Monday, January 18, 2010

Using the Internet to shop for a camera

While researching for my most recent purchase, Philip's uncle recommended this site. It is great if you are shopping for any digital camera. My favorite portion of this site was the video review that is included in most camera reviews. It's hard to shop for the best camera when you can't pick them all up and see how they feel or really see how fast they focus, etc. In these video reviews a man shows you around each camera. In real time you can see how well the live view works, or how fast the camera can auto focus, etc. You even get to hear what 4 frames per second (or 7 frames) sounds like.

Camera Labs also has a tips site that I just discovered. The same guy that gives the camera "tours" at Camera Labs also hosts online workshops on that can guide you through:
  • How to blur action shots for speed
  • How to get more in focus
  • How to take perfect sunsets
  • How to brighten your photos
  • and many more...
The website also has a guide for lenses, accessories, etc.

The last website I mainly used when shopping for this camera was this side by side comparison site hosted by From this site you can select all the cameras you think you are interested in and see a breakdown of how they compare in over 25 categories.

If you have any great Digital SLR sites, or just a photography tips site please share them in a comment!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Gumbo: the method, the art

For quite a while we have had our gumbo recipe posted on our family blog. The thing about making gumbo is that it is more of a method (or an art) than a recipe. Gumbo is what I call a poor man's stew, in that you start out with flour, oil, and water and you can add really anything that you have lying around the kitchen after that. Serve it over rice and you have a gumbo!

Making a roux:
All good Cajun gumbos start with a roux. A roux is just a mixture of flour and fat. Recipes usually call for a 1:1 ratio but that makes a really oily gumbo. It is a commonly held family secret that some of my (and Philip's) relatives use pre-made roux that you can buy in a jar. That is what Philip and I did for over a year when we first moved here, but eventually our stash ran out and we had to make our own roux!

We have tried out many different ratios of flour to vegetable oil. Our current ratio is 2 cups of flour to 1.5 cups of vegetable oil. To make a roux you need a heavy bottomed pot. Traditionally this is a cast iron skillet or a cast iron dutch oven. I use my 12" cast iron skillet and it works great.

Set your cast iron skillet over medium high heat and make a paste with the flour and oil. When the flour and oil are combined it will look like this:

The most tedious part of making a roux is that you must stir continuously as it cooks. You don't need a "Cajun Spoon" to make it, but it does help because it has a flat bottom that makes scraping the bottom of the skillet easier. This is important because you don't want to burn the roux. It is also important that you use a wooden or metal spoon to stir your roux because it will get really hot!

Continue to stir the roux until it is a "chocolate" or "copper" brown in color. While it changes color it will begin to get more pasty in texture and it would be a good time to turn down your heat so that the roux does not change too quickly. Be careful about how dark you let it get because the darker your roux gets the less it will thicken your gumbo. Typically you want your roux to be one or two shades of brown darker than you want your final product to be.

Also remember that when cooking in a cast iron skillet the cast iron can retain a ton of heat. If your roux is getting too dark it will be necessary to transfer it to your stock pot immediately to prevent it from burning. Once a roux is burned it is done for! You will have to throw that batch away and begin again from scratch.

After your roux is nice and dark you are going to want to prepare your soup pot for receiving your roux. Gumbo traditionally starts with the "cajun trinity": onions, celery and bell peppers. We add our onions directly to the hot roux so that they cook down a bit before adding the liquid. It is important to note here that you do not want to pour roux into liquid, rather you need to add liquid to the roux. If you made your roux in a skillet this means that you'll need to transfer the roux to your stockpot before putting the liquid in. Philip and I speak from experience on this one....

Roux can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge indefinitely.

Adding Liquid:
The stirring is not over! When you add the water to the roux you will have to continue to stir until the roux is completely dissolved so that the roux does not settle to the bottom and then burn. Remember you are adding water to and oil based substance so this can take a little bit of time (especially if your liquid was cold or only at room temperature). At this stage if it does burn a little bit it is not disastrous to your gumbo, but you do want to try and avoid it.

The liquid that you add at this stage of the game really depends on what type of gumbo you are making. When you are making a chicken gumbo by adding raw chicken to the pot you can just add water because as the gumbo cooks the bones will make their own stock. How much water to add becomes a factor of how much chicken and sausage you are adding to the pot. Start by dissolving the roux with 2 quarts of water, add your meats and then top off the stock pot with more water if needed.

When making a seafood gumbo you really need to make a stock ahead of time so that the whole gumbo has a seafood taste without overcooking your seafood ingredients. For shrimp gumbo we use the shrimp shells to make a stock ahead of time. This can be done the day of, or if you freeze your stock, months ahead of time.

For the roux recipe supplied here you will need a total of 2-3 quarts of liquid. This is not an exact science as more liquid will give you a thinner gumbo, less will give you a thicker one.

This dish would not be complete without white rice! We use medium grain rice (or whatever Walmart had on sale), but typically Cajuns use long grain rice. The ratio of rice to gumbo is a matter of taste, and for me depends on how thick the gumbo is.

Traditional sides include potato salad, fried sweet potatoes, or bread with butter. Mawmaw actually puts her potato salad in her gumbo and eats it out of the same bowl.

