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Monday, January 24, 2011

Make It Yourself: Chili Powder

We use a lot of chili powder. We love Mexican and Indian food, so between guacamole, beans-and-rice, and assorted curries, it seems we're always emptying a jar. Fortunately, we've learned how to make our own, which not only costs a lot less than the measly supermarket jars of McCormick's but results in a much toastier, richer-tasting spice.

Most supermarkets now carry packages of dried whole peppers in the produce section. For chili powder, ancho, New Mexico, or Anaheim peppers work especially well. Ancho peppers are dark and wrinkly;
while New Mexico and Anaheim peppers are smoother:

Anaheims are the mildest of the three, but all three (as well as the hotter guajillo pepper) can be mixed and matched to make good chili powder. Dried peppers are inexpensive and last virtually indefinitely, so it's easy to experiment with different varieties until you find a blend you like. (Do not use small dried red peppers you typically see in Asian markets, unless you want to end up with cayenne powder, which is much too hot to substitute for chili powder.)

Once you've got your dried peppers, heat your oven to 325 degrees and spread the peppers out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast them for ten minutes, or until they turn dark red and crispy, but be careful not to burn them. A little scorching doesn't hurt, but if you let them go too long, they'll be too far-gone to work in chili powder. Ten minutes is usually plenty of time to get the results you want. (The toasting peppers give off spicy fumes, so you may want to do this with an open window in your kitchen. At the very least, don't make the mistake we once made and roast hot chilies while someone else is standing on a ladder; the rising pepper fumes will make them come down in a hurry!)

Let the peppers cool, then remove their stems and shake out their seeds. Then, using a coffee grinder or a mini food processor designed for small jobs, start grinding them. Tear the peppers into small pieces, and grind them until they turn to powder.

Once the peppers are ground, you can mix them with other spices for a "rounder" chili powder. We like oregano and ground cumin—say, a teaspoon of each mixed with the equivalent of a package of chilies. For extra flavor, you can toast cumin seeds in a dry pan for a few minutes, then run them through the grinder before you mix them with the chilies. This will give you a good-size jar of chili powder.

If you're like us, you'll come to love the smell of roasting chilies and look forward to making your own spice.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Make It Yourself: Tamari Almonds

Sure, you can buy packages of delicious, salty Tamari Almonds at the supermarket, but they tend to be very expensive and not particularly fresh. Fortunately, they are one of the easiest and fastest snacks to make. We make them when we need a quick cocktail snack and don't have time for even our usual fast-and-easy snack, Spiced Nuts.

Tamari Almonds

1. Heat a teaspoon of sesame or peanut oil in a pan over medium-high heat, then add two cups of raw almonds. Stir them to coat with the oil, and stir frequently to avoid burning. (Once nuts begin to burn, they really burn!)

2. After about ten minutes, the nuts will be brown with a few dark spots; when this happens, remove the pan from the heat and add two tablespoons of tamari or other soy sauce. It will sizzle and almost completely evaporate, which is fine. Stir to mix with the nuts. If you like, you can add a few shakes of Liquid Smoke, which adds a flavor reminiscent of that old favorite, Smokehouse Almonds. (You usually can find Liquid Smoke near the ketchup in your supermarket.)

3. Add a very light sprinkling of sea salt for crunch, but be careful not to oversalt on top of the salty tamari.

Then all you need to do is restrain yourself from eating all of the nuts before serving them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Appreciating Wine, Even If It Costs Little

Tom Shroder, former editor of the Washington Post Magazine, was a wine newbie, so he decided to enlist the help of a trained wine expert to help him determine the difference between Two-Buck Chuck and a more expensive bottle of wine. What she told him might surprise you. Here's part of his article. For the full article, click here

Kathy Morgan, head sommelier for Michel Richard Citronelle, one of Washington's finest restaurants, and the master of a 6,000-bottle wine cellar.

Given her morning activities, I felt a little silly about what I had planned for her next: a blind taste test of two wines, a Two Buck Chuck cabernet and an $18 cabernet I had already tested and didn't like.
As she sat at my kitchen table, back straight, two wine glasses set before her, professionalism swirled around her like a mist. I offered her a glass of water to cleanse her palate between sips.

"That's the worst thing you can do," she said. With no preparation, the acidity and tannin in the wine shock the palate. Water just resets the mouth to neutral, she explained, so you react with shock all over again. It's best to sip another wine first, eat some bread, or just take two sips, ignoring the first.
She swirled the first glass, stuck her nose in it, sniffed. She did the same with the second, then sipped and swirled.

Something in her eyes flashed, and I knew she saw the wines as plainly as if their labels were etched in the glass. Now it was time for her to be kind.
"When do you usually like to drink wine?" she began.

I explained that I sometimes had a glass with dinner, but more often, after a day at work, I sat on the porch and sipped as I watched the sun dip behind the pines.
This answer seemed to explain something, and she continued.
"Number 1 is more astringent. Number 2 is softer and fruitier. So, if you are drinking without food, you'd most probably prefer 2."

Number 2 was the Chuck -- the one I, in fact, preferred.
"Number 1 changes with food," she said. "The tannins soften up. Number 2 is manipulated in the fermentation process so the tannins, which is what makes wine astringent, soften without food. For a cabernet to be this low in tannin, well, it's done on purpose."

