Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. ~ CK Chesterton

Howdy Yall! It's time to lick your lips and drool as we discuss yummy vittles and Texas testaments to taste!

I hope you enjoy your time with us. Please be sure to drop by and leave a message or a hello. We want to know how to better serve you!

~Blue Zebra

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Backstage With Julia

I just finished reading a very fun book about a woman who influenced my love and respect for fresh ingredients and cooking, Julia Child. Backstage With Julia, was written by her longtime Executive Chef, Nancy Verde Barr. Yes, even a Southern cook can love a California transplant to New England. I'm happy to say Julia was responsible for teaching me many techniques.

I was asked to review this book by my friends over at the very cool,
Cheftalk Cooking Forum and was eager to dive into the read and was amazed at how quickly I turned the pages. A quick reading, page turner describes my weekend with Julia. Barr's writing is engaging and really allows you to feel the complex personality that made up Julia Child, America's First Lady of Cooking.

You can read the entire review at the
Cookbook Review Forum at ChefTalk. You can also buy the book by clicking on their Amazon link. Bon Appetit.
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Saturday, September 29, 2007

It's Nice To Be Nice To The Nice!

My friend Tanna over at My Kitchen In Half Cups just gave us an incredible compliment. She gave the zebras the Nice Matters award and I am thrilled, shocked and surprised! The blue zebras are so new to the blogosphere. Each day is a learning experience on blog etiquette and blogging in general.

I can understand Tanna receiving the award. Her site is enormously popular and yet she goes out of her way to welcome new bloggers and visitors to her site and to the blog world. It’s been said before of her but bears repeating, she doesn’t only visit the “big bloggers”. Instead, she visits and encourages the small guys and new guys or like me the small and the new! :D I’m sure her time could theoretically
be so much better spent with posting to the large volume bloggers because that would inevitably send new readers to her site. But she doesn’t “roll” that way and I for one am glad she doesn’t! I feel fortunate in this short amount of time to be able to count her as a friend and fellow Texan!!! :D

I think it boils down to the words my Mom gave me long ago. She said, “Treat each person you meet as you would like to be treated.” Now I realize that Mom did not dream up this basic life value. It came from someone much bigger than Mom (ahem, Jesus) and ultimately the big guy upstairs so although I am incredibly human and screw up every day, I still try hard to live up to this one. Feel free to remind me of this if I go forgettin’, ok?

Mom also taught me that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Fiddle dee dee, now that is a true Southern sayin’ and I do believe every momma this side of the Mason Dixon line teaches their little ones growin’ up. Hear me now, it works! :D But maybe my most favorite “Nice-ism” in existence was said by Frank Burns on M*A*S*H, the television show. He said, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice…”

Indeed it is nice to be nice to the nice. It’s also remarkably easy as well! In the short time Mulligan Stew Me has been up and runnin’ in the zebra pen, we have had the good fortune to meet the nicest people! Everyone is helpful and cheerful and the blog friends I’ve made never fail to make me smile. I will try to live up to this award and not let you down Tanna!

And to all my other friends both known and unknown it’s nice to see your smilin’ faces visitin’ and settin’ a spell! Hugs all around!

It is my honor to get to pass along this award to seven nice friends. It’s very tough to choose because my cup truly runneth over. How do you measure a cup run amok? :D So, part of the criteria I used to sift through was: Who goes out of their way to reply to visitors to their site and who has helped me as a newcomer when I was sooooo wet behind the ears? I barely managed to narrow it down. It was incredibly difficult!

I hope you enjoy visiting these Nice Bloggers sites. I wish I could give this award to everyone! Please be sure to congratulate them. Also please don't forget to go see what's happenin' in Tanna's kitchen at My Kitchen In Half Cups. She's so talented both as a writer/photographer and as a cook!

Congratulations you Nice Bloggers! Nice Matters! :D

Sue at Coffee and Cornbread
Lynn at Cookie Baker Lynn
Kristen at Dine and Dish
Lisa at Champaigne Taste
Sandi at Whistlestop Café Cooking
Jen at Milk and Cookies
Gattina at Kitchen Unplugged

Blue Zebra NOTE:
It's funny the way God speaks sometimes. Seemingly coincidental incidents link together into cosmic understanding! Tanna was gracious enough to extend this award and here I am days later getting a lightbulb moment when seeing an ad for a book that is gaining popularity. "The Power Of Nice".

Now, I haven't read it, but you can bet that I will be ordering it shortly! It's all about the success of an advertising company who grew their business based on the power of extending kindness to others and advising their clients to adopt this philosophy in their advertising and business culture.

Apparently the movement is growing by leaps and bounds. Not a moment too soon, wouldn't you agree? Here is the website for The Power Of Nice. (By the way, clicking on the Buy Now Link will not take you to their website. That is simply a button still attached to their book image. To buy the book you must visit their website.
Read more->

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Oh Tostada Of Mine, How You Tempt Me

Oh tostada of mine, I love you so, you towering pillow of TexMex joy. Your piles of deliciously fresh ingredients layer perfectly. Each separate, but giving up a little of yourselves to the next. A testimony to team work, striated excellence, crunches on my fork with each delicate bite. Could you be any more sublime, tostada of mine?

By now you may be tired of hearing my “growing up” stories. If so, please drop me a note and I promise I will take your objections seriously! But growing up, Mom must have spent many hours dreaming in her head about ingenious ways to include TexMex meals into our weekly menus so that it felt like we ate what we called
“Mexican Food” at least twice a week. So much was her love that we had meals of tacos one night, tostadas another and occasionally she would break down and make enchiladas.