Adding file' to your gumbo is an option, but our house is divided on this issue.

Here is my shrimp and egg gumbo recipe:

Shrimp and Egg Gumbo
1 Large Onion Chopped
1 Large Bell Pepper Chopped
8 Cloves of Garlic Chopped
4 Stalks of Celery Chopped
2-3 pounds of shrimp
8-10 eggs
other seafood if you like including oysters and crab

Complete the steps listed above including: make a shrimp stock from shrimp shells, make a roux, transfer the roux to a stock pot and add onions. After the shrimp stock is added and the roux is incorporated, add bell peppers, garlic, and celery. Season with salt, cayenne pepper, and add a bay leaf or two. Let this simmer for about 30min to an hour.

Bring the mixture to a slight boil and then add shrimp (you would probably add raw oysters here too). After about 5-10 minutes when the shrimp look pink turn down your gumbo so that it is no longer bubbling. Carefully break eggs near the surface of the gumbo and let the gumbo sit (no stirring) for 15 minutes. Try to break the eggs in a pattern around the pot so that they do not land on each other. After 15 minutes you can turn the heat back up on the gumbo and stir carefully. If you are adding other cooked seafood you can do so at this time. As soon as the shrimp and eggs are cooked through the gumbo is ready to eat! Serve over rice with any one of my suggestions above.

This is one of my favorite gumbos because the shrimp often get lodged in the poached eggs and they are delicious.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Free Chick fil a!

They're back!! Most things that sound too good to be true are, but that's not so with free Chick-fil-a breakfasts! Bring in ANY cereal box top on a Thursday morning to Chick-fil-a and receive a free breakfast. To see the schedule just click on the picture above. I can't wait to get my first breakfast tomorrow!

I know the advertisement above says one per customer, but I've brought two box tops at a time and got a free breakfast for Ethan and myself.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Moppine Towels by Rachael Ray

If I knew now how much I would use these towels, I would have bought them for myself years ago! Instead they sat on my amazon wish list for a year until this Christmas, when my mother and my mother-in-law both bought me some. Since then, I have used these towels everyday! I still have out my other towels for drying dishes, etc. But, now in addition to the one kitchen towel that hangs on the fridge I always have one of these towels hanging on my oven door.

As you can see from the picture, two corners of these towels have terry cloth quilted in so that the towel doubles as a pot holder. I don't know about you, but I have limited drawer space in my kitchen which leads to a difficulty in storing hot pads. Right now they hand next to my oven, but since I now have this towel literally at my finger tips I use it instead. It is particularly useful when I am cooking in my cast iron or aluminum pot. Instead of having to get down a hot pad and then keep track of where I laid it down, I simply pick up the corner of this towel, hold the handle for as long as I need to and drop the corner back down and walk away!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Homemade Tomato Sauce

Have you ever read the label on a jar of Ragu (or any other store bought tomato sauce)? I'll let you in on a little secret. They are all jam packed with sugar! Now, you might think that this sugar is just a product of the tomatoes, but nope, their ingredients list all contain sugar. This might not be a problem in your family, but in mine I'm trying to feed a diabetic, and I have always hated buying tomato sauce because I have to look through all the jars to find the one that has the least amount of sugar. They also contain a ton of other preservatives, salt, etc. that you wouldn't put in your own tomato sauce. But they are so easy, right? Well, as I have discovered recently so is making your own!

My two kitchen "bibles" (Bittman and America's Test Kitchen) tell you to make a Tomato Sauce in essentially the same way. Start out by heating a fat (olive oil or butter), add aromatics (like onion, red pepper flakes, and garlic), add a can of canned crushed tomatoes and then simmer! At the end you can add other aromatics if you have them on hand (like fresh basil, parsley, etc.).

Sounds easy right? That's because it is! The best part is that I bet I could find all these ingredients (except for maybe the canned tomatoes) in your kitchen right now! After I found and tried these two variations of the same recipe, I always make sure I have pasta and crushed tomatoes on hand for a quick and easy dinner. Tonight we are having the sauce with meatballs. I just add frozen meatballs after the tomatoes and let the sauce and meatballs simmer together. You might have to simmer for a total of 20 minutes to make sure the meatballs are completely heated through.

Here is Bittman's simple recipe:

3 tablespoons EVOO or butter
1 medium onion
1 1/2 - 2 pounds canned tomatoes (I buy crushed)
Salt and black pepper
Freshly grated cheese (optional)
Fresh parsley or basil (optional)
  1. Melt the butter or heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once it is hot add the onion and cook until soft, 2-3 minutes. (Here is where I add garlic and let it just heat through until fragrant 30 seconds or so. If you want to add red pepper flakes you can also do that here.) Add tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
  2. Simmer for 10-15 minutes until mixture comes together. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add fresh herbs and grated cheese to the final dish or just before serving.
Of course, after this recipe Bittman has 20 variations that are also wonderful, but this will get you started! The options really are endless. Once you taste this sauce I'm sure you will also swear off store bought tomato sauce, even in a pinch!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Cast Iron Skillet: Why it should be in your kitchen!

