Tacos From the Freezer

One of the ways we make dinner easier is by cooking in advance and putting things in the freezer.  The title is a bit misleading, because we don’t actually eat tacos from the freezer.  We have Taco Casserole, or Taco Lasagna. It is one of those super easy meals to make in advance and put in the freezer.  When I make this I generally make three or four casseroles (yes, we have a lot of freezer space), cook one and then freeze the others. When my friend Andrea (you may remember her from other entries, like Felony Milk) shared this idea with me I was very excited.  And then I thought that I couldn’t make it because the recipe included one envelope of taco seasoning.  Did you ever read the ingredient list on that stuff?  NO way I could put that in anything I make.  As I was walking home, I thought, DUH, I’ll make my own.  Creating your own spice mixes and having them on hand is really simple and makes your cooking life that much easier.  Awhile back, I shared a recipe for Seafood Seasoning that is akin to an “Aged Inlet” since I don’t want to get into any corporate trouble.  Here’s another one.  I actually mix this up by the pint, because we use is frequently.  In addition to seasoning meat for tacos, it is great mixed with yogurt or sour cream for dip.

Taco Seasoning

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, put the following ingredients:

  • 2 T chile powder (we use Ancho Chili Powder)
  • 2 t garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 t red pepper flakes (more or less– adjust to how hot you like things)
  • 2 t oregano
  • 2 t paprika
  • 3 t cumin
  • 2t salt
  • 2 t black pepper

Put the lid on and shake to blend.  I use about 2 tablespoons per pound of meat.  If you prefer this to be more like commercial seasoning, you should crumble the oregano very fine.

Purchasing spices in bulk really saves a lot of money.  Check out Frontier Co-op and Penzey Spices to read up and get informed.  Both of these sites are stores, so they want you to buy, but they also both have a lot of information.

Now, Taco Casserole

For each casserole:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas
  • 1 pint jar of Salsa
  • 1/2 lb. Colby cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb. ground meat (we generally use beef, but any ground meat will work)
  • 2 -3 T taco seasoning mix (above), divided in half
  1. In a large skillet, heat about 1T of fat — just enough to brown the garlic and onions.  Saute the garlic and onions until golden brown.  Add 1/2 of the taco seasoning and stir around until it smells like tacos.
  2. Add the ground meat.  stir frequently to break up the chunks.  The meat should be in little pieces for this.
  3. Cook until the meat is all brown and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the rest of the taco seasoning and stir to mix thoroughly.
  4. While the meat is browning, oil the bottom of your casserole dish.  Put in a layer of tortillas to cover the bottom.  They will overlap and there will be some “bare spots.”
  5. Spoon in enough meat mixture to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.  Smooth on some salsa and then a layer of each of the cheese.  Repeat the layering, ending with tortillas.  Cover with foil.
  6. If you are freezing it, put the reserved cheeses in a freezer bag and cover the casserole with foil.
  7. To bake: put the cheese on the counter to defrost. Put the cold casserole in a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 350F and back for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil cover and add the cheese.  Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  8. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving.

I get foil pans and make this casserole in the disposable pans.  I understand that this isn’t the most ecologically sound thing to do, but it makes clean-up fast and easy.  And let’s face it, part of why we eat out or get take-out or delivery is not only do we not feel like cooking, we don’t feel like cleaning up, either!

Ketchup: Fact, Fiction & Control

One of those staple ingredients that it is very difficult to replicate is commercial ketchup. My children, when they were small, all loved ketchup, the oldest especially, who would eat apples dipped in it. Nowadays, it has taken its place as a condiment for burgers, fries, or a breakfast favorite: egg, cheese, salt, pepper, ketchup on a Kaiser roll (which must be rolled off the tongue as one word). For years, I have been messing around with ketchup recipes in order to have a condiment I could be confident was not full of hidden ingredients. The problem was that none of them tasted like commercial ketchup, so the kids, being ketchup connoisseurs, would reject them. I am not going to say that I have solved the riddle, and it maybe that I just wore them down, but at the end of the post there are two recipes that work quite well.

Let’s face it – ketchup is tasty, kids love it because it is sweet (most commercial ketchup is 25% sweetener), and it is an ingredient in so many other recipes that it has become a “must have” in most American homes.

But have you ever read the ingredients list on a bottle of ketchup? It may include things like high fructose corn syrup, and the ubiquitous “natural flavor.” What is that? According to the FDA, the definition of natural flavor is “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional” (21CFR101.22). For those of you who speak only English, and did not take Legal Obfuscation As A Second Language, it means anything extracted from a natural (not man-made) source counts as natural flavoring. Potentially, that includes things like autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed soy protein, which are both other names for MSG. If you want to know exactly what is in your food, avoid “natural flavor” as an ingredient.

