a little bit because in my wish to support local farmers, buying Eagle Brand isn’t really part of the solution. But in fairness, the list of ingredients on a can of Eagle Brand is exactly the same as home-made: milk and sugar. And that’s how the idea for this compromise was born.

Be warned:  homemade sweetened condensed milk is amazing in every way and well worth the time spent. Which, I won’t lie, is considerable so pick a weekend you’re going to be close to home. The recipe is simple – hardly a recipe really.  My favorite kind.

And, this basic recipe is a springboard for many, many ideas. Honey, maple syrup or maybe apple cider molasses to sweeten? A little cardamom or nutmeg? Chocolate? Hmmm.

Maintaining the temperature is truly the single, non-negotiable aspect. Let it get too hot and the milk will form curds. Once that happens, game over, you’re done. Throw it to the pigs and start over because you’ll never get the smooth, creamy, liquid fudge-y texture that makes this stuff so addictive.

Sweetened condensed milk- bordon'sSweetened condensed milk overcooked

On the left: shiny, super smooth & dense. On the right: So, so close but I blew it. only about $20 dollars of local honey & milk, no big deal…  stick with the cheap ingredients the first time.

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Use a stainless stock pot on the stove set at the lowest temperature or a crock pot with a “keep warm” setting. I prefer the crock pot – by alternating between the Keep Warm and Low settings you can maintain the temperature without fear of scorching and easily put the process on hold when you need a break.

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Equipment:

  • Crock Pot with Keep Warm setting and lid or stainless stock pot with lid
  • Thermometer

Ingredients:

  • Gallon Milk
  • 5 cups sugar or 3 ¾ cups honey

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To speed things up, I began by heating  my milk and sweetener in a covered stock pot on the stove over medium-low heat just until steam rises – pay attention, you don’t want the milk to boil!
Transfer your mixture to a crock pot set on Low. Do not cover.  A  thermometer helps you monitor the temperature: it should remain between 150 – 160 degrees.

The milk will reduce to nearly ¼  its original volume.  You can use a metal ruler to gauge the reduction by measuring the depth of your liquid at the start, divide by four to guesstimate the final depth then measure throughout the process.

Since I’m not that familiar with sweetened condensed milk, I actually used a can of Borden’s as a guide.  When my texture was nearly the same stiffness (remember your liquid will thicken a little more as it cools), I stopped and poured my milk into sterilized jars.

sweetened condensed milk thermometerSterilizing jars

Using a Crock Pot & Thermometer  allows you to easily put the process on hold when you have to run out to feed the pigs. To sterilize jars, simply wash in hot, soapy water, rinse thoroughly, nest in a small baking pan lined with a towel and allow to dry completely in a 250 degree oven. pour warm liquid into warm jar & seal.

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If you need to put the process on hold while you feed the pigs, grab a bite or get some sleep, simply switch the setting to “keep warm” and cover to stop the reduction process. When you’re back, return the setting to low and remove the lid.   It was a little busy around here, so I stretched it over a full 24 hours, taking care to not allow the temperature to go below 150.

The result is recipe-ready sweetened condensed milk comparable to store-bought in texture.  From a gallon of milk, I ended up with about 40 ounces or a quart and a cup and a half.  Since most recipes call for a 14 ounce can, I figure this batch will make five recipes plus some extra for my morning coffee.

“Can this be canned?”  I know you’re about to ask. Well.  You didn’t hear it from me, and you definitely won’t hear if from the USDA, but on old homesteading boards I hear tell of pressure canning at 12 – 15  psi for 13 minutes. Another mention of water bath canning for two hours that supposedly does not affect the flavor of the milk as much. Freezing would be another option to consider.

I don’t really know for sure, but I tend to be bold and will probably try pressure canning for myself. What I do know is that it keeps at least two weeks refrigerated.

Good luck with that. 

Daisy

Daisy knows I’m a horrible multi-tasker sure to blow a few more batches. She’s banking on it. Don’t rain on her parade by telling her about the crock pot thing…

Real Food Pantry Tricks: a freezer full of ratatouille

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A satisfying winter diet filled with veggies can be a challenge….

