A Southern Staple: Simple Syrup

Bottle of simple syrup

This basic southern staple, simple syrup, is a must have in any kitchen or bar.

This style of syrup is used all over the world for lots of things, not just in the south.

It is, however the secret to true southern iced tea.

Simple syrup is easy and quick to make and there are endless ways to use it in the kitchen and bar.

Basic Simple Syrup

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 cups water, enough to cover the sugar by 1/2 inch.
  • 3-4 drops lemon juice

Put sugar in a sauce pot

Add water to cover sugar by 1/2 inch; add 2-3 drops of lemon juice, stir

Bring to a boil; boil for 1-2 minutes

Place a ‘sign or symbol’ to signify pot is hot;
Put the pot away from accidents to cool

Method:

Put the sugar in a sauce pot, add water to cover the sugar by 1/2 inch. Stir well.

Place the pot over high heat; add the lemon juice and bring to a boil.

Stir, not constantly, but often enough to prevent scorching on the bottom.

Once the mixture comes to a boil, the sugar will turn clear. Allow to boil for 1-2 minutes, turn off.

Cool the mixture before transferring to a jar or bottle.

While the sugar syrup is cooling, put some kind of “sign or symbol” on the  handle so others know the pot and contents are hot and to leave the pot alone.

Use caution and place the pot well to the back of the stove out of harms way.

Sugar burns are very nasty and go really deep. Avoid at all costs, especially around children.

The syrup is shelf stable. Keep it handy to sweeten iced tea, lemonade, tea or coffee, use it over fresh fruit, in meringues, or even in marinades and specialty bar drinks.

You can infuse flavors into simple syrup, add a vanilla pod, lemon, lime or orange zest, fruit puree, basil, lavender, or mint for a few ideas. Be sure to strain the flavor elements out before using. The vanilla pods or herb leaves do look nice in the bottle.

My favorite way to use this syrup is to splash some into iced tea and top with a lemon wedge.

The perfect thirst quencher!

Iced Tea and Simple Syrup

Potatoes Au Gratin

I have been on a comfort food kick the past few days; Potatoes au Gratin are one of my favorite creamy delicious side dishes.

We always had them as a kid sometimes from scratch and sometimes from a box. The box variety always fascinated me.

The clear plastic looking chips, the powdered sauces, pour over boiling water and bake. Voila! Potatoes au gratin or Scalloped Potatoes all from a box. It was amazing stuff.

Making the same potatoes from scratch is far more satisfying, both nutritionally and esthetically.

First you have to get some good starchy potatoes – russets are the best as they are a ‘high-starch, low moisture’ category of potato.

Peeling is your option, but be sure to scrub them clean.

Have everything ready to go before you start slicing the potatoes so they don’t turn colors on you.

If you don’t know what I mean about potatoes turning color, take a slice and just let it sit out on the counter or on a plate. Look at it again in 5 minutes. It is oxidizing with exposure to air. Process potatoes quickly to avoid this color change happening.

“Green” on the potatoes is called “Solanin” and it is a sign of a potato that has been stored incorrectly with an exposure to light.  To avoid green potatoes, always store potatoes in a cool, dark place.

While it would take quite a bit of solanin to cause severe damage, it is an intestinal irritant. Simply cut away the green with your peeler. It isn’t very deep.

Do not store potatoes in the refrigerator, the cold converts the starch to sugar. Restoring to room temperature, over a few days will convert back to starch.

I made this dish for Robert and me but it would easily feed four. I used an All-Clad oval stainless baker pan, you can use any oven-proof dish you want. Adjust the quantities if using a large pan.

Potatoes Au Gratin

Serves 2-4

  • 1 or 2 large russet potato, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 4 whole large shallots, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1/2 container Herbs and Garlic Boursin cheese (or 1/2 cup any shredded cheese of your choice)
  • 1 cup heavy cream, brought to a boil
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional: Monterrey Jack cheese to top and get all golden brown

Method:

Thinly slice potatoes and shallots by hand or use a mandolin.

Be careful when slicing on a mandolin! Slicing on the mandolin ensures even slices so they cook at the same rate.
HINT: Slice shallots by hand.

Butter the dish, place a single layer of sliced shallots on the bottom of the pan, top with potatoes laid in a single layer, top with shredded cheese, spoon 1/4 cup of warm cream, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle a light sprinkling of flour and repeat layering until the dish is full. The top layer should be cheese.

