Saturday, June 30, 2012

Party with the Postal Peeps!

Yesterday was my Mom's retirement party from the U.S. Post Office, yay! No more working in the blistering Texas heat! Was there food involved? You bet! The party was at Clay's on Clay Road in Houston. If you just drive by and see the sign, you'd never guess what's inside.

The building used to be a little more than a "shack," according to a regular patron, and the owners have added extra rooms over the years. It reminds me of a story I enjoyed reading as a kid where the guy kept adding rooms to his house, all in one direction, until it was really, really long and it took days to get from one end to the other.

Clay's hasn't done it that way but walking inside is like walking into a maze. I found the post office people because they were the loudest. It's amazing that they could still have that much energy after working outside in the heat!

If you live in or near Houston or you're visiting, Clay's is a nice place for lunch or dinner. It's a family oriented establishment, and they have a petting zoo outside, too. Sometimes the zoo inhabitants even visit the diners. Later in the evening, (we were there a really long time, the post office people talk A LOT!), one of the peacocks from the petting zoo jumped onto the porch, (Clay's outside eating area), trying to escape some rambunctious children.

Visit Clay's website here: 

I don't eat a lot of junk so I allow myself to indulge once in a while. I decided on Clay's catfish platter for my meal.

The catfish fillets were very good. I congratulate Clay's on finding the right supplier for these. They were nice and clean inside with no nasty "bloodline." (You know when you see a lot of gray matter in a fillet that it wasn't cleaned well. Lower quality fillets are famous for this. Yes, they're cheaper but who wants to eat that crap? Not me!) The breading was very crisp but it was plain, not spicy. If I had to take an educated guess, I'd say these fillets were not breaded on site. There's nothing wrong with buying pre-breaded fillets for your restaurant, though. Again, as long as they are of good quality.

I have to say that the fillets were the best thing about this catfish platter. The fried okra was average, also pre-breaded, I'm sure. The hush puppies should have spent a few more minutes swimming in the fryer--they weren't cooked all the way through. They were still edible and not so raw that they needed to be sent back, though.

The tartar sauce was nothing to write home about. It is probably not made on the premises. For a busy restaurant like Clay's, I'm sure that purchasing pre-made tartar sauce is much more economical.

And now on to the coleslaw.......*sigh*........ The coleslaw was the most disappointing thing about the catfish platter. It had absolutely NO zing at all. Bland as bland can be. It looked pretty, and there was even the extra added attraction of poppy seeds, but the flavor......nyeh. They need a new recipe or a new supplier. (The coleslaw could have very well been pre-made. I'm not certain about that one.) Don't get me wrong, I tried to like it. I tried to find some saving grace in this coleslaw. It just didn't happen. I couldn't even finish eating it.

All in all, the catfish platter was okay. If you visit Clay's and order it, don't order the coleslaw as a side dish. Get something else that's green if you want to add vegetables to your meal. Maybe a side salad.

I had reports from the postal party people about the hamburgers at Clay's. I was told they are really good. The one complaint that came up about the burgers was the patties. They used to be really thick but Clay's has "down-sized" the patties over the years. Everyone agreed that the flavor is still really good, though. You won't be screaming, "Where's the beef?" if you order a burger there. At least not yet.

Congratulations to my Mom on her retirement! Now she can write a book about what it was like working at the post office. From some of the things I've heard, though, if she does write a book...she may end up with a visit from the Men in Black!! :)

Happy Eating, Everybody! :)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Side Dish Scramble--You Can Do It!

Last night E.J. came over for supper. I had already started cooking...making a version of "smothered chicken" on top of the stove so I wouldn't heat up the house so much. There were six pieces, so that was plenty for 3 people.

I wanted to make sure we had plenty of side orders but the veggie bins were low, so I had to get creative. We were out of lettuce but we did have some red cabbage, (okay, it's purple, People, I don't care what the "proper name" is!), cucumbers and tomatoes.

I made a salad that looks like something out of a 1950's low budget sci-fi movie. It looks garish, but it tasted really good! It was completely consumed. Maybe the name for this impromptu salad should be: "Alien Pod Salad from Planet X," or something--

Alien Pod Salad from Planet X
 It looks awful...the colors are terrible. I didn't add shredded carrots because I didn't want to add to the garish look. Anyway...I used about 12 ounces of purple cabbage, shredded very finely; a few small tomatoes that the neighbor donated and 2 small cucumbers. 2 tablespoons of salad oil, 2-3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a dash of water, salt and pepper.

I added the salt and pepper, vinegar, oil & water to the cabbage and tossed it like mad before adding the other ingredients. I think that's what made such a big difference in the flavor.

Next, I took about 1 cup of leftover rice pilaf and about 1 1/2 cups of black-eyed peas and made: "Not Quite Hoppin' John." (Because I didn't have all of the "required ingredients.") I sauteed about 1/4 cup of onions and the same amount of green bell peppers in a tiny amount of oil, then tossed in the rice before adding the peas. A little salt & pepper...couple of drops of Tabasco Sauce and it was done:

Not Quite Hoppin' John

The last extra dish was sauteed squash. It's pretty standard for this time of year when everyone has busloads of squash streaming out of the garden. Squash with every meal and prepared just about as many ways as Bubba Gump's shrimp recipe list.