Sometimes, I need something warm, filling and rich that’s not soup. Something comforting and velvety in texture that can help me resist my cravings for calorie laden dishes like macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes.

Yesterday we talked about what a flexible ingredient ratatouille is.  Today I want to show you my favorite lighter recipe and how doubling up each time I make it is one of the ways I preserve summer veggies for winter.

I found my ratatouille salvation in Martha Rose Schulman’s great cookbook for beginners, Light Basics Cookbook. Sadly, this book is out of print – it’s packed with gems, tips and tricks – particularly to those new to the kitchen. But, used copies are still available and Martha keeps a helpful online archive of her recipes, so all is not lost.

Here’s Martha Rose’s recipe for her less caloric version of ratatouille.

Except for one thing. Martha’s online recipe leaves out one slightly fussy step that makes the book version of this recipe such a treasure. Sure, you can skip it and your ratatouille will still be good, but why stop at good when you can have fantastic?

It’s only slightly fussy and the difference is well worth the effort.

The trick is reduction.  Making use of the power of reduction is one of the little-mentioned secrets of Kitchen Greats. Simmering a sauce until the water evaporates concentrates the flavor and thickens the sauce without adding flour or thickeners. It takes just a little more time and attention, but can boost a recipe from good enough to amazing.

A  reduction intensifies the flavors of my rustic fruit pies. Pan seared meat served with sauce made from reducing the pan juices and an added liquid is rich and elegant. I don’t love floury gravy for my beef stew, brisket or short ribs either. Instead, why not remove the meat & veggies to the serving dish and reduce the sauce?

Of course, you could finish by adding a knob of good butter which only makes the whole thing more plate-lickingly good…

So, how does ratatouille benefit from a reduction? Simple. After cooking, place a colander over a  large bowl. and dump the ratatouille into the colander.  The juices will drain into the bowl.

Transfer the juices to a saucepan and return the ratatouille to the casserole.

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Heat the juices to a simmer. Try to keep your boil as gentle as possible – the harder the boil, the faster the reduction, but also the more the flavor is altered by temperature. A slower simmer preserves the flavor.  And, any seasonings will intensify after being reduced so adjust to taste after the reduction, particularly the salt.

Reduce by half over medium-high heat, add your knob of butter if you wish (I wish you will), then stir the reduced juices back into the ratatouille.

This is a dish that is even better made the day before.  For best results, cook and refrigerate overnight.  Next day, serve at either room temperature or warm.

On seasoning ratatouille:  I admit that one reason I didn’t love ratatouille at first is because it tends to be heavily herbed/seasoned. Call me crazy, but I really don’t care for that.  Late tomatoes, peppers, garlic and onion have more than enough flavor without and some fresh basil added just before serving is just right for me. So, if you feel the same way or just don’t have the thyme and/or oregano, don’t let that stop you. The flavor without is every bit as delicious.

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If you’re going to make one ratatouille, why not make two and save some for later?

When you’re done, take your leftovers, measure out the size you would be most likely to use at one time (if you aren’t sure, go smaller). Two cups per bag is my preferred amount.

I prepare quart freezer bags by labeling them,  rolling the tops down and standing them up on the table.

You may be wondering, so here it is: there is no way to know in advance exactly how many bags you will need, so label cautiously. You could label after filling, but it’s really hard to write on jiggly filled bags and messy & difficult for marker to adhere to frozen ones.

Carefully measure your rat into the bags, squeeze any air from the bag, seal and lay flat on its side on a baking sheet or flat plate.  Carefully stack your bags so each lays perfectly flat.  Place the stack of filled bags into the freezer, keeping as straight and level as possible.

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Freezing the bags flat on their sides on a plate or baking sheet is an important detail.  Skip it and the weight of the liquid will cause the contents to sink around the freezer racks.  The bags will become entwined around the racks, then freeze that way making it impossible for you to remove them from the freezer or stack them neatly.

