Stuffed shells

Every year around Christmas my father makes stuffed shells, which we have for one of the big holiday meals. He’s renowned for his sauce, which is lost on me because I don’t do sauce, but I enjoy the wonderful cheese-stuffed shells with butter all the same. Just for the heck of it, I thought I’d give it a try sometime.

Rather than just wing it completely, I wanted a guideline—for cooking time and approximate quantities if nothing else. The one I went with was this one from the Recipe Critic, but obviously with slight modifications. Since I loathe sauce, that didn’t make the cut, and I didn’t bother sprinkling mozzarella on afterward.

This is the rough recipe I used:

Stuffed shells (no sauce) Mark I:

  • 20 jumbo shells
  • 15 oz. whole milk ricotta
  • 1½ cups whole milk mozzarella
  • ½ cup Parmesan
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • Butter

Cook the shells about 9 minutes until al dente. Mix all three cheeses, salt and pepper, egg, and chopped herbs. Butter the bottom of a 9″×13″ baking pan, and place the shells around. Fill each shell and then add pats of butter throughout the dish. Cover with foil and place in a preheated 350° oven for 30 minutes, then uncover and cook an additional 10 minutes.

Now for the postmortem. I was overall very pleased with the way this came out; the shells were very tasty. I did however find things I wanted to change.

First, I think the filling was still a little too loose, even after baking. Using the rest of the mozzarella (for a full 2 cups) would probably have helped there.

Second, the Parmesan was a little too strong. As much as I think that it benefited the overall flavor, I think next time I’ll cut it back. 1/3 cup is probably right on the nose.

Third, I used way, way too much basil. The original recipe called for 12 leaves, but it was not specific as to size. The basil I had came with some large leaves and some small, so I was working with what might have been equivalent to four large leaves. It outpaced the oregano by quite a lot, and altogether I ended up with about half a cup of herbs after doing a very rough chiffonade. The minty, almost lemony flavor of the basil came out much too strong. It was good, but I’d be happier with something with a lighter touch. I’ll shoot for something closer to ¼ cup total.

A little more black pepper probably wouldn’t be bad, but otherwise I was happy with the seasoning.

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The stuffed mushroom experiment

I’ve been looking for more things I could cook for my wife, since she’s eating low-carb and it severely limits her options. Recently we found that Walmart sells some ready-made stuffed mushrooms, and gave those a try. It seemed to me that this would be an easy thing for me to make myself going forward, so today I gave it a shot.

The stuffed mushroom recipes I found online were generally pretty consistent: slider-sized mushrooms should cook around 20 minutes at 350°. Since I was already cooking half a cheese strata for myself, and the half-strata takes 50 minutes at the same temperature, it was a no-brainer to cook both at the same time, using the first half hour for prep.

First I started with portabella mushroom sliders, a nice package of six. They were each about three inches across. After cleaning them, I broke off the stems and cut them up. The chopped stems went into a frying pan to sauté down a bit—mostly just to soften them. To that I sprinkled on some curry powder, and added a little pat of butter just for more flavor and to assist with the frying. After I judged those were finished, I took them out of the pan and spread them on a little plate to cool.

The stems didn’t seem to have a strong enough curry flavor, so I sprinkled a little more curry powder into each cap before stuffing. Near the time to put the mushrooms in the oven, I filled a bowl with a little bit of cheddar, a bit of Parmesan, and a bit of mozzarella, about equal parts. It was by eye, so I’m gonna say it would be roughly a quarter cup of each cheese. To that I added the mushrooms and mixed as best I could. Then it was just a matter of stuffing that mixture into the caps, and in they all went for 20 minutes. (The cookie sheet was lined with foil but I didn’t use any nonstick spray.)

My wife was very happy with the results. I took a bite and was quite pleasantly surprised myself. This appears to be a nearly foolproof recipe, at least when there’s no meat involved. And it turned out sprinkling in that little bit of extra curry powder was the right move. The only thing missing apparently was salt; there wasn’t enough in the cheese alone, so they benefited from a smidge of sea salt. (I’m always surprised that as such a salt lover, I constantly forget to salt things—including that half cheese strata.)