There were about 3 yellow squash left in the bin, so I cut up about 1/4 of onions and bells (each). Saute onions and bells first--you can get a little brown on them, then toss in the squash. Saute for 3-5 minutes, season with salt and pepper.

I also added a couple of dashes of soy sauce. Sometimes squash can be a little bitter--(especially zucchini, but the others can be, too)--and soy sauce is great for reducing any bitter flavor. (Sometimes folks use vinegar for that but if I'm sauteing squash, I don't want vinegar in it).

Cover the squash and cook on low for about 8-10 minutes. This depends on how you like the texture of your squash, really. If you like it soft, cook it longer. I always enjoy it when it's still a bit crisp. Don't add any extra water. The squash will provide plenty on its own.

Sauteed Squash

This one disappeared quickly, too. That was an amazing feat because our guest, E.J. doesn't like onions. I knew that when I made it but I was hoping she'd eat it anyway. She did, onions and all.

That was a fun adventure in the kitchen on a Thursday evening. You never know what you might be able to pull out of your chef's hat when you're in a pinch.

Experiment! That's one of the joys of cooking. There are a lot of people who are afraid of cooking. Well, if I can offer any advice, I'll say: just keep it simple. It doesn't have to be "fancy-schmancy" to taste good. Look at cooking as an adventure instead of a chore. If you change your attitude about it to positive instead of negative, you'll have wonderful results!!

Happy Eating! It's the weekend....may you be blessed with many barbeques! :)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nan and Her Czech Plum Dumplings

My Czech grandmother (we all called her Nan), used to make plum dumplings. She called them "Siskas," which she pronounced as "Sheesh-kaz." I haven't been able to find this name and this recipe together on the internet. Czech websites call them, "'Svestkove Knedliky." Is her word how you pronounce, "Svestkove?" I don't know. 

I do know that she often had nicknames for things, (which reminds me a lot of me), but her nicknames were in Czech, lol. 

My Mom and I have been dying to make some plum dumplings. We remember Nan's recipe. I also did a search on the internet to see if I could find similarities to her recipe. Most of the Czech recipes call for bread crumbs (to be fried in butter before the cooked dumplings are added).

Nan never used bread crumbs when she made her recipe. She would either use cinnamon, sugar and butter or the same combination with a little cottage cheese thrown in. Then you tossed the cooked dumplings in the mixture. 

This recipe is really, really, really good. As soon as we find some proper plums, it is a definite, "Go!" I'm not sure if we'll be able to find them locally. The plums Nan used were a smaller variety. They used to carry them at the local grocery store because there were so many Czech and German families in the area. Now, not so much. So it may take some footwork to find the right dumplings. Regular plums can be used, but you have to cut them up, rather than using the whole plum. 

You never knew what you might walk into when you walked into Nan's kitchen, but whether it was fresh kolache, streudel, or plum dumplings, it was always a nice surprise! 

If you've ever experienced this fabulous plum dumplings recipe, please drop me a line. 

As always, Happy Eating! :)

Chicken Stock Obsession

One of my favorite activities in the kitchen is preparing chicken stock. I like to make beef stock, too, but that one is more labor intensive. With chicken stock, you just throw it all in the pot and you're good to go. The most labor intensive part of making chicken stock is the end when you strain it and cool it. Well, you do need to skim some junk off of the top during cooking once in a while--but that's easy.

If you're in a pinch and you need stock quickly, you can simply throw in some chicken parts and cook for a short time. For classic stock, though, you want to simmer for a longer time in order to achieve maximum flavor.

Here's my personal procedure:

I never buy chicken parts anymore. I haven't for many years. Well, I take that back--if there is a good sale on chicken breasts, legs, thighs, etc. and they are of exceptional quality and not "Franken-chicken," I may buy some from time to time. Otherwise, forget it.

It's much more economical to cut your chicken at home. Not only can you cut it the way you like, (and not have to worry about bone splinters that occur so often in pre-cut chicken because pre-cut is usually done with a machine), you can use the extra parts that no one will eat to make chicken stock.

In the photo above, there are two sets of chicken remnants. The one on top is from a free-range, organic fryer. This brand had the giblets and the neck. You generally don't see that too often these days, unless you buy a hen instead of a fryer. The chicken on the bottom is from a local company, no giblets and neck for that one. It's a lot smaller, too.

When I cut up a chicken, I usually take the breasts off sans bones, so these chickens have the breastbones intact. The legs, thighs and wings are removed and the wingtips are saved for stock. Why not? No one eats those.

This chicken is frozen. You don't need to defrost before you make stock. Just toss it in there.

Add water, leaving about 1 1/2 to 2 inches of space at the top. You aren't going to be boiling the hell out of it, so you won't have any problems with it boiling over. Oh, and by the way, it's an 8-quart stockpot.