The first year I made ketchup, I used the overabundance of cherry tomatoes that were growing all over my property. I used to look at volunteer plants as gifts and would let them grow and because I accidentally put rotted tomatoes in my compost pile, I had tomato plants everywhere that year. I cooked down 10 quarts of fresh cherry tomatoes to 3 quarts of “crushed tomatoes” that I cooked down further to ketchup consistency. The next year, I used paste tomatoes and that same 10 quarts cooked down to 6 quarts to get that same spaghetti sauce consistency. And every year, with different weather conditions, also affects the consistency. When you cook down the tomatoes, the idea is to cook off a majority of the water. They should be about the thickness of commercial crushed tomatoes.

Both of these recipes can up very well.

ketchupKetchup I

2 quarts of tomato puree

2 anchovy fillets

1 ½ t salt

2 T sugar

½ t mustard

½ t paprika

½ t onion power

¼ t garlic powder

¼ t ground pepper

¼ t ground allspice

2/3 C apple cider vinegar

 

  1. Run the tomatoes through the finest plate of a food mill to remove the skins and seeds. Return the puree to the pot. Add anchovy fillets, salt, sugar, mustard, onion power, garlic powder, ground pepper, and allspice. Allow to simmer until it is very thick, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Keep a close eye on it after an hour, because this is very thick and will scorch.

 

  1. Once it is thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the vinegar. Return to the heat and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly.

 

  1. Remove from the heat and run an immersion blender (wand or stick blender) through it.

 

Taste for sweet and salt and adjust to your liking.

 

Ketchup II (tastes more like commercial ketchup)

1 quart of tomato puree

1 T salt

1 t onion power

1/2 t garlic powder

1 C white vinegar

3/4 C evaporated cane juice

 

  1. Combine tomato, salt, onion powder, garlic and vinegar in a heavy bottom sauce pan and simmer, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Keep a close eye on it because it will burn on the bottom.

 

  1. Remove from the heat and run an immersion blender (wand or stick blender) through it.

 

  1. Return to the heat. Bring it to a boil, stirring constantly. When it has reached a boil that cannot be stirred down, boil for a full minute. Add the sugar. Bring it back up to a boil that cannot be stirred down and boil for a full minute. Remove from heat.

 

Taste for sweet and salt and adjust to your liking.

If you do not have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender, just use caution when blending hot foods. I recommend waiting for the ketchup to cool a bit before using a conventional blender.

 

Pesto: Home Made is Best-o

The past few weeks have been crazy.  Therefore sitting and “doing nothing,” as I was instructed to do on Mother’s Day morning, was a lovely indulgence.  I used to lie in bed and wait for breakfast to be brought on a tray, but to be honest it drove me crazy.  I am accustomed to getting up at 4:30 am during the week and find it difficult to sleep past 6 on the weekends.  Lying in bed until 8:30 was torture.

This year, I watched the film Fresh, and am considering it as an introductory film for the Politics of Food unit that I teach to my Contemporary Studies class.  If you are just starting on a Journey of Awareness, as Joel Salatin likes to call it, Fresh is a great place to start.  Afterwards, while eating a lovely breakfast cooked by the family I love, we watched cooking shows.

I find the popularity of the Food Network and the Cooking Channel very heartening.  Growing up, I watched the French Chef and the Galloping Gourmet (both on PBS) with my siblings and mother.  And I can remember playing French Chef with my sister.  My husband and I bonded over Ciao Italia, Julia and Jaques Cooking at Home, and America’s Test Kitchen.  To see the popularity of cooking shows grow to the point where they are no longer a PBS thing, but a two-network thing, makes me glad.  It means that people are interested in cooking, even if I don’t have much time to sit and watch these shows anymore.

One of the shows, however, gave me pause.  The challenge was to fix a day’s worth of meals based on what was in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer.  OK.  I like that idea, since many of us find ourselves staring onto the refrigerator thinking “Hmmm…how am I going to feed everyone today with ketchup, mustard, relish and a half gallon of milk?”  But I found myself immediately removed.  It is a set-up of course, like Bear Grylls – he isn’t really alone in the wilderness, there is a film crew there.  So whatever this woman planned to make for her show, the ingredients would be in her pantry.  But I suspended my disbelief and tried to buy into the fiction.

She got a basket and started taking things off of the shelves in her pantry.  Really?  A basket?  And what was she putting in the basket?  All pre-made, jarred up industrial food.  When she snuggled in the jar of pesto I was disheartened.  All of her talk about making things at home, and preparing healthy meals for her family kind of flew out the window.

The whole show felt like such a sham!  It felt as if it was doing more to support dependence upon the industrial food system, than encouraging people to make things themselves.  Do I grow my own garlic? Well, no, but I use cloves of garlic and leaves from homegrown basil and put it in the blender and make my own pesto.  It really isn’t very challenging.  And it freezes quite nicely in ice-cube trays, which measure out to be 2 tablespoons of pesto.  I would have been much more impressed with this program if the hostess would have pulled the pesto out of her freezer.