Don’t ask me how I know this…

Next day, when your bags are frozen solid, you can stack them upright to save space. Plastic organizers and large freezer containers help keep everything tidy, visible and help you squeeze more in.

The more tightly packed your freezer, the more efficiently it runs. 

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Do this all summer and you’ll have a virtual library of preserved “books”.

What kinds of garden goodness is in my library? Pumpkin puree, fresh tomato sauce, squash, ratatouille, roasted beets, beet greens, cantaloupe puree, shredded zucchini, rendered lard and plum pie filling.

What’s in your freezer library? Any delectable secrets? Do share…

building a real foods pantry: everyday cornmeal cookies

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Closest I’ll get to sunshine this cold, gray early spring day

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Sugar  Corn Pops, Bugles, Niblets, Jiffy Cornbread Mix, Fritos, and summer’s long-awaited treat corn on the cob was my childhood understanding of corn.  Then Chi Chi’s changed everything when they showed up with the tortilla chips and salsa.   And, if I hadn’t married a man who loved polenta, that would have been the complete, quickie version of my entire corn history.

Somehow, without any informed, factual reason, corn just got pushed to the back of my brain and marked second-class; lesser somehow than other whole grain options.

Is it because Corn’s crackie relatives are always attracting controversy for their freakish DNA , their miscreant behavior and their Big Food/Big Ag shenanigans?

Not sure, but  my brain somehow decided corn = not so good and locked it away.

Well. Boy, do I ever owe Corn an apology. Turns out there’s a lot more to her than the few commercial varieties used by industry in about a gazillion-and-one products. Check out what the Whole Grains Council has to say about this useful, delicious and nutritious grain.

My deeper exploration of corn started with polenta. Then came  home made cornbread. And is there any more filling and satisfying breakfast than a steaming bowl of cornmeal grits with their delicious pool of melted butter or, even better, cheese?

I have yet to grind my own cornmeal, explore hominy or make my own tortillas, but that’s sure to happen eventually.  Particularly since planting my own corn is one of this summer’s projects, and I’m very excited about the open pollinated Early Riser variety waiting in its box for the soil to warm.

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But you know what is a truly underrated use for corn? Cakes and cookies. Ask the Italians-  they know. Corn makes some super-delicious (not too) sweet treats.  Recently one chilly gray day I made these Italian cornmeal cookies, masa zaletti.

In case you haven’t noticed, I am an unashamed lover of cookies.  There is no occasion that isn’t improved with a cookie, and if there’s a person who isn’t cheered by one, I sure haven’t met them.  Since I am so helpless to resist, I prefer to keep cookies around that are more rustic, wholesome, less processed and not so sweet as store-bought brands.

And, of course anytime I cook something entirely from ingredients raised here and/or bought from local farmers instead of the grocery store, it’s a real bonus to say the least.

This particular recipe from Whole Grains for a New Generation adds a more savory element by mixing the raw fine yellow cornmeal with the New World ingredient masa harina.  Check out the printable recipe here. 

The whole batch only calls for 1/3 cup sugar, and no white flour at all, so I’d say these were a truly guilt free way to make a little sunshine of your very own.

What’s your favorite way to enjoy corn?

worth every dirtied dish: walnut waffles

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Beautiful waffles, my favorite slow morning treat. Warm, sweet, their crisp-yet-tender pockets puddled with farm-fresh (whipped!) butter and (real!) maple syrup.

Mmmm…

Or maybe not swimming at all; the right kind of waffle is pretty darn good dry, eaten out of hand and on the fly too. And trust me, these are definitely the right kind of waffle.

As much as I love eating waffles, my brief dabbling in making them led me to the conclusion that many things are more delicious when homemade, but waffles aren’t one of them. I never could master that delicate crisp exterior that makes a waffle worthwhile.