We all loved TexMex, even our dachsunds! Green gobs of guacamole frequently left a taste here or there for one of them to enjoy. I seem to remember eating beans a lot as well; as borracho beans but also as refried beans and even remember chili rellenos a time or two. Chili was of course a staple and you know my feelings about that! We had nachos, then a very sophisticated and unique dish, and her very favorite, tamales at every turn. And when she could scrape up a couple of pennies we would eat at Monterrey House or Loma Linda on the southwest side of a very young suburban Houston. Back then you could get the deluxe meal at Monterrey House for $3.00. It included a chili con queso, taco, tostada, guacamole, cheese enchilada in chili sauce, tamale, rice, beans and a piece of Mexican candy for dessert.

I don’t have to think too hard to include TexMex in our weekly menu and indeed, there are many weeks we eat it two or three times! I’m blatant about it. Lucky for me B enjoys it just as much as I do. One of my favorite things to make are homemade tostadas. You can make them full fat with mounds of ground beef and fried corn tortillas, or choose to make a slightly lighter version as I have here, made with ground turkey, oven baked corn tortillas and light sour cream (you could even use yogurt if you really wanted to go low fat.) Although low fat and TexMex sounds an awful lot like an oxymoron, don’t you think?

Anyway, please enjoy these tostadas of mine, these lovely towering pillows of TexMex joy!

TexMex Tostadas
By Blue Zebra
Yield 8 tostadas


For ground meat mixture:
1 lb ground turkey (ground beef may be substituted)
1 onion, chopped coarsely
4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
1 jalapeno, fresh, stemmed and chopped finely with seeds
1/4 cup cilantro, stems and leaves, chopped coarsely
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp ancho chile powder*
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 cup water

For tostadas:
8 corn tortillas (ready made tostada shells may be substituted)
1 - 1/2 cup refried beans, heated and spiced correctly
4 cups shredded lettuce (I use Romaine)
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cup Longhorn cheese, shredded
1/2 cup sour cream (light sour cream may be used)
1 large avocado, ripe, seeded, and cubed (guacamole may be substituted)
Olive oil spray for tostadas
1/2 cup salsa
salt and pepper to taste


For ground meat mixture:
Crumble ground meat into large sauté pan and combine with all ingredients except water. Cook over high heat, stirring every now and again to allow all the meat to brown and the onions to cook. When meat is browned and onions are translucent, add water and reduce heat to medium low. Allow to cook at a slow simmer for 20 minutes or until water is absorbed. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

For tostada shells:
If using ready made tostada shells, follow package instructions to heat the shells. If making your own shells from corn tortillas you can choose to either fry them in a shallow sauté pan using a small amount of vegetable oil or lard, or you can mist the tortillas on one side and place them directly on the rack of your oven. Cook at 400 degrees until the top side starts to get golden. Flip them and mist lightly with a bit more oil then let them complete the toasting process. Remove and allow tocool a bit. The tostada shells will continue to crisp as they cool.

For tostadas:
Place tostada shell on plate. If using beans, spread a small layer of beans on shell. Top with a spoon of meat mixture. Add lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, guacamole, salsa and top with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
Eat immediately! Yummmm! Then write your own salute to the TexMex Tower of Treats, the tostada! Arrrrrrribbbbbaaaaa!!!

Blue Zebra Cooking Tip:

Homemade Chile Powder
So let's pretend you hate prepared chile powder as badly as I do, ok? If so, then go out and choose what flavor of chile you prefer. Do you want a pure powder of ancho chile? How about a blend of Ancho and Pasilla? All you need to do is grab a handful of your favorite dried chiles and a cast iron pan and go to work!

Heat a cast iron skillet to medium high to high heat. Place your hand about two inches above the bottom of the pan and if you can let it stay there to the count of nine, your pan is hot enough. Be careful not to actually touch the bottom of the pan! Add your dried chiles (I wash mine and let them dry the night before). Let the pods toast in the pan, this is called dry roasting. Flip the pods after a minute or two. You will start to smell them toast. If necessary, adjust heat in pan so they toast and don't burn.

Be sure to turn your vent on over your stove! One toasted, remove stems and empty out all the seeds from inside the dried chili pods. Place chilis in blender or tear them into pieces and place in your spice/coffee grinder. Grind to a fine powder.

Place powder in air tight jar or canister. Use in place of commercial chile powders in all your favorite recipes. Just know that you will need to adjust for salt in your recipes since your chile powder is pure and has no additives or salt added, unlike commercial blends.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Texas Chili Dogs, The National Sandwich of Texas

We’ve talked about the perfect buns and you have the secrets to Authentic Texas Chili. What could possibly come next? Of course, it’s the Texas Chili Dog, the ubiquitous sandwich of Texas. The chili dog shares versions in various regions throughout the U.S. but it’s the national dish of Texas, the chili, that really highlights the difference between a Texas Chili Dog and a chili dog from any other state.

Not only is this incredibly comforting chili dog the national sandwich of the great state of Texas but it also happens to be my submission for the best sandwich contest called, Show Us Your Sarnie, being sponsored by my friend Marie, at her wonderful website showcasing English Country Manor Life. Her blog, A Year From Oak Cottage, is a charming account of genteel country life, almost old worldly in feel. Each day, I eagerly visit to read about what is happening in Marie's English paradise and what has happened over at "the big house"! Don't forget to go visit and vote for my Texas Chili Dog!