Here is the layering sequence again:

  1. sliced shallots
  2. sliced potatoes
  3. cream
  4. salt and pepper
  5. flour
  6. cheese
  7. repeat leaving cheese as the top layer

Butter the dish, layer shallots then potatoes

Notice how the potatoes are shingled into a layer

Sprinkle flour over the cheese and potato layers

Keep alternating layers to the top

Top with cheese and bake

Place the filled dish on a parchment paper lined baking sheet to catch all spills. Place in a 400°F oven for 1 hour or until the dish is bubbling and golden brown on top.

We usually gobble these up pretty quickly but if you have any leftover, cut them into shapes and reheat either in the microwave or the oven until nice and warm in the center.

Variations on the theme:

  • Scalloped Potatoes: Leave out the cheese and make sure enough cream covers the top slightly. Top with breadcrumbs; Bake the same way.
  • Add your favorite herbs for an herbal variety.
  • Use different cheese: Goat cheese, Havarti, Asiago, fontina, add some bleu to the mix.
  • Use cheese that you know will melt nicely. If you want to make this with cheddar, please add some hoop cheese to it for melting purposes. Cheddar does not melt well all on its own.

I’m sure your family will enjoy this as much as mine does. Your home will smell wonderful as they cook. Since they are in the oven for so long, it is a good time to plan a baked chicken or pork chop to go along with the potatoes.

Sometimes I’ll have a plate of just potatoes au gratin for lunch, if there is any left over.

Plated Potatoes au Gratin

Mushroom Risotto

I made mushroom risotto just to see if there could be any left over to make the risotto balls Frugal Feeding made. Only he called them Rosemary and Garlic Arancini. I suppose that is the correct Italian name for them more than “risotto balls.”

By any other name they are still just as good.

Let’s make  Mushroom Risotto and if you have any left, you can hop over to Frugals site and make the Arancini.

But first a note on how to clean mushrooms:

Think of them like little sponges. if you run them under water or (horrors!) soak them in a bowl of water to ‘clean’ them, you are water logging the poor little mushroom. The mushroom will release that water while you cook, you will not get a good color on them when cooking. Instead of saute, you will be braising them.

Instead, wipe them with a clean towel, trim the tough part of the stem (shiitake – remove the entire stem, it is tough) your are ready to go.

Portobello mushrooms can be ‘peeled’ to create a prettier mushroom. Use a spoon to scrape out the gills and then peel the lip of the mushroom to remove the top layer, peeling towards the top middle of the mushroom cap.

Save the scraps for flavoring stocks for soup or sauces.

Peeling a Portobello

Use a spoon to scrape out the gills

1 peeled Portobello and 1 not peeled ; see the difference?
Save those scraps! Freeze them.

Mushroom Risotto

1 cup arborio rice

2 tablespoons finely minced shallots

1 tablespoon  fresh minced garlic

1 cup cleaned and sliced fresh mushrooms of your choice

White button and shiitake mushrooms

If you use Portobello mushrooms, be sure to clean the gills out from under the cap. They turn everything a dark, almost black color.


1 up to 1 quart of warm chicken stock

If you use a stock that has salt in it, adjust your salt flavor at the end. Salt concentrates as liquids evaporate.

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded, not graded

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the mushrooms first in the same pan you will cook the risotto. This allows the mushrooms to develop that deep flavor for which mushrooms are so famous.

Sautéed Mushrooms

  • 1 pound mushrooms of your choice, cleaned and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons oil or clarified butter
  • 1 shallot sliced
  • 2 clove fresh garlic smashed and minced
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the pan over high heat, add oil.

Add mushrooms sliced shallots, garlic saute until they begin to develop color and start to release their juices. Add white wine to deglaze and cook until the pan is nearly dry.

Now add the rice and continue with the risotto recipe below.

Note: This is a great way to saute mushrooms for any other way you want to eat mushrooms, steak, Quiche, soup

  • Heat the chicken stock in a pot and have it nearby with a ladle.
  • In the same pan you cooked the mushrooms above, add the rice.
  • Saute for 2 minutes. Stir to coat the rice with the mushroom goodness in the pan.
  • Ladle about 8 ounces of warm stock into the rice pan.
  • Stir to combine and continue stirring until the stock has been absorbed.
  • Repeat 3 more times.
  • Taste the rice, there should be a slight bite to the grain, known as “al-dente.”
  • The last addition will be 1/2 cup white wine, stir until the wine has been absorbed.
  • Stir in the Parmesan cheese and the butter.
  • Adjust seasonings and serve.

Warm chicken stock, have a ladle handy

Saute the mushrooms, shallots, garlic, thyme and wine to develop flavor in the mushrooms before adding rice. Cook down to nearly dry again.