This worked out so well that I’m planning to double up and do some experimenting next time around. My wife wants to try spinach in the mix, and for me I’d like to mix in garlic and herbs (no curry with that one), maybe with some seasoned bread crumbs.

There are only two major things I plan to do differently next time. First, I don’t intend to burn my knuckle on the oven door and subsequently spill a little cheese into the bottom of the oven. Second, instead of painstakingly wiping the dirt off each mushroom I’m just gonna wash them; apparently the risk of them absorbing too much water is way overstated.

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Fix your lifeless cider

As Epic Meat Weekend was drawing down, I cut up some cheeses and poured some apple cider to enjoy during the fourth quarter of the game. Problem: I discovered on tasting the cider that this batch was dull. It was sweet enough for my tastes, but not at all tart, and I love me a tart apple cider.

Science to the rescue! Back during my cheese ball obsession I ordered a pound of malic acid online, and had not yet had occasion to open it up. Malic acid is what gives properly tart cider its taste to begin with, so basically this was a matter of adding in what the apples themselves had failed to provide. So I sliced open the bag and took about half a plastic spoonful of the stuff, and mixed it in with about 12 oz. of cider that I had left in my cup. The result was not 100% as tart as I like it, but it was much closer to what I wanted. I could have kept going a little more but didn’t see the point, as it was good enough. I did however add a couple of spoonfuls to the half-gallon jug it came from.

So if you should ever find yourself wishing your cider had more bite to it, pop in some malic acid and stir it up well, and if it’s not enough, pop in a little more.

Malic acid can be hard to get online—I had to run a gauntlet of canceled orders on Amazon before someone finally came through and actually had some as advertised—but it’s worth having around for these occasions.

Citric acid also has its place if you want to tarten up some lemonade, and it can be found in the canning section of any good grocery store or Walmart. If you want to add tartness to something orange flavored, try mixing in about 6:1 citric to malic acid; I read some time ago that oranges contain 15% malic acid out of their total, so maintaining that ratio should provide for a more authentic orange flavor.

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In search of low-carb chicken parm meatballs: Mark II postmortem

For Epic Meat Weekend I made two half-batches of chicken Parmesan meatballs, as planned. I made two discoveries.

First, when Wegmans is out of the good Purdue ground chicken, don’t buy their store brand organic stuff. Not only is it ground way, way too thin, it’s much slimier and stickier. I had to throw out an entire batch because it just wasn’t coming together, and make a last-minute run out to Price Chopper for the good chicken. I still have another pound of the crap chicken I have no idea what to do with.

Second, I found out that almond flour works just as well as pork rinds when it comes to a binding agent in place of bread crumbs. Which is to say, it’s crap. Parmesan and mozzarella leaked all over compared to my control batch. I’m not giving up, however. The problem may be that a strict 1:1 substitution by volume is not appropriate. I did add a teaspoon of Italian seasoning, since I was replacing Italian bread crumbs, but I used the exact same amount of almond flour as I would bread crumbs. Maybe this was a mistake. Instead of 1/3 cup for a half batch, maybe I should up it to ½ cup next time.

This was my first time cooking with almond flour. I almost wonder if it’s not dry enough, either, and would benefit from some kind of pre-toasting. It has a consistency much more like wet sand than I would like. Maybe some people who are more familiar with it could give me a heads-up on what I need to do to make it work.

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How I cook chicken wings

I’ve mentioned my love of chicken wings on game day a few times, but it occurs to me I’ve never shared my method. The first time I tried cooking wings on my own I was pretty intimidated, and had to rely on a lot of help from the Internet, so for all the novice cooks out there, from a slightly less-novice cook, here’s what I do.

You will need:

  • 18 large chicken wings, frozen
  • Marinade
  • Cookie sheet
  • Instant-read thermometer
  • Aluminum foil
  • Oven
  • Tongs
  • Medium serving bowl
  • Protection from hungry pets

First, I prepare the night before. I use frozen wings; the 5 lb. bags of Tyson ice-glazed wings in the freezer section are my go-to choice, because they’re huge, and they’re also easy. From the bag I take out 18 wings—that’s how many will fit on one cookie sheet, as big as they are—and put them into a 1-gallon freezer bag with a zip top. If any are badly stuck together, don’t worry too much about it yet, but separate any you can. Then I pour in a generous helping of my marinade of choice, which is usually either straight Kikkoman teriyaki or a mix of their regular and garlic versions.