In Houston, we have a famous hot dog chain, James Coney Island. Our mom lurrrrrved those chili dogs from James Coney Island and Dad loved their chili. You could even buy bricks of their chili, frozen at the restaurant. Now I could “tolerate” this chili, being made from a hamburger type meat and being mostly gravy, but I still
wasn’t real wild about them. I think part of their mystique is that James Coney Island was part of “early Houston” history. Their first store was downtown, not very far away from our granddad’s saloon, The Inter-Urban Buffet, which was right across the street from the Rice Hotel.

To say chili dogs are a big thing in our family is an understatement. To this day, my brother, who lives in Austin, has to hit James Coney Island for chili dogs when he is in Houston. One of my nephews, G’s treats, as a little boy was to go grab a chili dog with Mimi and Pa, as Dad was called by the Houston grandkids. The Dallas part of the family, my oldest sissy, C, and my brother-in-law, F, along with their kiddos and grandkids and F’s mom, dad and siblings have a tradition of eating their big Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve after Mass on Christmas Eve, then having homemade chili dogs for Christmas dinner.

So chili and hot dogs run deep in our veins and I dare say, through the veins of many Houstonians and Texans. I have actually become a convert in my later years, due mostly to making our homemade chili. There’s not much to the sandwich once you arrive at the perfect bun and chili. I will make a batch of chili then freeze it in portions for use in later chili dogs. I have even gotten to where I make the hot dog buns and freeze them as well.

The last variable in the quality of the chili dog is the dog itself. Houstonian’s and most Southerners were raised with dogs that are not in casings. They are made and cooked in synthetic casings, then released from the casing and packaged. The dog does not have a “snap” or crispness when you bite them. I am also pretty certain Oscar Mayer and Bryans’ meats had a big portion of the Texas market.

I personally go with the Northeast and love the crisp bite of a Sabrettes hot dog, the kind of dog you get at the Papaya King in Manhatten on E. 86th street. I also like Nathan’s in the natural casings. One of the easiest dogs to come by with natural casing is made by Boar’s Head meats. They are readily available in Houston. That’s what we use, the natural casing all beef frankfurters by Boar’s Head. Delicious! So without further ado, I give you the heartbreakingly wonderful Texas Chili Dog, the national sandwich of Texas!

Authentic Texas Chili Dogs
By Blue Zebra
Yield 8 Chili Dogs

8 Hot Dog Bun
8 Texas Chili
8 Boar’s Head All Beef Frankfurters
Mustard - French’s
1/2 Large Onion
3/4 cup Longhorn Cheese (preferably red rind cheddar), shredded
Relish, Sweet or Dill (optional)

Preheat oven to 450° F
Split hot dog buns but do not separate the top and bottom of the bun.

Apply mustard to both sides of the bun.

Place hot dog into bun and top with chili, cheese and onions. If you use relish, apply relish to bun after the mustard and before the hot dog is inserted.

Bake on foil lined baking sheet for 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and chili dogs are piping hot! Serve immediately.

Blue Zebra NOTES:
This is a great dish for chilly Fall evening. We like to serve them with oven fries and corn fresh cut off the cob, topped with a dab of butter. Not a high brow dinner by any means! Just a good old song-of-the-South!
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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chili, The National Dish of Texas

Chili almost qualifies for an entire food group for the majority of Texans. We’ve eaten it as a stand alone spicy stew and as a garnish or gravy that completes many Tex Mex specialties. We have chili cook-offs and chili teams and Pace for goodness sake, the creators of the home chili kit, Wick Fowler’s Two-Alarm Chili. We Texans eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack.

Imagine how odd and out of place I sometimes felt. I spent most of my life thinking I hated chili. I’m from Texas so you can imagine that was almost unheard of…it was sacrilege! I could deal with small amounts of the “gravy” portion but could not handle the meat that went with it.

There used to be a commercial on television as I was growing up. A complete campaign for the Wolf Brand Chili company and it asked the viewer, “When was the last time you had a great big steaming bowl of Wolf Brand Chili?”

And I would always race to answer, “Not nearly long enough!” Of course, their answer was, “Well that’s too long!” In one entire can of chili, if there was one piece of gristle or tripe or tendon lurking in its brick red depths, it was destined to end up in my bowl, on my spoon and in my mouth. Uggh. Dinner over!

I hated canned chili and until Wick Fowler came out with 2-Alarm Chili where you could add you own hamburger, you could threaten me with just about anything and I would still decline to eat it. Not even Wick could save the day if Mom announced she intended to use “chili grind” meat. You see, “chili grind” is a coarse setting for grinding meats and it results in chunks of gristle landing in your bowl, on your spoon and in…déjà vu. So chili grind was just not allowable in my book!

It wasn’t until I was grown and gone and Mom “discovered” an incredible recipe for chili-red as Dad liked to call it. The recipe called for using pork shoulder, cubed and browned in oil with re-hydrated chile peppers and onions, cooked until meltingly tender. I fell in love with that chili but boy howdeeeee! She and Dad sure made it look like a bunch of hard work to make. So I deferred learning to make it.

Dad died almost 15 years ago and it wasn’t until about two years ago that I first took a stab at this dish, but I had to do it my way and that meant using good old Texas beef in place of the pork. After all, the American cowboys didn’t cook chili on pig drives, no, they were cattle drives! So I really doubted that they used pork unless they ran across a very unfortunate javelina (which was a real possibility)! I also found it was much less trouble to make than it had first appeared to my inexperienced eyes.