In this way, even these cooking shows that nominally claim to promote kitchen survival skills, slinging the “make it yourself” mantra, are modeling industrial food dependence, using ingredients like pancake mix, canned or powdered soup mixes, and commercially prepared jars of pesto.  The media has the public caught in an interesting conundrum: On the one hand, viewers see whole-foods being promoted by the “Health Industry,” and on the other hand, Industrial Food is showing us pre-packaged, pre-made foods that if used to prepare a meal at home have become synonymous with “home-made.” Which they aren’t.  Home-cooked, yes.  Homemade, no.

Another interesting aspect of this show was that as the woman was putting her pantry ingredients in her basket, she was turning everything so the brand name was away from the camera.  That’s normal.  However, this exposed the back of the jars and bags, which exposed the ingredients lists, most of which were rather long.

Making pesto isn’t exactly rocket-science.  Why pay $6.95 for a six-ounce jar of pesto when you can make a gallon of it for the same price?  I know the reasons: I don’t know how; I don’t have time; It’s just easier to pop open a jar.

I can’t really argue with the last reason.  It is easier to pop open a jar.  But not knowing how?  Not with the internet at your disposal!  You can find a recipe for anything!  And not having time?  Pesto takes about 10 or 15 minutes.  Spend a little less time on Facebook and make some pesto to have in your freezer.

You can do this.  One small step for you; one giant step away from Industrial Food.

Pesto

  • one small head of garlic, separated, peeled and chopped
  • one large bunch fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts (or almonds)
  • Olive oil (about 1/2 cup)
  • salt and papper to taste
  1. In a blender or food processor, add all of the ingredients except the olive oil.
  2. Pulse the blender a few times.
  3. Add about 1/4 cup of olive oil and pulse a few more times.  If the ingredients are starting to grind, let the processor run until the ingredients are a paste. If the ingredients are NOT starting to grind, add a little more olive oil.  Keep adding the olive oil a little at a time until the ingredients are grinding.
  4. When it has all become a nice paste, mix in salt and pepper.
  5. Use some now and freeze some for later:  Put unused pesto in ice-cube trays and cover with plastic wrap. Freeze for 24 hours.  Pop the pesto out of the trays and store in the freezer in a plastic freezer bag.  Each pesto cube equals 2 Tablespoons of pesto (2 cubes is a 1/4 cup).

We love this to dress sauteed potatoes and green beans.

Pickles, Pickles, Pickles

I didn’t always love pickles.

I do now.  But I didn’t always. And the first pickles I made were horrible.  The cucumbers got mushy in the processing.  I tried dills, garlic and bread-n-butters, but they all tasted terrible because the consistency was awful.  I will never forget opening the first jar of pickles that I made and biting into one.  It was the worst thing I ever put in my mouth.  And I was a little kid once.  A little kid who was a younger sister, who actually took a bite of the mud pies my sister made.  Trust me, the mud pie was better than the pickle.

I gave up on pickles for a long time, until I got married, actually, and received the Winch Family Pickle Recipe.  It’s a secret, so I can’t share that one.  However, I have figured out all kinds of pickles since my first successes with the Family Recipe.

I think the most intimidating thing about making pickles is batch size.  We tend to think in larger batches because it is such a pain in the neck to pull out all of the canning equipment. Who wants to do that for two quarts of pickles, right?  Well, you don’t need canning equipment for these pickles.  And they aren’t those refrigerator dills, either.  These are garlic pickles, like from the big barrel in the deli. My husband, a native Minnesotan, was dubious about a pickle that had no dill in the brine.  But he is a convert to the strange and mysterious ways of the east: lacto-fermentation (Probiotic Preservation) and a ton of garlic!

Garlic Pickles

  • a clean wide mouth canning jar with lid
  • enough cucumbers to fill the jar
  • horseradish or grape leaf (optional)
  • 1 small head of garlic peeled
  • 1 t peppercorns
  • 2 T salt dissolved in 2 C filtered water (or 1 T salt, 1/4 C whey, and 1 3/4 C filtered water)
  1. Push the horseradish or grape leaf into the bottom of the jar (this helps the cucumbers retain their crispness, but it is not necessary).
  2. Pierce the garlic cloves and add them to the jar.  Drop in the peppercorns.
  3. Push the cucumbers into the jar tightly, but try not to bruise them as they go in.  If they are too long for the jar, cut them to fit.
  4. Cover with the salt water (or salt-whey water), leaving about 1 inch of space at the top.  Be sure the cucumbers are completely under the solution.
  5. Put the lid on the jar and let is sit on a counter for 2 or 3 days, until you see bubbles forming.  You should also notice that the color of the cucumber skin has changed.
  6. Move the cukes to cold storage.  They are ready to eat at any time, but the longer they sit around, the more garlicky and sour they become. The consistency will change over time.  hey may get a little soft.  They are still ok to eat.