This is a copied post from full tummies:
My friend Megan recently asked me why I like/recommend a cast iron skillet. She has yet to be convinced that it's a necessity in her kitchen and, like many of us, is seeking to simplify her kitchen "stuff." So, why add one more type of pan?

Well, first of all, in all love to my dear friend Megan, she obviously isn't Southern (she has married a Southerner and lives in sweet Virginia now, so surely she's learned this next fact by now): ALL Southerners worth their salt know that you simply cannot make proper cornbread in anything BUT a cast iron skillet. But, perhaps you don't eat much cornbread, or Southern cornbread specifically, or perhaps you don't want to add a skillet just for cornbread making to your already full kitchen.

Here's why I keep a cast iron skillet in my own kitchen and why, if I ever move to a smaller kitchen, it will make "the cut." It honestly is the skillet/pan I use the most.

1. It's truly a multi-purpose skillet. Well-seasoned (and you can buy them already seasoned these days), it works like a nonstick skillet. However, unlike nonstick skillets, it's also ovenproof, holds heat marvelously, and won't "peel" off. This one skillet can double for both your stainless steel skillets and your nonstick skillets.

2. It browns meat better than either a nonstick skillet or a stainless steel one.

3. It actually imparts iron to your food, meaning it works like a vitamin!

4. It's inexpensive, particularly compared to the better nonstick/stainless steel skillets.

5. It will last for decades if cared for properly. It's hard to mess up and not care for properly.

6. Even if you have to store it in plain sight, it will add ambiance to your kitchen.

7. Don't you feel like you're carrying on the great Pioneer legacy of our nation by owning a cast iron skillet?

8. If you do drive-up camping (as opposed to hiking all day and then setting up your tent), you can cook with your skillet over an open flame. I did this a lot with a big cast iron bean pot when I worked at nature camp.

9. It really does make superior cornbread and anything else requiring a golden crust.

10. It can be preheated significantly, especially in the oven. This, incidentally, is what gives cornbread that great crust. It's also a nice trick to roasting a chicken without overcooking the breast meat and so forth.

Now, there are some downsides to the cast iron skillet; there is no perfect solution to the "perfect skillet" question. You may, like me, decide that the downsides are negligible:
  • not dishwasher safe
I have several skillets, all Lodge brand, and use them all; the pre-seasoned ones give you a good start to real seasoning/nonstick capability and you can buy them in Wal-Mart in the South. I don't use the pots much because the handles are so darn hot and the pot, once full, is really too heavy for me. The skillet I use the absolute most is the square 10.5-inch one. I have a round 12-inch that I can hardly lift. The 10-inch size is much easier for me. The square shape, though, adds significant volume, so I can cook many things I might have needed a round 12-inch for. It's a great shape to hold 4 grilled cheese sandwiches, 4 pancakes, a big batch of scrambled eggs*, a batch and a half of cornbread, a Dutch apple pancake, a big recipe of stir-fry, a roast to brown, several pieces of chicken to brown and then oven-roast, .... I also have a double griddle that, while heavy, works wonderfully and lets me cook a super batch of pancakes at once or even "grill" inside.

*I've not perfected scrambled eggs in the cast iron skillet, but my hubby has!

Bridgette's Post Script: I use my 12'' round the most often and for us it makes the best pancakes. They are just like the ones at cracker barrel with the buttery seared edges! I also have a small round skillet that I can use to make just one grilled cheese or two scrambled eggs.

I did want to say something about the "not dishwasher safe" note that Betsy made. I have very few things in my kitchen that can't go in the dishwasher including: great knives, stoneware, and cast iron. Unlike the knives both the stoneware and the cast iron can't go in the dishwasher because the soap is too harsh and will take off the great "non-stick" seasoning that is on them. In fact neither one need to be washed with soap at all. Just get some really hot water and a brush to get the food off and you are done. Philip says that he does use soap occasionally to clean the pot and that as long as it is seasoned it is okay.

If you do get the pot really hot, the seasoning can and will come off. It is easy to re-build though, just make a roux :)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Remarkable Fudge!

My sister and I had a battle with fudge on Christmas Eve that lasted three rounds and ended with great fudge from this recipe (adapted from Better Homes and Gardens "New Cook Book"):

4 cups sugar
2 5-ounce cans (1 3/4 cups total) evaporated milk
1 cup butter
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
7 ounces of a dark or milk chocolate candy bar (cut up)
7 ounces of marshmallow creme
1 cup chopped nuts (optional in my family)
1 teaspoon of vanilla

Line a 13x9 with foil (or we did two 9x9s so we could have nut-ful and nut-free fudge). In a large saucepan over medium-high heat melt butter and then add sugar and milk. Cook and stir till mixture boils and then turn down heat to medium and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Remove pan from heat and then add chocolate chips, chocolate bar, marshmallow creme, and vanilla. If you want your whole batch to have nuts you may also add them at this time. If your family is like our just add the nuts to one of the 9x9s and then pour the fudge on top when it is done. Stir the fudge until everything is combined and continue to stir for one minute more. Spread warm fudge into your pans (or pan) and cut when cool.

The cook book says that you have to store it in the fridge, but we never do this!


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