My authentic Texas Chili is sheer perfection in a bowl. This isn’t Wolf Brand Chili. It’s not Midwestern Chili. This is real Texas chili like the old trail bosses or Chili Queens of San Antonio used to make over a hundred years ago. It’s a purist concoction of meat, dried and fresh chiles and spices that will leave tears of gratitude rolling down your face. And nary a piece of gristle or tendon in sight!

Historically, chili was a method of wet cooking tough cuts of meat out on the trail. The spices and chili peppers helped kill the bad or “off” tastes of spoiling meat or meat on the edge of turning and also helped kill any bad bacteria. The wet stewing method helped tenderize the toughest saddle leather and worked great with many sides like tortillas, biscuits, rice, beans (never in the chili, please - that’s a hanging offense in Texas) and also with Tex Mex dishes such as chili rellenos, chili and eggs, cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, tacos and more.

Beans have no place in real Texas chili! The old fashioned, purist chili of the old timers won’t even have tomatoes. So in the true spirit of the dish, I took Mom and Dad’s Chili recipe and adapted it to the most extreme purist form. What you get is a spicy stew so thick with delicious, rich red sauce it doesn’t even need to be thickened with the masa harina (ground corn flour) typical of Texas chili. But you add it anyway to get the taste of the dish so familiar to us all.

The next time you get a hankerin’ for real, old fashioned, authentic Red. Give the national dish of Texas a try. I guarantee you will sit up and sing The Eyes of Texas by the time you scrape and lick the last morsel of brick red goodness from your bowl.

Authentic Texas Chili
By Blue Zebra
Yield 10-12 bowls of chili

2 Large Onions, peeled and chopped
8 Cloves Garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup Olive Oil, Lard, or Bacon Grease
7 Dried Red Ancho Chiles, washed, stemmed, seeded
5 Dried Red New Mexican Chiles, washed, stemmed, seeded
3 Dried Red Guajillo Chiles, washed, stemmed, seeded
2 Jalapeno Peppers, stemmed, chopped with seeds (fresh)
4 # Beef Chuck Roast, trimmed, boned, and 1” cubes or Ground Chuck
2 tsp granulated garlic powder
2 Tbsp Cumin, ground (preferably from toasted cumin seeds)
1 Tbsp Oregano, leaves (preferably Mexican oregano)
1 Tbsp Coriander, ground (preferably from toasted coriander seeds)
2 Tbsp Dried Onion Flakes
1/4 tsp Cayenne pepper
Water to cover meat
1 Tbsp Kosher Salt
1 Tbsp Black Pepper
1/4 cup Masa Harina


In medium sized saucepan over medium heat, place stemmed, seeded, dried chiles. Cover pods with water. Bring chiles to a slow simmer and reduce heat. Stir occasionally to redistribute chile peppers under the water. Simmer gently for 20-30 minutes.

Trim and cube the chuck roast into 1” dice or alternately, you can use ground chuck hamburger grind (or chili grind if you are fearless and don’t mind a bit of gristle here or there).

In small saute pan, toast the cumin and coriander seeds until you can smell the oils of the seeds. Be careful not to burn them. I stir constantly, use a dry pan and cook over medium heat. Once toasted, pour into a coffee grinder dedicated to grinding spices. Alternately, you can use a morter and pestle or molcahete to grind the seeds into spice.

Using paper towels, blot moisture from the meat. Season the meat with a little of the salt, black pepper, ground cumin, ground coriander and garlic powder.

Heat skillet or cast iron dutch oven over high heat and add 1/3 of the grease being used. Add 1/3 of the seasoned meat and quickly sear and lightly brown the meat. Remove from pan and add the next portion of oil. Let the pan heat up again and add the next 1/3 of the meat. Continue with this method until all the meat is browned and set aside. (Note: Each stove is different. You will have to get a feel for how hot your stove cooks. You want just enough heat to brown the meat, instead of boiling or sweating it in juices. This means you need a hot enough pan that the juices emitted from the meat evaporate from the heat in the pan as quickly as they are released, allowing the meat to brown on the outside. Check to make sure you are browning the meat and not burning the bottom of the pan. The meat will still be raw in the center. Remove beef to a Dutch oven and hold until vegetables are cooked. Be sure to add all of the drippings from the beef.

Add chopped onion and garlic to the skillet used to cook your meat and sauté over medium heat until vegetables are tender and the onion has begun to turn translucent.

Add the vegetables to the meat in the Dutch oven. Deglaze the skillet with a ladle of chile cooking water and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. These browned bits are called fond. They add flavor to the dish.

Remove the now cooling peppers from the chile water and drain them in a colander. Reserve the cooking water that is being drained off and any chile water left in the sauce pan. This liquid will be added back to the meat mixture when you cook the chili.

Place chile pods into the bowl of your food processor fitted with the knife blade or place them into your blender. Add a couple of ladles of the chile water and blend or pulse processor until chiles form a loose paste. At this point it’s up to you. I like to strain my chile mixture through wire mesh strainer. This keeps the course skin separate from the smooth paste of the flesh and the liquid from the chiles. The skin can be tough and sometimes bitter. But straining is not strictly necessary, if you are trying to save time.

Add the chile puree to the meat mixture. Add remaining chile water to the point where the meat and vegetables are covered. Turn heat to medium and bring up to a slow simmer. Adjust heat to maintain slow simmer. Do not boil. (This should be about low to medium low to maintain a simmer.)

Mix all seasonings except salt in a small bowl. Add 1/2 of the seasoning at the beginning of cooking the chili. As the chili cooks, taste and add more seasoning if you like. Add salt about 3/4 of the way to done. Chili will cook about 2-3 hours over low to medium low heat or until chuck is tender and falling apart and all portions of the “broth” are a cohesive red color. Adjust salt as necessary at end of cooking.