In other words -- I was going for the bubblegum music of the wine world.
"I didn't say that!" she said, laughing. "And I really don't mean manipulated as a negative. They do in the winery what otherwise food must do for the wine. [It appears to involve centrifuges.] Number 1 is made in a more traditional way, intended to drink with food. That's why steakhouses have a huge cabernet list. Astringency needs food. Do you have any roast beef?"
I didn't. But I had ham, and I put slices on a plate.

"Take a bite of the ham," she said. "Then sip Number 1."
I did as she asked. It was ... amazing. The sharp, unpleasant scratchiness in the wine that I didn't like had vanished, replaced by an interesting spicy warmth. It wasn't that the taste of the food complemented the taste of the wine -- which is what I had always assumed when people told me that certain wines went with certain meals -- it was that the taste of the food changed the taste of the wine.
"Now take another bite of ham and taste the Number 2," the Charles Shaw, she said. I did, and nothing happened. The Charles Shaw was immobile, inert. It had the same cheery fruitiness as it had before the ham -- if anything it was even fruitier -- and suddenly it seemed ... insipid.
Again, it was as if she was reading my thoughts.

"I'm not saying this wine is of no value. It's a very friendly wine. It's very smart of them to make this wine. It's a style that can be done successfully for $3.59 a bottle."
And it can be done at $3.59 a bottle, she explained, because it can be produced on a large scale, with the conditions identical each time; whereas the traditional fermentation process changes with every batch of grapes, might take shorter or longer depending on the crop, has to be watched carefully and can't be predicted. Then, it takes time to cure, and often requires barrels made of expensive materials, such as oak, to complete the process.

Yes, there are some wines that are poorly conceived and poorly made and fail on every level. But in general, she insisted, you can't judge wines on any absolute scale. Different wines have different purposes. Just as you wouldn't take a Maserati off-road and use it to ford streams and climb steep mountain trails, it made no sense to sip a $300 Burgundy, meant to make rich meals with red meat and heavy sauces incandescent, on somebody's porch at sunset with a dish of peanuts.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Best of the Blogs" — We Made It!

Fine Cooking listed the Best of the Blogs for 2010, and we're proud to say that Eat Well, Eat Cheap got a mention as one of the best Penny-Pinching Blogs! No other category could have made us happier. Thank you, Fine Cooking.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Back to the Land of the Eating...

Man, it's been a rough few weeks: head colds, a sinus infection, pulled muscles, and medications that pretty much destroyed our desire to eat. At first we could manage only a few bites of rice, then a fruit smoothie now and then. Even water tasted weird. But slowly, slowly, our appetites are returning, and it's been interesting to observe this. First we wanted vegetable broth, then broth with a little pasta, then plain white beans. We managed a shepherd's pie the other night, and last night we wanted more pasta. In the process, we discovered a dish that helps bridge the sad non-fresh-tomato winter months.

Right now, Costco and other stores are selling Campari tomatoes, which are slightly smaller than Romas, with a sweet, almost-summery taste. Last night, finally feeling hungry—in fact, almost feeling ravenous—we decided to try roasting them.

We halved each tomato and set it cut side down on a baking sheet drizzled with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Then we sprinkled the tomatoes with salt, pepper, and thyme and roasted them in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes. When the skins looked dark and caramelized, we pulled them out. The skins were easily plucked off and discarded.

The tomatoes had cooked down to a sweet paste and merged with the hot olive oil, resulting in a silky, satisfying and incredibly easy sauce for linguine. For the first time in weeks, we had seconds.

Perhaps most exciting was the realization that the winter months don't necessarily mean canned tomatoes.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Red Knot Shiraz 2007

Some wine lovers like to keep their finds to themselves. Obviously, if we were like that, we wouldn't be writing a public blog about where to find great tasting wine values for less than $10. 

The only complaint is that the more obscure the source, the less likely our readers are to find the wine buys we love. A couple of months ago we wrote about finding 12 highly rated wines (90+), each for less than $10

One of the wines we bought was a 2007 Red Knot "Zork" Shiraz from Australia. What we liked was the middle ground it walked between a good fruity sipping wine and a very good food wine with the right dryness to make the food and the wine come alive. It's a medium-bodied wine, fairly dark red, with spice and a bit of strawberry and cherry and currants — but enough acid and tannins to hold its own against a steak or a plate of pasta with tomato sauce.

We found it on the Internet, at a retailer we use once in a while, and figured we'd never see it anywhere else, ever again.

Then, on our recent holiday slog through bronchitis and chest colds and wrapping paper, we were stuck one night in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere with Thai takeout and our two dogs. So on the way back from picking up the green curry and rice, we stopped at a forlorn liquor store to see what we could score. 

Not five feet inside the door, there it was on a "specials" rack for $11.45, a bit more than the $8.45 we paid online, but not a bad price for a walk-off home run. To make it even better for the road, good old Red Knot doesn't need a corkscrew.

It's nice when you find one of our obscure buys in a most unusual place. Some days the road rises up to meet you.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Good Resolution for the New Year

Sorry for the scanty postings lately, but between the holidays and the World's Worst Head Cold, we haven't been able to write. We hope to be back in the kitchen in the next couple of days, our appetites restored. In the meantime, here's a fine article by Salon's Francis Lam, who has resolved not to eat cheap, unhealthy, inhumanely raised chicken in 2011,

Regardless of whether you eat chicken, Lam's thoughtful reflections on how we eat are very much worth reading.