Were the waffles holding out because they knew I didn’t enjoy making them? Who knows, but they just never gave me their all.  I decided it wasn’t worth the mess, effort or the calories when they were so easy to get at the diner down the street.  I made my no-waffle decision years ago, and I’ve never once so much as looked at a recipe for waffles since.

If you’ve been following along, you know  I’ve been working my way through Liana Krissoff’s Whole Grains for a New Generation with From Scratch Club’s cook-along book club.  And, from my very first riffle through Liana’s book, I was smitten with her recipe for walnut waffles. —————————————————————————————————————–

Wafflemaker,  food processor,  small saucepan, two bowls, hand mixer, cooling rack, dry measuring cups, liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons… dirty, dirty, dirty.

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Now, I will not lie.  This recipe exceeds the number of procedures and dirty dishes I’m willing to take on most days. This may not bother you, but ask me to dirty more than one appliance and I consider that a deal-breaker.

So, while I love waffles, and this promised some dreamy results, this recipe sat earmarked, admired, but untried. Until today that is. And guess what?

Not only am I very glad I made these waffles, I will be making them again soon. They are rustic in the very best way, perfectly crispy and delicious. The flavors are deep and rich and plenty (but not too) sweet and the walnuts are subtle.

My local diner can’t even come close to making waffles like this…

The trick of beating the egg whites together with the sugar strengthens the batter so it holds up as you cook one waffle at a time, AND makes the waffles nice & crisp.  Oh yes… the secret is revealed.

The whole grains have not a whiff of bitterness and there wasn’t a single sacrifice – I’m eating these waffles because I love them, not because they’re a cardboard stand-in for the waffle I really love…

What’s the other reason I kept coming back to drool over this recipe? It fits perfectly with my quest to fill my freezer with time-saving, extra-ordinary, home-made convenience food.  Here’s a link to the printable recipe.

If you’re going to dirty up all those dishes and appliances, do yourself a favor.  Do it up big and double the recipe.  The waffles freeze very well and you can simply pop them straight from the freezer into the toaster or a baking sheet and heat in a 350° F oven for 15 minutes.

Note: if you’re like me and enjoy your waffles a little on the dark side, take them from the iron before they are as dark as you like when making them for the freezer. Your waffles will continue to brown as you reheat them and the outside may burn before they are warmed through.

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What’s your recipe deal-breaker?  Is there a special treat that entices you to go for it anyway?

More delicious things I learned from Liana Krissoff:

In which we share a fruity secret
build your real foods pantry: rice
building your real foods pantry: preparing for cookie emergencies

in which we ask: are you hungry enough?

Hungry enough for change I mean.

By now you’ve probably seen or heard about this on Facebook or someplace… it’s a pretty spectacular argument for eliminating or reducing food stamps benefits, don’t you think?

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Image source: unknown, circulating via email & social media

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This was confirmed to be factual and did in fact lead to the shopper being charged with welfare fraud. His intent was not to live it up on lobster and porterhouse which offends many but is fully legal.

Instead, his plan was to sell the items for a profit, which is a crime.

Now, I don’t claim to understand the demand for black-market cold water lobster & porterhouse steaks, but apparently there is one.  And it makes perfect sense to see this incident as indisputable proof that food stamps programs should be eliminated or at least sharply edited.

And my goodness, has the line been drawn. On one side are those who feel the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program feeds a culture of dependency and slothfulness. On the other are those who believe assistance should be freely available with no demeaning limits or restrictions attached.

Bumper sticker arguments and memes pile up and every over-simplified one is absolutely confident.  And more often than not, just a tad sensationalized and slanted.  But can we set our opinions aside for a moment?  Who’s really getting the handouts? Hint: it’s not the “Welfare Queen” you think it is.

Please read this report from EatDrinkPolitics(dot)com. Please. It’s thought-provoking, well-organized and packed with very readable and eye-opening info.

You see, in the 1940’s the Food Stamp program was designed to accomplish two significant needs. First to improve nutritional access to those in need, and second to support agriculture. At that time, agriculture meant produce and farmers, not big business and multi-national conglomerates like Cargill, Walmart and PepsiCo.