As the chili cooks, the moisture will evaporate. Keep adding a little of the chili water or plain tap water to the mixture to keep it from evaporating too much. The object is to condense the “stew” but still leave enough moisture to make a thick, liquid broth.

Combine the masa harina with 1/2 cup water and shake in covered jar. Shake until well combined and smooth, no lumps. While chili is at a gentle simmer, add masa slurry, stirring continually until well combined. Masa will thicken the chili slightly and add the distinctive flavor associated with Texas red chili.

Serving suggestions:
Chili with oyster crackers
Chili with cheese and onions and saltine crackers
Chili over rice
Chili and eggs
Chili spaghetti
Chili cheese enchiladas
Chili relleno
Taco Salad
Chili Dogs
Chili Burgers
Chili Mac

Blue Zebra NOTE:
I usually cook my chili out on my propane grill or in my oven. I set the temperature to about 300 degrees and allow it to cook with the lid on for about 3 hours. I stir it and check the liquid level about every 20 minutes or so. This keeps it from sticking on the bottom of the pan and allows enough long, slow cooking time for the meat to tenderize and fall apart. You want the meat to be “fork tender” and the broth to be rich and thick on its own.

Stay tuned for the Ultimate Chili Dog, The National Sandwich of Texas!

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Monday, September 10, 2007

A Perfect Set of Buns!

I know, I know, mille apologies for taking so long to put the newest post together, but once you see the subject you will understand. Some posts just take longer than others. And when you are dealing with perfection, well the extra time should be understandable. Perfection does not come quickly!

Have you ever wished you had perfect buns? I know I have! For the first time it’s possible for millions of cooks to feel the confidence that having firm, good looking buns gives and it won’t even require a torture device hawked by Suzanne Sommers to
get them! All it takes is a little swirl here, a flourish there and a nice stretch or two. Give it a little time and “Bob’s your uncle.” You will have a set of buns that will make you the envy of the neighborhood.

Of course there’s a secret or two involved in the process, but nothing too strenuous and certainly nothing too mentally

taxing. I only know that once you experience them for the first time it will change your life. You will leap tall buildings at a single bound, sing and tip-toe through a verse of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. I can guarantee once you see how simple it is to have the loveliest buns on Wysteria Lane, you will never again seek to buy them.

I must give credit where credit is due. I didn’t invent the perfect buns. Again, the credit must go to my friend, Bill Wraith, a most excellent baker who is an incredible scientist and teacher. I have seen three people including myself reproduce gorgeous buns so am convinced this recipe is one for success and pure brilliance. Let’s face it, having inferior buns can completely ruin the appearance of many dishy showstoppers. So don’t let it happen to you.

The Perfect Buns
By Bill Wraith
Methodology amended by Blue Zebra
Yield 10-12 buns

650 grams AP Flour (22.831 oz
290 grams Water (10.186 oz)
200 grams Milk (7.025 oz)
30 grams Olive oil (1.054 oz)
13 grams Salt (2.75 tsp)
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 tsp)

Mix flour, water, milk together until it looks like a shaggy mess. Let it sit for 20 minutes. This is considered the autolyse period. It is the period when gluten begins to form and the flour becomes fully hydrated from the liquid components of your recipe.

Perform a frissage movement on the dough. Using the heel of your hand, smear walnut size pieces of dough along the counter in order to break up any clumps left in the dough. Frissage also helps to continue the gluten development begun with the autolyse phase.

This recipe is very forgiving. I accidentally missed my 25 minute timer for the autolyse and let it go a full hour. You can see the yeast were particularly active and the dough rose! No problems. I simply degassed the dough (pressed out all the air), and continued with the next step of kneading.

It's time to knead in the remaining ingredients. Start by kneading in the yeast until completely incorporated. After the yeast, knead in salt and olive oil, again, folding and kneading until completely worked throughout dough. Knead dough about 5-10 minutes. This is a large window of variability. I knead by hand and usually knead in 3-5 minute increments. Nothing harsh, just a smooth rolling motion of the dough.I will often cover the dough with the top of a bowl and let it rest for about 15 minutes, then return and knead another 3-5 minutes. Letting the dough rest between kneading episodes does a couple of things. It allows gluten to continue developing as the dough relaxes between sessions. Resting allows the temperature of the dough to diminish, since the friction from kneading causes the temperature to rise in the dough.

Once the dough reaches the window pane stage*, it is ready to undergo bulk or primary fermentation. This is about a one to one and a half hour timespan when the dough is coming close to doubling for the first time and when flavors are developing.

During the bulk fermentation timeframe, I will perform anywhere from 2-4 sessions of the Stretch N Fold in order to further increase the dough strength. Increasing the strength of the dough allows the gluten strands to trap flavor components and CO2 gas within it's protein web, which causes the dough to rise.After the dough doubles for the first time, turn out the dough and scale it. Scaling means to portion the dough into units. You can use a scale for extra accuracy or eyeball it. Roll the dough into balls for hamburger buns or ropes for hotdog buns. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the buns to rise a final time. I use parchment paper to place the final bun dough on for rising and cooking. I also make sure that by the time the buns are fully risen prior to cooking, their sides will lightly touch. This way, they will have two soft surfaces on the sides.

Cook buns for 10-15 minutes at 460 degrees F. Buns will have a great oven spring (that means they will rise significantly in the oven). As soon as the buns are done (about 205degrees F internal temperature), place them in a plastic bag and allow them to cool slightly. The bag will trap steam and make the outer surface soft instead of crispy. Use immediately for best results.

