Raiding the larder of ideas.

What one family eats, plans to eat, dreams of eating. Plus, other food and kitchen-related stuff from the home of steak-and-potatoes, pie and fresh green beans from the garden.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Escalloped Edges: Adventures in Comfort Foods

I read the other day that scientists now have definitive proof there is no such thing as "comfort food." Well, I am here to say, right here and now, that scientists can sometimes be kind of stupid.

For starters, it was they who chose which foods qualified, for each test subject, as the comfort food. None of the subjects had the power to decide – and this makes a bit of a difference. After all, what may be comforting to the palate and soul of one person may have little impact on another.

It isn't about the starches and sugars alone (that's what we used to call carbohydrates before everybody decided they wanted to sound more intellectual, even when they really had no clue). It's also about emotional associations, such as the memory of one's grandmother slicing off a slab of fresh baked bread and slathering it with homemade butter. Or one's mother, on a miserably cold January serving up a bowl of tomato soup  and a slice of toast.

And then there is the physiological response one might not otherwise realize should be factored into things, e.g., undiagnosed mild allergies and intolerances may come into play. I get migraines from eating wheat and aged cheeses. I have few problems with fresh dairy, but toss it into a vat, throw in a little fermenter, let it sit around and get hard, combine it with your average semolina pasta, and if I swallow it, I'm a whiny, useless puddle for about two days.

So, if the scientists want me to find a food (other than a slice of lovely gluten-free yeast bread cut warm and slathered with fresh butter) to take the edge off, they could do no better than to serve me escalloped potatoes (I like leaving the original "e" on the front of it. It distinguishes this dish from the seafood to which I am violently allergic. We all find comfort in different ways).

And, since I've been thinking about my favorite comfort food since the moment I first read the article on scientists displaying their silliness, I decided it was time to break down, say, "to heck with rational thought," and pile on the carbs for a day.

Now, there are two ways to make escalloped potatoes: the right way, and the diet way. The right way is simple, clean, and laden with fat, as well as carbs. All you need to do is preheat the oven to 400º F, thinly slice a few potatoes (about 1 cup per person you're serving, or enough to half-fill the dish you're using), chop an onion, butter the heck out of your baking dish, layer the onions and potatoes in the dish, pour enough heavy cream over the top of it to half-cover (about 2 cups, for a 9"x9"x4" casserole. For a larger dish, adjust upward accordingly). Bake for about an hour, until the potatoes in the center are firm, yet tender.

For the less decadent version (but one to fool your taste buds into thinking it's worse for you than it is), I swap out the cream and boost the protein. It goes something like this:

Skinnier Escalloped Potatoes


4 cups thinly sliced potatoes, skins on
1 medium onion (about 1 cup), sliced thinly, or, if you prefer, chopped finely
1/2 cup chopped ham
1 cup lowfat milk (I like 2%)
1 brick (8 ounces) neufchatel cheese (reduced fat cream cheese)
1 clove roasted garlic, crushed, or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt, pepper to taste
butter or butter blend, for greasing the dish


Preheat oven to 400º F.

Heavily coat 9"x9"x4" baking dish with butter or butter blend.

Scrub potatoes thoroughly, slice as thinly and evenly as you can (if you have a kitchen mandolin, use the thinnest straight setting it has). Keep in a bowl of very cold water until ready to use.

Slice or chop onions, chop ham.

Place unwrapped cheese in a medium microwave-safe bowl, mash up slightly to spread out, heat on high about 1 minute, until completely softened. Add garlic, pepper, salt. Add approximately 1/4 cup milk, stirring with whisk until completely mixed. Add another 1/4 to 1/3 cup milk, stirring thoroughly again, until it is smooth and liquid. Stir in remaining milk.

In the baking dish, spread a layer of onion, then drain half the potatoes, spread them evenly over the onions, then sprinkle half the ham evenly over that, and the rest of the potatoes, the rest of the onions, and the rest of the ham over that. Press down to compact it.