Add rice, saute to coat the rice with oil and mushroom jus

Add warm stock and stir until absorbed

Stir until all stock has been absorbed; add more stock

Add more stock and keep stirring

I learned to make risotto the old-fashioned way; by stirring a lot. Stirring makes it creamy. There are some methods where you cook it much like you do plain rice. I don’t find the results as creamy as the stir-like-a-madman method.

Besides, it gives your arms a decent work out.

If you want to make risotto and hold it for serving later, take it only half way through the steps of adding stock. Cool it down.

When you are ready to finish, heat more stock, add the rice and finish the cooking process.

Serve immediately as risotto can get quite gluey as it cools down after it finishes cooking.

I made enough to have some leftover for the Arancini but when I went to make them, there was no leftover risotto.

So the myth continues, there is no such thing as leftover risotto.

I haven’t seen much leftover wine either.

Why is that?

Robert said to just make more risotto and make the Arancini immediately.

I think he just wants more risotto.

Mushroom Risotto

“Feed Me Chef!”

Our dear friend June had a mile marker birthday recently. Our gift to her was to go out to the “Feed Me Chef” dinner at Zink American Kitchen in Charlotte, NC.

Robert and June

What a wonderful experience! The premise of the Feed Me Chef dinner is to sit around the bar area that is right up to and nearly in the kitchen. The chef will then create a 5 course meal for you of their choosing.

You can watch the kitchen in action

Sitting there, you get a birds-eye view of the kitchen operations from gearing up, getting slammed with the dinner rush and then slowing down slightly as we left 2 hours later.

The hostess had called earlier in the day to ask about allergies, diet restrictions and if there was anything in particular we wanted. These parameters were given to Chef Amy who in turn gets to be creative and create a 5 course meal.

The kitchen crew operated very well together. There was clear communication, effective movements and great looking food. Everyone knew their job and did it well. It was great entertainment.

And you want to know something? In this open kitchen all the crew, both front and back of the house, were so polite not only to the guests, but most important, to each other.

“Please, thank you, you’re welcome, excuse me”, all used frequently amongst the staff even when they were at their slammed best. How refreshing.

Chef Amy Kumpf

Our chef this evening was Amy Kumpf who was delightful, fun, charming, very skilled and knowledgeable in her craft. If was a lot of fun to watch her and her crew work through the dinner rush, very smooth.

She planned a menu for us and paired the wine for each course. Settling in, our meal began.

Course #1

Yellow Tomato Caprese Salad

Yellow Tomato Caprese

Instead of using fresh basil, Amy fried the basil for the salad. The result was delicate umami touched with sweet tomato that danced around in your mouth with a party going on.

Amy reduced balsamic vinegar to a coating glaze which she drizzled over the assembled salad. She chose yellow tomatoes, delicious fresh mozzarella, fried basil and balsamic reduction.

Definitely whetted the appetite. It was beautiful and delicious.

To pair wine with this course, Amy chose Cooper Mountain Pinot Grigio from Willamette Vally.

Perfect pairing.

Course #2

Plancha Seared Snapper with Fire Roasted Tomatoes and Cucumber Salsa

Snapper in Tangine

This dish alone would be worthy to come back for again and again. Fabulous!

The cucumber salsa had mango, red peppers, mint, honey and other things. It was very well made, knife skills showed.

Fire roasted tomatoes are roasted and grilled with red peppers and blended to create  a lovely sauce they use on several dishes from pizza to our snapper. This was served in  crisp white Moroccan style tangine.

Tangine

Wine paring: Chamisal Vineyards 2011 Central Coast Stainless Chardonnay (unoaked) Crisp and perfect with the complex flavors of this dish.

Course #3

Hickory Salmon

Hickory Salmon with Slow Cooked Potatoes and Asparagus

Another genius dish. The potatoes went so well with the salmon, sweet 100 tomatoes are slow roasted to add a sweet acid punch to the richness of the potatoes and  salmon. Additionally on the plate were fennel confit and melted leeks. Eating this was a pure pleasure experience.

Wine pairing: For some odd reason I didn’t record the Pinot noir chosen for this dish. It was the only one we thought didn’t complement the food. We enjoyed the wine tremendously, just didn’t like the paring.

Perhaps another Pinot with a fruitier base as most US Pinots are known. This one was in the “Burgundian” style which made it rich and robust with full tannins. These rich robust wines are normally my preference. But not with this dish.

The sweet salty nature of the salmon and the delicate texture of the fish wanted something a bit milder.