Buns can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Blue Zebra NOTE:
This recipe is very forgiving and easy. Errors and time lapses still result in great tasting bread. You can really feel the dough change dimension as you knead it. It's excellent for beginner bakers. If you have 30 active minutes to cook, make these buns. They cost about $1.00 for all of them and the taste is so far superior to store bought buns.

Another thing to note...I added all the ingredients during the so-called "autolyse" period. Purists and professional or artisan bakers would spank me on this telling me in no uncertain terms that I did not use an "autolyse" period if I added salt, oil, and yeast. Autolyse, technically speaking, is only the stage where liquid and flours are allowed to mix and marry and become fully hydrated. But again, I want time saving and I doubt very seriously if the sophistication of my palette will be able to notice the difference. So far, I have not noticed any delay of yeast performance or impeeded risings because of doing this, which leads me to believe even more, that yeast and risen doughs are more forgiving than anyone gives them credit for being!
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Saturday, September 1, 2007

A Loaf of Bread (Sourdough Pagnotta), A Jug of Wine, A Book of Verse And Thou...

...Beside Me, Singing In The Wilderness ~Omar Khayyam

You know what happens when serendipity meets innovation? I don’t always know the answer to that either but sometimes, it results in an incredible loaf of sourdough bread! I recently experienced a most excellent outcome as the result of combining techniques described in two recipes for bread; Sourdough Pagnotta and the so called, New York Times No Knead Bread, so popular today among many home cooks.

My good friend, at another site, kindly amended a recipe for Sourdough Pagnotta that has quickly become B’s and my favorite bread of all time. The pagnotta has a rich, creamy texture, also known as crumb, while the crust is thinner and crispy. It’s the perfect
thickness. Thick enough for crunch and thin enough that it won’t send you to the dentist for bridge work while you are eating it. That’s got to be great news, right?

The pagnotta is a very dense bread and the holes in it aren’t quite as open as other artisan loafs, at least mine aren’t. But, you just can’t beat this bread for having an easy recipe. It takes precious little effort to mix and prepare the dough and tastes delicious and flavorful. It’s great artisan bread for only pennies on the loaf. It’s also a versatile bread, taking well to variants like asiago pagnotta, roasted garlic pagnotta and black olive pagnotta. I have even done a really awesome tasting apple, smoked bacon and caramelized onion pagnotta bread that turned out so well!

It’s a high hydration loaf. This means that it has a higher percentage of water than other sourdough recipes. I believe a standard sourdough has around a 60-65% hydration and this is closer to 85% or 90% hydration. Scary to work with the first time but once you know the ropes about working with wet dough; it’s a piece of cake. Hmm, maybe not a piece of cake but it surely is a great piece of bread!

I had wanted to bring you the history or origins of this bread. But what I found is pagnotta is the Italian word for bread! So essentially this is one of many recipes for a loaf of sourdough Italian bread! Here are a few other words for bread from other countries.

bread in Afrikaans is brood
bread in Dutch is mik, brood
bread in French is pain
bread in German is Brot, Brot, panieren
bread in Italian is pagnotta
bread in Latin is crustum, panis
bread in Spanish is pan

And here is your bread quote for today!

There is hunger for ordinary bread, and there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much.

~ Mother Teresa

This bread is perfect for sharing with your special someone. B, my best friend and partner in crime and I love to eat it dipped in olive oil seasoned with a touch of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of salt, fresh ground black pepper, shaved parmesan, and a touch of basil. A wonderful, full bodied cabernet or other rich wine and a few roasted olives or grape tomatoes dipped in olive oil and salt make a great accompaniment to it as well. Add a slice or two of dried aged salami and a couple of black seedless grapes and you have a romantic picnic for two! The pagnotta is also wonderful as a bread accompaniment to any kind of meal you can imagine, roasted meat to casserole and everything in between! Mangia!

Sourdough Pagnotta
By Bill Wraith
Yield: 1 Large Loaf or 2 smaller Loaves

400 grams fresh 100% hydration starter (my starter was taken out of the
refrigerator after having been refreshed 3 days earlier. I probably should
have used more recently refreshed and vigorous starter) (14.5 Ounces)
650 grams water (22.831 Ounces)
700 grams KA Organic AP (24.587 Ounces)
50 grams KA rye blend (optional - substitute white flour, whole wheat, or
other) (1.756 Ounces)
50 grams Heartland Mills Golden Buffalo flour (optional - substitute white
flour, whole wheat, or other) (1.756 Ounces)
18 grams salt (1.264 Tbsp)
300 grams pitted halved olives (I used calamata olives) - this is an optional
ingredient. (10.537 Ounces)

Method for making bread:
Mix ingredients until well integrated and there is some resistance to stirring.
Cover and let rest for 30 minutes.
(Bill’s Note: I think there was slightly too much water for my choice of flours and maybe because of the olives, which made the dough harder to handle. This was very slack dough. I would use a little less water next time, but I'm reporting this as I actually did it.)

Fold and Rest, Repeat:
Every 30-60 minutes pour the dough out onto the counter, let it spread a little, and fold it up into a ball. Put the dough back in the bowl, cover and let rest 30-60. Repeat this process every 30-60 minutes 3-4 times.
(Bill’s Note: I may not have repeated this enough, given the very wet dough I ended up with. The dough was still too slack later when I tried to shape the loaves.)