Pour the milk/cheese mixture evenly over the whole dish, allowing it to percolate downward.

Place on center rack of hot oven, bake for 1 hour, or until bubbles on top have begun to turn dark brown.

Remove from oven, allow to cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

It ain't pretty, but it tastes like a hug from Mom…

Note: I, personally, prefer to eat this as leftovers. Like chili, its flavors have more time to steep, so that it usually tastes even better on the second day. I put about a cup of this in a microwave-safe bowl, cover loosely, and heat on high 3 minutes. Let stand in the microwave oven at least 1 minute. Stir, enjoy.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

For a more contented canine

You know you want to make this big ol' pudding happy, right? And, if you had a chance to make his sister wage her tail, too, you'd probably have no issue with that, either.

Well, this past Christmas, I baked a few batches of doggie treats for Clyde, his sister who lives with my seester and her family, and for the new dog in my other sister's house. Sadly, Clyde's sister did not get her treats, making Bonnie's mood not very bonny. 

So, since the old fogeys are taking a trip out to not so very far away from where my sisters live, they're taking Clyde for a visit, affording me the perfect opportunity to make more treats for them to take along as hostess gifts…or, whatever excuse one needs to give cookies to an eleven-year-old Labrador Retriever.

I'll likely make some treats for my seester and her husband, as well, but I don't think they'll resemble these cookies very much at all, other than there will be no sugar added…

But the process for making doggy cookies is fairly simple: you start with a base dough, add the flavors or effects you want, bake until dry and crunchy, and store in a cool, dry place (or, if you so choose, you can freeze them. If you're doing stinky treats, I highly recommend freezing.)

For very crunchy cookies, the best flour to use is brown rice flour, or simple rice flour. Second best, and very good for stinky treats, is oat flour (if you don't want to spend a huge sum of money, buy some quick oats and run them through your blender/processor a couple of minutes, until they're powdery). If you need them to hold together and have just a hint of gluten in the dough, use a small amount of whole wheat flour (1 cup whole wheat to 2 cups rice or oat flour) to bind it.

Any way you look at it, all you want to start with is flour, egg, liquid, a further binder such as fat or sweet potato, and flavors (fish, bouillon, powdered milk, parsley, etc.). You mix it together until it is a cohesive mass (you can form a ball with the dough), pat it flat, cut it into bite-sized treats with a cookie cutter or just a big knife, pierce halfway with a fork, and bake it in a medium-low oven (325-350º F, or 160-180º C) until they're golden-browned, dry, and crunchy as heck (about 25-40 minutes, depending on size and shape). YOu can cool them on the cookie sheet or on a rack, and then store them away so the dog doesn't eat all of them at once.

I made a batch of breath-freshener treats, (Barkin' Bars) first, today, with added finely grated carrot because Bonnie still seems to not hate them, but I had to go ahead and make more, so here's the stinky batch (a double batch, at that) I baked today.

Stinky cookies

2 cups rice flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup powdered milk
1 Tablespoon chicken bouillon powder
6 Tablespoons chicken fat, chilled firm 
1 can sardines packed in oil
1 egg
1/2 cup water plus more if needed

Be sure rack is in center of oven. Preheat oven to 325º F.

In a stand mixer bowl and using a dough hook, combine flour, powdered milk, bouillon. Mix in chicken fat, sardines (oil and all). Mix until the sardines appear as flecks amid crumbs. Add egg, mix completely, then add water, mixing until the dough starts to form a ball.

On a floured surface, pat out the dough into about 1/4 to 1/3-inch thickness, then cut into bite-sized pieces. Pierce each cookie with a fork, about halfway through it (you can pierce all the way if you want, but it's not really necessary. It just helps the middle firm up as quickly as the edges).

Place on large cookie sheet, bake at least 35 minutes, or as long as 50 minutes, until the cookie is lightly browned on all edges, dry and crispy-crunchy even in the centers. Remove from oven, allow to cool, and store in freezer for the sake of your own nose.

But don't forget to give a few to your favorite canine companion before they're all put away.