Course #4

Grilled Flank Steak with Smoked Tomato Cream Sauce and Shaved Asparagus

Seasoned and grilled to perfection. The meat was tender, juicy and full of flavor.

Shaved asparagus was created by peeling asparagus length wise with a “Y” peeler. You can do a lot with a vegetable and a Y peeler. Here, Amy created ‘pasta’ for us with thin shavings of asparagus.

Grilled Flank Steak

By this time we were getting full.  So I tasted everything and then decided to bring the rest of this dish home to eat for lunch and jump into dessert.

Wine Pairing: Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel, Lodi, 2009

Course #5

Warm Apple Compote, Whipped Caramel Cream, Orange Confit, Dulche de Leche and Dark Chocolate

I got a pleasant surprise when the dessert chef came out. She was a student of mine. She said she was nervous but for no reason. Her dessert fit the bill perfectly. (No flour products – part of Junes diet; hence the asparagus pasta.)

Pastry Chef Sheena

Although our tummies were full, we managed to consume every bite.

Brilliant wine paring and fine ending to a great meal: Late  Harvest Mer Soliel

Apple Compote

Robert and me

All in all, we had a great meal and an outstanding evening. I could eat like that every time we go out. The idea of not knowing what your next course will be is intriguing.

We will have to do this again soon and I suggest you go find a place near you who does this kind of service. Ask at your favorite restaurant. Sometimes this style of dining is called a “Chef’s Table” and sometimes tables are in the kitchen. Depends on what the health code is in your area. You may discover such tables need to be reserved well in advance.

We had a delightful interaction with the staff. The entire evening was great fun.

Naturally, if you find yourself in Charlotte, NC, head over to South park and stop in at Zink and say “Feed Me Chef!”

You will be glad you did.

These photos were taken in low-light conditions of the restaurant with the i-phone 4.

How to Roast a Chicken

Here is another basic skills post about how to roast a chicken. The same principle applies to most birds, large or small. Ducks are just a bit different due to the amount of fat on them.

To select a whole chicken, carefully look at the wing tips, they should not be brown in any way. Slightly red is OK but no brown. Look at the neck area, same thing. These areas show age on market chickens. If they are fresh, they will be ‘chicken color’ and possibly red tips on the wings. No brown, green or purple.

The chicken should also not have any odor. Give it a sniff. Pass it by if you smell anything.

Sometimes the inside of the bird contains a small bag of the heart, liver, neck and gizzard. Remove this from the inside of the bird. Throw it away unless you eat heart, liver, neck and gizzard. My father made wonderful sauce from these parts. Sometimes I saute the hearts and livers but there is only one inside each bird so they become the cooks treat. YAY!

Thoroughly rinse the bird inside and out. Pat the bird dry.

Carefully, using your fingers, loosen the skin but do not tear it.

Look carefully, see the butter under the skin?

Insert compound butter between the skin and the meat, smoosh it around so it almost covers the meat and then rearrange the skin back in place. This will baste the meat with herbs and butter while the bird roasts.

What is compound butter? Soft butter with herbs and seasonings mixed in. Any combination, any flavors, your choice. Toss it in a mixer, mix it up, place in a container and use it anywhere you would use butter. The butter I used here contained thyme, garlic, lemon, shallot and pepper.

To give the bird some flavor while roasting, insert herbs, onion and garlic into the cavity. For this bird I used rosemary, thyme and onion and a bay leaf.

For food safety sake, if you want stuffing, bake it in a separate pan. See note below regarding food safety.

On the bottom of the roasting pan, place chopped carrots, celery and onion (25% carrots, 25% celery, 50% onion ratio) and 1/2 cup or so of water or stock.

Professionally, we call this vegetable ratio “mirepoix”.

Tie the legs together with butchers twine or cotton string. Run the string around the legs and thighs and tie it off under the wings. This holds the bird together in a nice compact bird-like shape, controls the legs and plumps the breasts.

This is how you get a good-looking finished bird that isn’t splaying its parts all over the place.

Season the birds skin. I used Montreal Steak Seasoning for this one. Season as you like.

Season, tie the legs and truss the chicken. Place on top of vegetables to roast.

Place the tied and stuffed bird in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.

Roast the bird in a 350°F oven for about 2 hours or so for a 3 pound bird. Please use a thermometer to test for 180°F internal temperature in the thigh, not near a bone.

The dark meat takes longer to cook so you test there. Please be sure to cook your chicken all the way.