Bulk Fermentation:
Place the dough in an oiled rising bucket or bowl. Allow it to rise by double at room temperature.
(Bill’s Note: Actually, I wanted to bake by midnight, so I let it get a little warmer, about 80F, which may have been a little bit of a problem. I think it made the slack dough even a little more slack to also be warm.)

Pour the dough out on the table on a bed of flour and cut in two. Work with each loaf separately. Form a ball by carefully and gently pulling the sides toward the center repeatedly to get some surface tension on the smooth side underneath. Do not overhandle.
(Bills Note: Here I was a disastrous dough handler. I way overhandled it because it was too slack and would not form a ball. It just kept spreading out quickly. Well, I just decided after way too many times pulling at the sides to stop trying and went for flat bread. So, I can't emphasize enough, don't overhandle. Just make that shape and be done with it.

I am doing a second version, and I think I've discovered how to do this. Use thumbs and fingers of one hand to pinch and hold the gathered sides over the center, holding the gathered edges up a little to help the sides stretch and the shape to become more round and taking a bit of weight off the loaf. Use the other thumb and a couple of fingers to pinch a bit of the side, pull the bit out and up and over to the center, stretching the side as you do. Gather that bit in with the first hand along with others as you work your way around the loaf. Try to make it round by gathering a bit from the place that sticks out the most.)

Turn the dough over onto a thick bed of flour with the rough side down.

Final Proof:
Allow the loaves to increase in size by double.
(Bill’s Note: For me, this took about 3 hours. I'm still having a hard time figuring out when these higher hydration loaves have finished proofing. As I said there was too much water, and I never got these loaves to stiffen up very much. They mostly spread out on the counter.)

Bake at 425 degrees F.
(Bill’s Note: This took about 25 minutes, and the internal temperature went quickly to 210F, which I've experienced with these flat high hydration loaves. I didn't get much oven spring. I think the over handling was a serious problem.)

Allow the loaf to fully cool.

The flavor was as good as any bread I've made. The crumb was much less open than I had hoped but was soft and flavorful. I think the flatness was because of the over handling and maybe adding too much water to the dough. Maybe another fold or two would have helped. The gluten never really stiffened up enough. Still, this was a great tasting bread. My bad for the handling, but I'm already trying a second one. I also think the olives made the dough wetter, heavier, and harder to handle. The next try will be without olives.

Blue Zebra NOTE:
When working with wet doughs, high hydration doughs, the tendency is to be scared because the dough looks more like a batter than a dough. But be fearless! No worries, mon! The secret is wet hands!

To make it easier for me, I mix the dough in a bowl with one hand. One hand will be a mess; but that’s ok, it washes! I mix the dough initially until it is just a shaggy mess of incorporated flour, water and starter (I go ahead and add the salt…so sue me, I haven’t had a failure yet because of adding the salt at this phase for this particular dough), cover and leave it for the autolyse period. Then I come back and do my initial folding in the bowl!

I pick up a portion of the dough with my hand and stretch high above the bowl as far as it will stretch without breaking the gluten strands! Then I allow it to be pulled into the center mass of the dough. Once that stretch is finished, I turn the bowl a quarter turn (90 degrees) and repeat the action. I will do 8 of these stretch and folds in the bowl at one time, or 2 complete bowl revolutions. I let the dough rest again, covered. By this time, you will have helped form substantial gluten and the batter will resemble a very wet dough rather than a batter.

The next time, I come back to fold the dough, I will pour it out on the counter as Bill describes. It works to use a dough scraper (moisten it with water.) And it also helps to have wet hands. The dough won’t stick to you then. I don’t use any flour on the counter, but since this dough is so wet, I use a light sprinkle on the counter. The wet scraper and wet hands allow you to stretch and fold the dough, pulling gently from the underneath side (the counter side) of the dough with your hand on top of the sheet of dough, guiding it. You try not to flatten or degas the dough while working with it. The gas is what will make great, irregular holes in the final bread.

Here is an excellent video of doing the stretch and fold with a some what dryer dough (lower hydration dough). My friend, Mike Avery, at Sourdough Home developed this video for his student and is an excellent teacher and writer. I highly recommend his books. They are very affordable books and are available as online versions for quick downloads. You can be reading in less than five minutes.

I used my stainless steel Dutch oven to cook this bread because I don’t have my cast iron Dutch oven here. I used the lid for the first 30 minutes and then baked it another 30 minutes without the lid. I cooked the bread for one hour at 460 degrees F, and the final internal bread temperature was 211 degrees. It was perfect even though there was a rather large hole immediately under the top crust. I could have collapsed it with a pin to let the air out but was in a hurry to bake it for dinner.

I hope you will try this bread. Even though I cut into it before it was fully cooled, you can see how moist this bread is and in my opinion, it has much more complexity than the No Knead To Knead bread that is so popular right now.
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Monday, August 27, 2007

What In The Fricassee Have You Done With My Chicken? Chicken Stew Secrets Revealed

Ok so what do you do with a hundred pound chicken? It sounds like the opener to a cheesy joke, doesn’t it? But for those of you who took the time to read The Naked Truth About Hens, you will know I’m almost 100% entirely, serious…Well, maybe I’m only about 20% serious, but I did learn one thing much to our chagrin. Clearly, you do not roast a hundred pound chicken, unless you love foul fowl. I found that out quite unequivocally.

The voice in my head mocks me and I hear it reverberate again and again. What do you do with a hundred pound chicken-chicken-chicken? In desperation I answer the voice now shouting in the recesses of my aching brain, “The answer isfrick, frick, frick, fricassee! You cook the paprikash out of that bird and if that doesn’t work, you smother the little clucker till it makes a sauce piquant! If that still isn’t good enough, then you let it stew in its own juice!” Deep breath. Breathe. At last, the whining voice resides.