Next, add your veggies. You don't have to get fancy about those, just make sure they're washed. You can snap the carrots and celery in half and throw it in there, celery leaves and all. Don't even bother cutting it. Maybe cut the onion half in half, that's about it. You can use whatever odds and ends you have in your fridge as far as vegetables go. Just avoid using any strong vegetables, like broccoli.

Ingredients for classic chicken stock are: onion, celery, carrots, fresh parsley (leaves & stems but you can also use stems only), a bay leave and a handful of peppercorns (about 1-1/2 teaspoons for this recipe).

For this batch, I had a couple of chunks of red onion so I threw those in, too. Turn on the heat to medium high or so, but don't let it get to a rolling boil. You want a slow simmer for stock. Once it starts to simmer pretty good, reduce the heat to low or medium low (Depending on your stove--this varies).

Here's the whole shebang in the pot. it's already accumulating foam on top. This is the stuff you want to skim from the top, along with fat when it rises. Oh, and repeat after me three times: NO STIRRING!! Never stir stock. You want all of the impurities to sink or rise so you can remove them easily.

Here's some "chicken skim" that came up. You'll get this early on in the "chicken stock journey." 

Here we are, almost at the end of the journey. (The stock was simmered for over 2 hours, probably closer to 3). Your stock is ready to be strained and cooled. Unless you have one of those really cool stockpots that have a faucet on the bottom, you'll have to do this by hand. Dip out as much as you can. Use tongs to carefully remove the chicken and vegetables. Then you can easily pour the rest through your strainer.

Here is the rich, gorgeous result. I only strained this stock through a standard strainer. If you want even more purity, use a strainer with smaller mesh lined with cheesecloth.

Cool and refrigerate. Or you can freeze it, it keeps for a long time. If you do a lot of cooking, though, it won't be in your freezer for long. Any fat you may have missed with your earlier skimming can be removed easily after refrigeration.

I got about 1-1/2 gallons or out of this batch. It could have been a few ounces more or less--I didn't measure it. Let's just say it was A LOT, ha ha! 

What you end up with is a much healthier stock than what's available in grocery stores. It's really economical, too. A quart of stock in a regular grocery store usually runs about $2.99. It's even more in specialty food stores.

So you get cheap stock that is of great value. There's no salt added so you can use it however you like. Use it to cook your rice, pasta or vegetables for extra added flavor. That way, you don't need to use a lot of butter or extra salt. Use it for soup, for poaching, or in a sauce. Whatever you do, use it in good health!

Important things to remember when making stock:

  • Never, ever stir it!!
  • Always start your stock with cold water, (if you don't, it will be cloudy) 
  • Never allow stock to come to a full, rolling boil. (you'll end up with cloudy stock for sure) 

Until next time....Happy Eating!!! :)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cornish Game Hens: The Mangled Truth

Yesterday we had Cornish game hens for supper. We like to have them now and then and it had been a while since we had any.

We opened the packages so we could start preparation and found hens that were in a sorry state. I should have taken pictures of all of them. We made three and all three were damaged in some way. One of them had a mangled leg. The other two had damaged breasts--specifically the skin. The skin had tears and some was missing. I ended up barding all three hens. Two because of the skin and one just to take attention away from the mangled leg.

What in the world are they doing to these hens at the processing plant? I don't recall ever seeing any before that were in such sorry shape.

We were having an informal supper so it was no big deal. The flavor wasn't affected by the damage, either. But what if I was having a dinner party and had hens in such bad shape? I would be mortified.

Here's a photo of the hen with the mangled leg. I was unable to truss the bird properly so the string is all over the place:

The legs were still spread out too far in spite of the trussing. Don't get me wrong, the flavor was still great. It's the aesthetics that are bothersome.

I'm going to write a letter to Tyson about this. The hens we purchased were under the "Patti Jean" label. Maybe they will do something about it so unsuspecting people don't have to deal with such a mess.

Please let me know if you have had the same experience with Rock Cornish Game Hens.

Enjoy your day! Especially at suppertime! :)

First Food Blog Post

Hello and welcome to my Fantastic Food Blog! I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to talk about food-- it's one of my favorite subjects! Food has always been important in my family. I was very lucky growing up because my Mom and my grandma loved gardening. We had fresh vegetables at our disposal most of the year and my grandparents raised chickens, cattle and other animals for our family. We were incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed and I'm forever thankful that we had such wonderful food opportunities.

I was also lucky because everyone in the family loved to cook: my Mom, my Dad, all of my grandparents and other relatives. I was so spoiled by good food that I don't like to eat junk, or junk that passes for food these days. Don't get me wrong, I do eat junk food from time to time, but when it comes to meals...give me home cookin'!!

When I was a kid and I ate my first fast food burger, at first I just couldn't figure out why it didn't taste good. It's funny because back then, fast food joints actually used real meat most of the time and not the nasty stuff they use now.

Anyway, my goal these days is to encourage people to eat healthier and stay away from foods that are full of chemicals and crap. Really, there's just no better word for some of the food out there, especially that pre-processed junk. Keep it simple and keep it pure--that's my food motto!

Well, I'll be back again for another post soon. Until then, I leave you with these words: "Stay away from Frankenfood!"