Jun 6, 2014

Cooking Healthy With Skerrib...

Today I would like to talk about rice and brussels sprouts, because in the past several months I have had life changing breakthroughs with both.

I do not come from a line of chefs. My people are respectable down-home cooks, but professional-type chefs we are not. I think possibly that buried deep somewhere in the human genome is the culinary gene, and that there are those on God’s green earth fortunate enough to get it, and those of us who either have to pick up strategies and tactics, or be content with lots of take-out and/or Ramen.

My history with cooking is varied and at times painful. There are nasty persistent rumors out there involving opened pasta sauce being stored in a college apartment pantry for two weeks, instead of the fridge. While I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of, or my involvement in said events, I will say that the Cat Daddy sometimes needs to let things GO already and admit where drastic improvements have been made.

I like to think I've been fairly effective at picking up strategies and tactics over the years, by way of friends, family, the Internet, the Food Network (Alton Brown in particular), and these days Pinterest. But two of my biggest weaknesses have been making vegetables in a way that people actually want to eat, and getting my rice just right.  My Puerto Rican friend makes some of the best sticky rice I've ever had--in the microwave no less--but try as I might I could never duplicate it.

This changed somewhat when I made the switch from long grain white to short/medium grain brown rice. We were at Pei Wei with my folks, and my mom ordered the brown rice, and I was all "The woman is mad," but then I tasted it and thought, "Sweet sassafras, that's really good!" Sort of like the rice version of steel cut oats. It wasn't long before I got up the courage to buy a small bag of brown rice at the store and give it a whirl. And pretty much instantly, we switched over to brown as our household rice of choice. Even the Cat Daddy was convinced, and that's saying something.

But it still didn't change the fact that rice is tricky. Much like pasta, it has that narrow window of delicious doneness. Too short and you're crunching your way through the meal, and not in a good way; too long and it's like bad oatmeal where you're left ruing that 3 minutes you spent wiping up spilled Gatorade or some such nonsense instead of watching the rice.  And much like oatmeal, there's the issue of water quantity. Bottom line, if you get that wrong there is no way to achieve optimum sticky texture, Mister.

Well. A little Yahoo article changed all that for me. Basically, the secret is to treat the rice like pasta. Badda boom, badda bing, and done. You can click over there to read the whole thing but I will share the steps here:
--Boil a big pot of water, as if you were getting ready to make spaghetti.

--**The article says to rinse your rice in a strainer until the water runs clear, but I am quite lazy want maximum nutrient retention so I don't do that. My water ends up with foamy bits in it, but whatevs.**

--Put your rice in the boiling water. It doesn't matter anymore how much rice you use, so go nuts with as much or as little as you like.  Add salt, oil, seasonings, etc., stir once, and cook uncovered for 30 min.

--Kill the heat, strain the rice (use common sense on which strainer, please), and put it back in the pot. Cover and let it steam in its own residual water for 10 minutes.

--They say, as always, to fluff with a fork, but does anyone really do that? I give it a good stir and plop it on the plate. Fork-fluffing sounds pretentious to me.

--Eat the best, most foolproof brown rice ever. Top it with things if you must...

...And secondly, let's talk about Brussels sprouts. I don't recall ever eating them growing up, so they must have been mutually hated by my parents. Frankly, I didn't even care to try them at all until this vegetable roasting craze popped up some years ago, and even then my entire immediate family declared "NEVER AGAIN!" on the way to deal with their, um, digestive issues.

I actually did throw in the towel on Brussels sprouts, until a few weeks ago when Jen Hatmaker posted a blurb on her Facebook page about doing the sprouts with bacon and a balsamic reduction. That was enough to pique my curiosity at least, and THEN my hippie friend Sarita made them for Tiny E and me when we were visiting and I just about died to discover how delicious they could be.

There's one caveat that we must get out of the way, and that is that one way or the other, the kitchen will smell like farts at some point during the cooking process. I don't think there's any way around this with cruciferous veggies, but in this case we get most of the fart smell over with early on, and move onto the much preferred bacon and balsamic smell, so that seems to work OK. Or at least better than average.

So combining many tips I've collected over the past several years, here's how I accomplished Brussels Nirvana--
--For inspiration, go look at Ina Garten's Balsamic-Roasted Brussels Sprouts recipe. Don't be intimidated by her pancetta and fancy ways, as you will only pay attention to about half of the recipe.

--Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

--Rinse, trim and halve your sprouts. Keep the loose leaves that come off during the trimming.

--Steam the sprouts. My hippie friend Sarita does hers in a microwave steamer for a minute or two; I don't have a microwave steamer, so I did mine on the stovetop until they started turning bright green. This is, in my opinion, the biggest key step I was missing in my past experiences.  Just as you are about ready to give up because your whole kitchen smells like a stink bomb, remember that it only gets better from here.

--Dice up a bunch of bacon. I used about half of the sprouts Ina called for, and twice the bacon. I felt it was a little too much bacon, but most of the world will disagree with me on that.
**My bacon came out a little chewy, so I plan to see if precooking it is worth the effort. Probably not.

--Dice some onion and/or bell pepper to add color & flavor.

--Toss the veggies with the bacon, salt & pepper, and a good dose of oil and spread on a sheet pan.  Roast for 20-30 minutes, tossing once during the roasting.

--Ina says to use a really nice, syrupy balsamic vinegar. I used my fancy Wegman's store-brand balsamic vinegar and reduced it a little to make it nice & syrupy. When the sprouts are done roasting (brown & tender, and bacon is cooked thru), toss everything in the balsamic and serve.
**The little loose leaves also came out a little chewy. I plan to see if leaving them out of the steaming process helps them crisp up during the roasting. 
These are so good that when your family makes mock-gagging sounds, you won't even care.  You'll just think "Ah well, more for me."

Now I understand that there are those who have thrown in the towel on Brussels sprouts and are thinking "Skerrib you are absolutely nuts. There's no way I'm using my good bacon on fart-smelling tiny green cabbages." I understand that. Sometimes, there's no redeeming certain foods.

But it's like when I make them for my family. That just means there's more for me...