Long, slow, moist heat isn’t really much of a secret. Most people who have been cooking any length of time, or have alternately watched one season of FoodTV know low, slow and wet is guaranteed to break down the ropey muscle fibers of a tough cut of meat. But how do you add the flavor to that meat or chicken, in this case?

Growing up, Mom used to make a very traditional Southern dish called smothered chicken. Oh my, I still smack my lips thinking about it! She’d bread and fry the chicken pieces until golden outside but still raw inside. Then she made a roux the color of caramel or not-quite-pecan and added onion, bell pepper and celery (the Cajun trinity, don’t ya know), water and chicken and let it simmer for hours. Mom served it over rice with a side of cornbread and turnip greens. You almost couldn’t beat this dish for pure cold weather comfort food!

If you add Cajun spice and a healthy dose of cayenne “peppah”, pepper sauce, jalapenos and tomatoes you go from a simple smother to a sauce piquant, pronounced sauce pee-cawnt, in a hurry! This is a lively Cajun version of a smother that just rocks my world, completely! The sauce piquant works great for ordinary chicken but it reaches nirvana when you use it to stew dove or rabbit. Paul Prudhomme’s recipe elevates it to celestial. It's so fine. It will seriously make you want to sit up and "slap yor mamma"!

Aromatics like a mirapoix (French trinity), a mixture of onion, celery and carrot is another way to add flavor to stew. Seasoning the chicken pieces with herbs and spices is yet, one more way. Still more secrets to flavorful and tender chicken stews include browning the meat prior to cooking in liquid, making a dark roux, adding acids such as wine, vinegar and mustards or you could just do what we did to tame our hundred pound bird, you could do all of the above!

The end result for our hundred pound chicken was tasty, tender, chicken meat in a rich brown, paprika flavored gravy that had a bite of mustard and lingering mellowness of wine with a slight zip of cayenne to wake up your taste buds. I knew immediately it deserved to be accompanied by homemade spaetzle. Lucky for me it was comfort food on crack. Unlucky for you, you weren’t here to sample it, because like most brown and cream colored foods, pictures just can’t possibly do it justice.

I heartily recommend you try fricasseein' the devil outta your hundred pound chicken, soon!

Chicken Fricassee aka Chicken Paprikash
By Blue Zebra
Serves 8

1 100lb Chicken (hehehe) Carcass with Legs, Thighs and Wings (everything but the breasts)*
½ Quart Brown Pan Gravy
1 Large Medium Onion
1 Green Pepper
2 Stalks Celery
1 Carrot, Large
5 Cloves Garlic
1 Quart Chicken Stock
1 tsp Thyme, dried leaves
1-1/2 Tbsp Paprika
¼ tsp Cayenne Pepper
2 Tbsp Country Style Dijon
½ Bottle White Wine
1 Quart Mushrooms
1 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper
½ cup Sour Cream

*Recipe Note- Ok, if you don't have a hundred pound chicken, use an 8# chicken. If you still don't have one of those, use the carcasses and dark meats from two broilers or fryers or use wings, necks and dark meat to equal about 3-4 pounds of chicken meat. If you haven't previously roasted this meat, you will need to season and thoroughly brown the meat in a saute pan or roast it with veggies in the oven. I recommend roasting it in order to fully develop the brown layer of flavor in this recipe. Make sure to use extra veggies and not the ones listed in this recipe. The ones listed here are for the final compilation of the stew. This can be done the day ahead.

Remove the skin from the cooked chicken. Separate into pieces. Chop veggies and add with chicken to Dutch oven. Add Mustard, wine and seasonings. Let simmer on very low heat. Do not boil, you want the liquid to barely move. Simmer for 1-1/2 hours or until chicken is tender. Remove carcass and chicken pieces and cover with foil. Let it cool enough to pull meat off bones and chop.

While chicken is cooling, turn up the heat so that the simmer of the liquid becomes more active. You still don’t want it to actively boil. Cook uncovered and allow the sauce to reduce. The sauce will thicken as it reduces because of the flour added to the brown gravy. If it looks too thin to you, you can always mix a couple of tablespoons of flour with a little extra wine and shake it up in a container until smooth. Pour thickener into liquid, stirring constantly to combine. Cook an additional 5-10 minutes to allow the flour to cook and for the sauce to thicken from the addition. Adding flour suspended in a liquid usually eliminates any clumping.

Add diced chicken meat back to the liquid in the final five to ten minutes of cooking. Heat through and taste to adjust seasoning. Serve over noodles, macaroni, spaetzle, rice, mashed potatoes…well, serve over just about anything carbalicious and starchy! You can even serve it over homemade bread in a pinch. Sprinkle with a touch of paprika and a little fresh chopped parsley.

Blue Zebra NOTE:
I served this like a Hungarian meal would be served: sweet and sour cabbage with caraway seeds, cinnamon applesauce, homemade spaetzle and homemade bread with butter. Not exactly what I would call a summer meal, nor a light meal, either. But necessity dictates. So, the good news is this freezes beautifully. We ate it and froze the rest in vacuum seal bags and now have chicken fricassee aka chicken paprikash aka that-chicken-stuff aka chicken stew primed and ready in our deep freeze and just waiting for Jack Frost to make his first appearance!

This stew can also be made using the wing tips from chickens you trim and with legs and thighs only, making this extremely economical. This whole meal with all the side dishes costs about $.85 per serving when made that way. Now, that’s the REAL secret to chicken stew!
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