And did you know that bailout-receiving Big Bank JPMorgan Chase dominates SNAP servicing with contracts for 24 states, Guam and the Virgin Islands. Very nice for them. How nice?

“In 2010, SNAP EBT operating and

equipment costs (split 50-50 between
the states and the federal government,
as are all SNAP administrative costs)
amounted to more than $314 million,
according to USDA data.”

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Yikes. It is a large and convoluted issue.

Judging each other and pointing fingers at those we don’t understand and can’t really relate to is exactly the smokescreen needed for Big Food to continue squeezing out small farms and retailers and compromising the health of those least capable of fighting back.

All in the talking point spirit of “Preserving Choice”.

Don’t allow your judgement of the system’s abusers squelch your desire to help those in real need. This program is truly about giving America’s children the best start in life possible: it’s time for us to get a little closer and look clearly at the people behind the statistics.

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This film, A Place At The Table,  will pull all the scattered bits of opinion, judgement and misinformation into perspective. Get yourself to a theater asap, or gather a group and watch it at home via iTunes or Amazon, and I dare you to not be inspired to roll up your sleeves and get busy doing something.

I know this past election season was an exhausting one, and we’ve all had more than enough. But don’t drift off just yet.  We need to tell Congress Federal Nutrition programs are crucial to hungry children. While they may be imperfect, the program we have is the best we’ve got.

Follow this link to a form from No Kid Hungry that makes it painless to contact your local senator and stress how important it is to keep food available to those in need. Then we can get to work on making the programs more effective and corporation-free.

What are your thoughts about the role of government in food and helping those without financial and/or physical access to healthy food? 

building your real foods pantry: preparing for cookie emergencies

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Golden Raisin Icebox Cookies

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You didn’t know? Yes, there are legitimate cookie emergencies and times when a shortcut to a batch of homemade cookies is a real lifesaver.

I always thought refrigerator cookies sounded kind of stale and frumpy and would flip through those recipes to get to something better. But, as often happens, looking back through the dated and discarded,  this 1930’s trend is actually a perfectly modern solution to many snacking, entertaining & gifting needs.

Maybe the word “Refrigerator” just made them sound boring and blah. “Icebox” somehow sounds more hip & delicious so around here, we have Icebox Cookies. 

Icebox cookies add a simple, convenient and downright elegant trick to your pantry that will help preserve that element of snacking spontaneity we all love so much.

Modern convenience foods have nearly eliminated the distance between craving a snack and popping it into your mouth. Making your own snacks inserts a larger gap between the idea and the eating, naturally improves the healthfulness of the item and reduces the frequency of consumption.

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Salted Rye Cookies

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Why do I love prepared snacks in my freezer?

  • simple strategy for portion control – divide the dough into smaller logs and only bake what you need
  • a quick, fun after school treat kids can make themselves
  • something special on hand to feed unexpected visitors
  • strategy to keep those overly processed commercial cookies out of your pantry
  • a neatly wrapped log of dough is a perfect last-minute hostess gift
  • your kid tells you at 9 pm they need to bring cookies to class tomorrow: you can handle it

Basic icebox cookies are adaptable and delicious. They come in filled swirls, basic shortbread styles, with and without fruit and can be dipped in chocolate for an extra degree of fanciness.

As usual, I’m more of a get-‘er-done sort so I don’t spend much time making my swirls fancier nor do I especially care if my logs are perfectly round. But if you’re the sort to fuss over perfection, refrigerator cookies can be beautiful too.

Me, I slap together a dough in the morning, divide it into four separate logs, and wrap the logs in plastic wrap or waxed paper.  I write baking instructions on a freezer bag with a Sharpie, seal the logs inside and pop into the freezer for baking later.

The logs require almost no time to thaw enough to slice, arrange on a baking sheet, bake & cool. I doubt you could make a trip to the store or bakery any faster. All with no mystery ingredients.

