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.

 

On Canning Tomatoes

Repetitive tasks appear to be what we must avoid.  I remember a college professor telling a story about a writer who worked in a factory, twisting caps on toothpaste, or something equally mundane, day after day, week after week, month after month.  Selling poetry is no way to earn a living wage, so poets need to work outside of their own minds in order to be sure there isn’t too much month left at the end of the money.  This writer loved his job because the physical monotony of his work allowed his mind to be free to work on poems.  He kept a small spiral-bound notebook in his back pocket and pulled it out to write down ideas as they occurred to him.  Most of us could not get away with that! We have jobs that require incredible attention to what is in front of us.  I think this is part of why I enjoy canning, especially these next couple of weeks when the tomatoes are just going crazy, and all I seem to be doing is cooking, straining, and canning.  Canning tomatoes, and canning tomatoes, and canning tomatoes may seem mundane and monotonous, but the task provides the opportunity to be mentally active on one task, like what I am going to be teaching the first week of school, while I am being physically productive preserving tomatoes.

CSA Tomatoes
CSA Tomatoes

Another reason I love canning tomatoes is because, in a sense, this is where all of this food stuff began for me.  Canning tomatoes.  It brings me back to my beginning.  In a weird way, it’s like looking at pictures of my children when they were infants, a sort of loving nostalgia.  And to be quite frank, it isn’t very difficult and you don’t need any special equipment outside of proper canning jars and lids, and a pot that is large enough for the jars to stand upright and have enough water to cover.

Easiest procedure using the least amount of equipment:  Cut and core the tomatoes and put them in a pot.  Cook over a medium heat until they have reduced in volume by a little over 1/2.  So if you start out with 4 quarts of tomatoes, cook them down to 2 quarts.  Let them cool a little and puree in a blender, or run a stick blender through them.  While the tomatoes are cooking, prepare the jars by boiling them in your boiling water bath, and prepare the lids according to package directions.  Ladle prepared tomatoes into jars, adding 1T lemon juice per pint, 2 T lemon juice per quart, affix the lids, and process (20 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts).

Squeezo
Squeezo

If you want to remove the seeds and skins entirely, you will need to run the tomatoes through a sieve, food mill or Squeezo-type extractor.

Summer Herbs for Winter Use

Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting on dill
Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting on dill

A while back, I wrote a post about what to do when you have Basil in Abundance.  One of the suggestions is to make pesto and freeze it in ice-cube trays, pop out the cubes and store them in bags in the freezer for later use.  Not too long ago, I was watching TV and a commercial came on for a wonderful new product to help home cooks speed up dinner making by combining butter, olive oil, spices, and herbs.  We’ve been doing something similar for years: making what is called compound butters and freezing them in little balls or the cubes of ice-cube trays,  preserving herbs of summer for winter use.  While many of the green leafy herbs discolored (they turn dark), the flavor was excellent.  I am not going to say that they all tasted like we just picked them, because they didn’t, but they did taste more summery than dried herbs.  As mid-August approaches, many of the annual herbs are going begin their decline.  Before the summer herbs completely bite the dust, go cut them down and salvage as much as you can.  Here are some of our best combinations:

Cilantro: Make a “pesto” of cilantro leaves and stems, black pepper corns, garlic, toasted sesame oil, and salt to taste.  Freeze in ice-cube trays.

Dill: Snip the feathery dill leaves and mix with butter and salt.  Using a melon-baller, make little balls to freeze.

Oregano:  Pull the tiny leaves from the stems and add to ice-cube trays 1/2 filled with olive oil.  Freeze.

Tarragon:  Combine equal parts butter and olive oil in a bowl.  Add torn tarragon leaves and mix thoroughly.  Chill overnight.  Using a melon-baller, make little balls to freeze.

We also did some mixes, like cilantro and oregano, frozen in a neutral oil, like avocado, and oregano and basil frozen in olive oil.

Black Elderberry Syrup

Early this past spring, I adopted a Black Elderberry bush. It was small, only a couple of stems, and I was afraid it was not going to survive the shock of being transplanted. Much to my delight, it did. Not only did it survive, it flowered and fruited.  In watching how it flowered, I suddenly noticed how many Black Elderberries grow wild, all over Southern New Jersey. The leaves resemble walnut leaves, set up as what a botanist would call pinnatisect, one leaf that looks like a lot of smaller leaves branching off of a center stem. In about mid-May, the tips of the bush blossom with small white flowers. Once the flowers fade, they leave behind small green berries. Eventually these berries turn dark, dark blackish-purple.

For centuries, people have used the elderberry as a healing plant. The dark color comes from a compound that is a powerful antioxidant and it is very high in Vitamin C. Many people use it as a cold and/or flu remedy. You can purchase it in retail stores for $12 or $13 a four ounce bottle. Or you can plant an elderberry bush, harvest the berries, and make your own. If you know what you are doing, you can forage for elderberries in your area.

If you are unsure whether or not a wild plant is edible, you should always err on the side of caution and NOT EAT IT!

Black Elderberry
Black Elderberry

To make Black Elderberry Syrup:

Wash, stem, and weigh the berries, and then put them in a large non-reactive pot. Mash the berries and then add one quart of water for each pound of berries. Bring this to a boil and then turn down to a simmer. Let this simmer for 45 minutes. Strain through a jelly bag. When it has cooled off enough for you to handle it, add one cup of honey (we use raw local honey) for each quart of juice. Mix until the honey is dissolved.

This must be stored in the refrigerator.