Get as much air out of the bag as possible, put it on a large plate (paper will do) in case of any mild leaks, and pop it in the fridge. Marination time should be at least 12 hours, but 24 is better. After 12 hours the wings will still be slightly frozen, which makes for longer cooking times. Nothing is exact about this; I always cook with a thermometer.

Come game day, I like to start an hour before unless I’m planning the wings for close to halftime. Preheat the oven to 375°. Get out two sheets of aluminum foil, each one big enough to fit the cookie sheet; make at least one of them with a little excess you can grab. Take the smaller one and press it down so it fits, then pick it up again and set it aside—it will be used later. Place the other sheet of foil onto the cookie sheet. (You don’t need cooking spray.) Then grab some tongs and remove the wings from the bag, and place them skin-side down on the sheet. I usually get seven along each long side, and four in the middle if I turn them sideways.

When the oven has preheated, put in the wings. Set a timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, pull out the cookie sheet. Carefully grab the edges of the aluminum foil you have been using and lift it, wings and all, off the cookie sheet. Put the second sheet of aluminum foil in its place, and put all the wings back but this time skin-side up. (Why I do this: it prevents the teriyaki sauce from burning and the chicken skin from sticking too much late in cooking.) Return the wings to the oven for at least 20 minutes. If, like me, you usually start with them still partially frozen after only an overnight marinade, make this 25.

Once the timer is done, you need to check the wings for doneness. The goal is 165° at the bone. I stick the thermometer into a few of them, especially the big pieces, and wash it off each time after I’m done checking (just to be safe). If they’re not done, return them to the oven for a few more minutes and repeat.

When it’s all finished, grab a bowl big enough to hold the wings. I recommend lining that with foil too, just for easier cleanup. Put all your wings in there, and enjoy. Pro tip: wherever you place the bowl, make sure your over-excited cat can’t knock it down with his tail when he jumps from the couch onto the floor.

The only thing I’m missing here is that after both rounds of cooking, each of the pieces of aluminum foil is covered in nice rendered chicken fat mixed with the marinade, and darn it I want to figure out a way to put that to use. A cleverer cook, especially one who likes sauces, would probably pour that into a pan along with some liquids and other spices to create a fantastic dipping or serving sauce. But I’m not much of a dipper and not a sauce guy, so this idea hasn’t ever much appealed to me. I wonder if maybe it could be put to work on some fried potatoes.

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Epic meat weekend!

Football season is here! For my team’s first game of the season, a feast is in order. However my grill has been getting sad from neglect, and I need to make amends for that this weekend too. And the other night I got struck by Bad Idea Mode, where I realized it had been a while since I made chicken parm meatballs. The result of all this is that I’ll be cooking many kinds of meat this weekend.

First up, I’ll be marinating a sirloin steak in teriyaki sauce Friday night and grilling that up Saturday, alongside some chicken for my wife. There will also be mushrooms. When I do a steak this size, I have leftovers for some time. This is a problem because I’ll also have leftovers from my other dishes, but as the wise man said: those are good problems.

Saturday night, I plan to make two half-batches (1 lb. each) of the meatballs. One I intend to make straight. The other I’m making for my wife, who is not only eating low-carb but has discovered a childhood wheat sensitivity has come back. (Wheat appears to be the reason she was getting nosebleeds when taking vitamin D3.) In place of the seasoned bread crumbs I’ll be substituting almond flour mixed with Italian seasoning. I tried this before with pork rinds, but pork rinds didn’t bind well enough and the meatballs oozed cheese out all over; I’m hoping almond flour will do the trick, though this will be my first time cooking with it.

