Saturday, December 12, 2009

Gray Days and Comfort Foods

I have no idea why, but when it's nasty outside, I go into the kitchen and cook.  Must be something about the warmth of food on the stove that appeals to my inner soul.  Physcially, the house is warmer and smells better when something is simmering.  The feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing that supper will be there when we are ready for it is also appealing.  Nothing worse than having to trek out in bad weather to a restaurant  for sustenance.  And then there's that sodium thing.  Older folks such as we, need to watch our sodium levels.  When you don't cook it yourself, you just never know that salt content.  It's a control thing.
Yesterday and today I have busied myself with creating some menu items that can be eaten in a bowl and savored all day through the process of getting them ready to eat. 


Another reason that I love this type of food preparation is that I can go to my pantry and find ingredients that can be mixed and matched into one-pot dinners.  I normally have canned tomatoes, chicken broth,  onions and garlic.  In the freezer there is usually some kind of meat or seafood and large poly bags of cut up onions , bell peppers and vegetables.  Garlic is also a staple...fresh or minced from a jar.   That's pretty typical for a kitchen in south Louisiana.

Yesterday it was Chili. I have a couple of good recipes for chili, but rarely are they followed.  Chili is that kind of dish that can be different each time.  I normally use beef, but have prepared it with chicken, too.  We prefer beef: ground or sliced. I found the history of chili posted at http://www.socastee.com/.  According to the site Chili was first prepared by the poorest of people.  It was a way to stretch the meat purchased for the family.  The spicy chilis were used to add flavor to the broth and to encourage eating less.  I suppose some are put off by the "hot" flavor.  Now that I have thought about it both are good arguments for using meat in a chili pot.  At our house we do not follow this logic since we use lots of spice and consume large bowls topped with sour cream, chopped green onions and grated cheddar cheese.  It's a delicacy for us.

Today, there is Shrimp and Corn soup on my stove.  Again, I went to the pantry and opened the freezer.  I feel sorry for those who do not have a way to store large amounts of ingredients.  I have always been blessed with being able to do this.  Semi-monthly trips to Sam's are part of my husband's routine even though I am cooking for only two people.  It's cliche, but true, that old habits die hard. He often purchases some surprise items. (The scallops he brought home last time were excellent!) In retirement, I should be buying less and cooking less, but when I cook...I like to cooks lots of stuff.  Sometimes my leftovers end up lost in the back of the freezer and freezer burnt beyond recognition.  That's a problem that I "fixed" by labeling and dating the Tupperware as it is filled with my gourmet leftovers.  Things still get freezer burnt, but at least we know what they are or better yet, were.  So there! 

I have digressed....back to the Shrimp and Corn Soup.This recipe is also a melding of flavors that can only happen in a large dutch oven over a period of several hours.  Canned shrimp can be used if fresh or frozen is not available, but be sure to drain and rinse them before adding to your mixture.  If you are lucky enough to have fresh shrimp, you could boil the shells to prepare a seafood stock to substitute for the chicken broth.  But...that's a lot of trouble!  If you search the internet, you will find many variations of Shrimp and Corn Soup and I have tried many of them.  It can be cream or tomato based, but both versions start with butter and flour.  I am including my own tomato based rendition of this Southern Classic.

By the way,  grease up your iron skillet and make a pan of hot corn bread to go with the Chili and the Shrimp and Corn Soup.  Nothing better on a cold, gray day.  I am sharing my recipes with you below. I am also including my recipe for corn bread.  It's a staple at our house.  When I was a child, my mom made corn bread every day, so naturally I am really fond of this humble quick bread.   Generally follow the recipes, but add your own variations. Except for the corn bread, the amounts are approximations. Careful measuring is not necessary for the Chili nor the soup. To quote my husband:  "I wonder what the poor people are eating tonight."

Chili by Dot
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 pound beef (ground or bite size pieces of top round)
2 cups chopped onion, bell pepper mixture (fresh or frozen)
4 cloves minced garlic
1 (16 oz,) can diced tomatoes (no salt added)
1 (10 oz) can condensed tomato soup
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
2 Tablespoons chili powder (or to taste)
2 to 3 cups water (or beef broth)
dash of Kitchen Bouquet browning liquid
Salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste

1.  Brown the beef in hot oil in a dutch oven on top of the stove. If you have used a low fat beef, then no need to drain fat away.
2.  Stir in the onion, bell pepper, and garlic.  Saute until tender.
3.  Add tomatoes, soup, sugar, white vinegar, chili powder and water.
4.  Simmer uncovered for a couple of hours.  Add water as needed.  Stir occasionally to prevent sticking.
5.  Before serving, stir in the Kitchen Bouquet.  This can be omitted, but gives a rich color to the finished product. 
6.  Season to taste.

Garnish individual servings with dollops of sour cream, chopped green onions and grated cheddar cheese.
Freezes well, but be sure to label the container!

Shrimp and Corn Soup
1/2 stick butter
3 Tablespoons flour
2 cups chopped onions, bell peppers
minced garlic to taste
3 or 4 cups chicken broth (I use Swanson's low sodium)
1 (16 oz.) can stewed tomatoes
1 pound peeled shrimp (cut if large size is used)
1 pound frozen yellow corn kernels (if using canned, drain first)
Salt, white pepper, cajun seasonings to taste (I use Tony Chachere's)
Green onions, chopped

1. Melt the butter in a large dutch oven on top of the stove and stir in the flour.  Stir and cook until a very light roux is formed. 
2. Add and saute the vegetables in the roux.  Vegetables should be translucent.
3. Add tomatoes and broth, stirring well to incorporate the roux.  Simmer mixture for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
4. Use an immersion blender to puree the mixture.  (If you don't have this blender, then skip this step.  Your soup will be chunkier and that's fine.)
5.  Add shrimp and corn about 20 minutes before serving.  (these should not be overcooked)
6.  Garnish individual servings with chopped green onions.

Dot's Corn Bread
1/2 cup cornmeal (yellow preferred)
3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons sugar (optional.  It's more "savory" if this is left out)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk ( I use skim)
1 egg
2 Tablespoon vegetable oil (or melted butter, or bacon grease, etc.)

1.  Pour a small amount of oil in a 7" or 8" cast iron skillet.  Place the skillet in the oven while it is preheating to 400 degrees F. 
2.  Meanwhile, combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.
3.  Combine the liquid ingredients and pour these into the dry ingredients. 
4.  When the oven is ready, remove the skillet and pour the corn bread mixture into the hot skillet.  It should sizzle and this helps make a crispy crust on the finished product.
5.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until brown.  Turn the corn bread out on a plate when you take it out of the oven.

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