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Here are three of my current favorite recipes for Icebox cookies:

  • Golden  Raisin Icebox Cookies – tender, crisp & rich, these are both rustic and sophisticated.
  • Fruit Swirls – an extra bonus to this one is the recipe uses no processed sugar. Instead, use honey and dried fruit. They’re tender, rich and easily adaptable for a variety of flavors.
  • My current obsession: Salted Rye Cookies. I love crunchy sugar crystals and was completely taken by this idea: these earthy rye rounds are rolled in a crunchy, crystal-ey mixture of coarse sugar and salt. Brilliant.

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Fruit Swirls – from Freezer to Plate

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Not so hard, right?  What real foods snacking tricks do you have tucked up your sleeve?

build your real foods pantry: rice

Dirrty as I’m gonna get… at least for today

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on its way to becoming a tattered & stained favorite

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One of my indoor winter pleasures is the cook-along book club hosted by From Scratch Club. If you’re not familiar with From Scratch Club, it’s an approachable, immensely useful and inspiring blog featuring a bunch of different authors from different backgrounds with a common goal: eating wholesome, local, real foods.

I’ve long had a little crush on New York state, particularly the Hudson Valley and FSC is one more example of just how great the food community there is.

Following a cookbook with a group of other people is a great motivator  – I love reading what everyone thought and did and I can’t tell  which I enjoy more: the inspiring successes or the flaming failures. And, it never hurts to have a little push to help those great ideas of yours jump out of your head and onto your plate.

You really should check it out – it’s a flexible group and you can drop in and out anytime.

Since this snowy season is one with little going on in the way of harvest, it’s a perfect time to work on improving our grain habits – an admitted weak link in my real foods pantry. Whole Grains for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff is our book club guide to a grain by grain exploration.

First grain up? Rice!

I’m good at getting real food on the table fast with the stash in my jars and freezer, but  using whole grains tends to slow my process way, way down. It’s much easier to serve something warm over a toasted piece of homemade bread, or to make some familiar quick pasta or potatoes  than it is to soak and cook an unfamiliar substantial whole grain.

My hope was that Liana would teach me a trick or two to expand my pantry skills with ideas for fool-proof, fast-forwarded, unprocessed minute-style rice & grains.

And happily, that’s exactly what happened.

She shares a two-step process for making brown rice – something which admittedly I’ve had hit or miss experience with. Sometimes I get it nice & fluffy, sometimes I end up with mushy grains and too much unabsorbed liquid. 

The two-step process cooks for a shorter time than my rice package recommends, allows me to correct if I’ve got too much liquid and to fill my freezer with parcooked portions ready for a quick steam and fluff later. Exactly what I was hoping for; check it out here.

Also, the recipes are modern and sophisticated yet not too fussy. For example, the recipe for (very) dirty rice is perfect just as it is. But, I didn’t have the ingredients to make it just the way it is. Liana gives very helpful alternatives for most recipes suggesting substitutions and/or shortcuts.   Find the printable recipe here.

So, being short on ingredients and in no mood to hit the store, I went with the alternate and made a few other substitutions of my own. Now, I don’t offer my version as an improvement by any means – I’m confident that Liana’s version is better.

I just want point out that sometimes, done is better than perfect.  Do your best, start where you are, and you’ll learn by doing which is always the best way to truly know anything.

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Aspiring nose-to-tailers – this is a great gateway recipe for you.

It’s comforting, delicious and absolutely not in-your-face. If I didn’t tell you, I don’t think you’d ever suspect you were eating liver, hearts and gizzards.

And, if you cannot imagine passing a chicken liver through your lips, there’s a delicious sausage alternative for you.

I hope you’ll at least try the true “dirty” version before you knock it. I am not a liver-lover, but when the chicken is fresh and well raised, the liver is truly delicious. No substitution will be so specifically and deliciously savory.

Near and dear to my heart, dirty rice is a simple and delicious way to get one more full meal from your expensive pastured  chickens. What’s not to love about that?

What tips & tricks do you have for working whole grains into your meals?