After making the meatballs, and eating some of course, I’ll get my wings marinating—also in teriyaki, which I’ll probably have to buy more of—and then on Sunday I’ll cook them up for the game. Once those are ready I’ll also nuke a few leftover meatballs to go with them, because why not? And late in the game, I plan to cut up various cheeses and enjoy them with some apple cider.

The Fair is over, but protein binging goes on. As another wise man said, the only thing better than meat and potatoes is meat and meat.

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Sous vide steak tips: an experiment

I have not been blogging as much in the last few weeks, owing to a software release that was coming up and has now finally happened. New lesson learned: Never, ever release software two days before a three-day weekend. Also, I was enjoying the Great New York State Fair.

Last year I discovered the awesomeness of Pickle Barrel Steak Tips at the Fair. I am pleased to report they were every bit as awesome this year, both for their steak and for their mushrooms. This year I discovered I could stretch out the Fair experience by ordering a half-order of tips and mushrooms to go, which gave me a bowl full of awesome to devour the following day.

For the last day, though, I opted to stay home. Although the Fair had one-dollar admission all day, it was warm and humid and I had a little work to do anyway. But as evening came on, I decided I wanted to try to give steak tips a try on my own—mostly so I would know how to handle them in the winter. Naturally, I made a few mistakes, but it came out relatively decent for a first try.

First off, steak selection: I bought a half sirloin, about ¾ lb., because my options were relatively limited. Apparently a gang of determined sale shoppers hit Wegmans like a friggin’ tornado this weekend and cleaned them out of most of the steaks, all of the good butter, and various other sundries. In addition they seem to be shrinking the bulk food section, which if true upsets me greatly. But anyway, I got sirloin for the sirloin tips, instead of the more common top round or some other cut. This resulted in some of the pieces being chewier than I wanted, though maybe that was unavoidable.

For the cooking method, I went with a short sous vide treatment to start. My goal was to get all the tips in a plastic bag and in hot water, and keep it around 130° the whole time. It ended up probably closer to 125°. Without a proper sous vide setup it’s really hard to maintain temperature. I would have preferred to do this for an hour, but time was running short (I was hungry) and I decided on half an hour instead. The short time and lower temp led to a bloodier flavor, I think, so next time I’ll know to start early.

After that, I made my biggest mistake: I put a little vegetable oil into a frying pan before adding the mostly-cooked tips, planning to add butter later and sear them the rest of the way in that. If I had a brain in my head I would have realized the vegetable oil wouldn’t taste all that good, and just stuck with butter. The result gave the tips a bit of an “off” taste that, though I quickly got used to it, was nowhere near the buttery goodness of the tips I get from the Fair.

I also underseasoned the steak dramatically. I needed way more salt and way more pepper than I used. I can’t give a good estimate of how much salt I used, except that I took a container of kosher salt and gave it a good sprinkle all over the pan—three times overall—and for pepper I gave it about ten grinds when it probably needed more like twenty. Also, and I should have realized this too, seasoning them before putting them in the bag and doing the sous vide was probably a better option. No garlic was involved; I wasn’t going for a garlicky flavor.

I made mushrooms alongside the tips; they didn’t come out all that terrific either, but that’s how I’ve been batting lately. Still, I know how to do better mushrooms in general and consider that a one-off failure. For the steak, this is what I learned:

  1. Use a fattier or more tender cut.
  2. Stick with about the same size—it fills my 10″ pan well and served a good amount for me and my wife together.
  3. Season before sous vide, and generously. Use a crapload of salt and much more pepper.
  4. Do the sous vide for a full hour and do a better job keeping the temperature up at 130°.
  5. Don’t screw around with oil; go straight to the butter.

As for what worked in this experiment, the size was just right—of the cut of meat, and also of the tips I cut off it. In spite of several missteps the flavor wasn’t bad; the steak was fairly tasty. The tips did not smoke up the kitchen like I would normally get from pan-frying meat, which I think I can credit to pre-cooking them in the water bath. (Would this work out if I decided to marinate the meat in teriyaki during the sous vide? I suspect not. The flavor would be fine but I’d expect a lot of burning.)

The upshot is I think I can do better when I make this again as the weather gets colder. But for now, my grill has been getting sad and there isn’t a lot of good weather left to use it in.

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