There is nothing as unappealing as cutting into a whole roasted bird and have blood come out. Obviously, it goes back into the oven to finish cooking, if that happens.

When the bird is done, allow it to “rest” for about 15-20 minutes before carving. This is when I prepare the vegetables and put the final touches on the meal.

Food safety really comes into play with handling chicken.

  • Keep the bird cold.
  • Sanitize the work area with a mild bleach after preparing and handling the bird.
  • We are trying to avoid contaminating our families with Salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni in particular.
  • If your bird is frozen do not allow it to thaw on the counter or in the sink. Put it under cold water that you change frequently or in the refrigerator which takes 2-3 days to thaw, so plan ahead.
  • Always sanitize everything that chicken and your hands come in contact with during preparation with a mild bleach solution when you finish. Knives, boards, spoons, counters, sinks, knobs, handles, towels, aprons, etc.

To make a sauce, use the drippings in the bottom of the roasting pan. Deglaze with chicken stock or white wine. Strain the liquid from the roasting pan into a sauce pot. Bring to a simmer.

Mix equal parts of butter and flour together in a small bowl. Drop small pea sized pearls of the flour and butter mixture into the simmering stock, whisk to incorporate. Season as desired. Simmer for 10-15 minutes to cook out the starch taste. Finish with a pat of cold butter whisked in, adjust salt and pepper. Strain again if desired.

Roasted chicken with sauteed beet greens

We sautéed the beet greens we had on hand from the pickled beet post. Yummy stuff.

There will be another post soon on “How to Cut Up a Chicken”

Enjoy roasting your chickens! I adore the aroma, it smells like home and all things wonderful.

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

Interview Cookies

I was asked to bring cookies to a job interview one day so I made a batch of Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies. Walking across the street for the interview, I realized the cookies were still on my kitchen counter. Going in empty-handed was not an option so running home as fast as possible, I grabbed the cookies and waltzed into the interview only a few minutes before it was time to start. Typically being there 5-10 minutes early is preferred rather entering right on time. Luckily I lived close by.

I was right about going home to get the cookies. There was a “refreshment” table set with a big empty space for the platter. Milk, tea, coffee, plates and napkins –  a successful interview hinged on good cookies. The interview panel was outfitted by the colleges cookie monsters.

Being cookie monsters, they were satisfied munching while they took turns grilling me with questions. After the cookie interview, it was required to film a ten-minute lesson of their random choosing.

I wondered what they wanted to eat next.

After several more interviews over several weeks, they awarded me the position.  I always wondered if they were curious why I talked so fast or was out of breath at the initial interview. Probably not.

My son called from college the other day and asked for some cookies. These will work nicely.

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

Recipe adapted from Quaker Oats Company “Vanishing Oatmeal Cookies”
  • 1/2 cup ( 1 stick) + 6 tablespoons soft room temperature butter
  • 3/4 cup  dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
Dry Ingredients
  • 1- 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon non-iodized salt
Measure to fold in last
  • 3 cups uncooked old-fashioned oats
  • 1 cup dried cranberries

Pre-heat oven to 350°F

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed until creamy.

Add eggs and vanilla; beat well.

Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves and salt in a large bowl.

Mix  the dry ingredients together well with a dry whisk, spoon or fork.

On low-speed, slowly add the dry flour mixture to the creamed eggs and sugar.

Add the oats, then the cranberries, mix well to combine all ingredients.

Use a scoop and scrape it along the edge of the bowl to level the portion size for consistent sized cookies

Drop by rounded spoonfuls, or use a cookie scoop, onto a parchment lined sheet pan. Space 2″ apart.

Space evenly 2" apart to allow spreading. Use silpat or parchment on the baking sheet.

Bake at 350°F for 8-10 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from oven and allow the cookies to cool on the sheet pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack. Use a spatula to lift the cookies from the parchment.

Cool completely.

Drizzle the cookies with icing. Make note of the parchment and tray under the cookies to catch icing drips.

Watch out, cookies disappear before they are finished!

Drizzle with fondant icing if desired.

Fondant Icing

1 cup 10x confectioners sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 tablespoon milk and more as needed.

Place the 10x sugar in a bowl. Add the milk and stir. Drip more milk, drop by drop, into the sugar until drizzling consistency is reached.

It is easy to make this too liquid so start with a small amount of milk first and add while stirring. It changes quickly.

Using a fork, drizzle the frosting over the cookies while still on the cooling rack.

Allow the frosting to dry before storing in an air tight container.

These cookies are best inside of tummies, guarded by a glass of milk or cup of tea.

Take a bite!