Wednesday, November 27, 2013

When is a Cheeseburger NOT a Cheeseburger?

One of the things I enjoy doing is making food that tastes like one thing but looks like something else. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think that part of it is the "surprise" of tasting something that you don't expect. Case in point: dinner tonight.

I knew that I was going to be watching the kid tonight while my wife went out to dinner with some friends, so something that I could cook while wrangling a 1 year old, and bonus points if he could "help," was to be the order of the day.

Stopping by the store after work, thoughts swirled about what could be made. I saw a display near the meat counter of hamburger patties, and thought that making something like that would be perfect- for dinner and for lunch leftovers. My first stop was the Manager Markdown Meat Market (MMMM).

Slim pickins at the MMMM
While there wasn't really a ton of stuff there, I was able to find a cheap cut of beef that was pretty lean. Let me preface this with the fact that I process my own ground beef- I like being able to control how much fat/lean is in there, and know that it's 100% natural and without the pink slime stuff that goes into store-bought ground beef.
The search is on for cheapmeat!
So I've now got the base (a round tip roast), it was time to source the rest of the stuff that I needed. My thought was that I wanted to do cheeseburgers in a different form (i.e. not patties) What goes into a good cheeseburger? Beef, cheese, onion, ketchup, mustard, pickles, tomatoes...and fries! I now had my framework.

Next stop, onions. I prefer red onions, but since they're typically 3x as expensive as vidalia onions, they're mostly eschewed. And for a dish like this, type is mostly unimportant.
Brings a tear to my eye...literally.
I still needed potatoes for the fries, and cheese, ketchup, mustard and relish for the mix-ins. I grabbed 3 Russet potatoes, Kroger brand ketchup, mustard and sweet relish, and a few bags of shredded cheese (I prefer the Casserole Cheese blend). I knew I had about 1/4 of a loaf of Velveeta at home too.

A quick swing by the Mystical Land of Manager Markdowns (*NOT* to be confused with the MMMM) and I was on my way. Unfortunately, it was basically a ghost town back there. Nothing but a few clearance OSU shirts. No biggie- I didn't really need anything from back there anyway.
Just needs some tumbleweed and a Old West whistle
So I get home, get situated and start cutting up the beef to process. I prefer using a food processor to "grind" the beef- it's fast and extremely easy. The cut that I got was leaner than I had thought, but I still cut off some of the excess. You don't want it TOO lean though, or you lose some of the flavor, especially when you're dealing with less expensive cuts. In a meal like this, though, meat is basically meat.
But it's pretty meat!
Chop the meat up and toss it into the processor and we're about to be cookin' with fire.
It's favorite composer is Chopin.
Next up is the onion. My plan was to cook the beef on the stovetop, drain the fat, then mix in the diced onions and diced tomatoes. 
Chop, sniffle, chop, sniffle.

My son *LOVES* the sizzling noise

While this was simmering, I sliced the potatoes into rounds and drizzled them with olive oil, seasoned salt, and black pepper. I cooked them on high heat until they were crispy around the edges and soft in the middle.
Not nearly as sad as the onions
The next couple of steps were right on top of each other- I cubed the Velveeta and added it to the meat, let that melt, then added ketchup, mustard and sweet relish to the mix. Simmered for a few more minutes, and it was time to eat. I'd like to note that through this whole process, I was holding my son (except while using the knife, obviously) The house smelled like a burger joint and it was AMAZING. I put a base of potatoes on the plate and topped it with a ladle of the meat mixture. Topped it all off with a little bit of shredded cheese (I didn't use it in the mix as I had planned, since the Velveeta was more than enough) and voila! It looked kind of like someone threw up on a pile of potatoes.

I get no style points for the presentation. If I was unencumbered, I would have done the presentation differently, and it would have looked better. But as they say, beauty is only skin deep, so did it pass the taste test? That would be a resounding yes, it tasted like you were having a burger from Five Guys or Red Robin (in that vein, at least). Not only did it make a TON, but I had some for dinner, my son had some, there was enough for three lunches and two more dinners.

Here is this meal's cost breakdown:
Meat- $4.51
Potatoes- $1.47 (3 @ $0.49/ea)
Onion- $0.67
Diced tomatoes (can)- $0.60
Ketchup- $1.59
Mustard- $1.59
Relish- $1.77
Velveeta- $2.49 (I had this already, but if you had to buy a small loaf)
Shredded cheese: $1.66
Total: $16.35 (and there's 95% of the ketchup, mustard and relish left)
Total servings: 8 ($2.05 per serving)

So making something that looks like one thing (in this case, it'd be best to not look at it...) but tastes like something else is a fun game to play. There are a lot of different things that you can do to trick the brain, so play around with ideas. I'd love to hear yours!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Impulse Buys

I'm not a creative person. I'm really not- I can't draw, I can't sculpt, I can't paint, I can't build furniture and I can't play an instrument. The only real creative outlet that I have is cooking, and I love doing it.

Let me rephrase that- I love impulsive cooking. What is impulsive cooking, you may ask? It's not planning a schedule, not writing lists and not using recipes. I can't use recipes. I've tried and it feels like someone is asking me to color inside the lines- limiting and constricting and most of all frustrating. I'm Italian, so all of my recipes are in my head, and all of my measurements consist of "about this much." My wife and I tried to plan a menu for the week once. It did NOT work (on several different levels!)

Some people find peace through yoga. Some center themselves by going on a long walk or by getting lost in a book. I am most at peace when I am walking through the grocery store with a blank slate and a dinner to make. Just browsing, seeing what's on clearance, seeing what sounds good and what would be good together- that's where I'm creative and that's where I'm centered.

I'll start this blog off with what I made last night. I had been thinking throughout the day what I wanted to make for dinner. It had to be something that was easy and something that would reheat well for lunch, considering that Thanksgiving is only a couple of days away, and I didn't want even more leftovers crowding the fridge. Just because I was thinking about what I wanted to make didn't mean I had  *anything* in mind, it just meant that I had a couple of guidelines that I wanted to follow.

My grocery store of choice is Kroger- it's on my way home and among other things, has decent prices, and has this magical, mystical markdown area tucked away in the back of the store with discontinued and damaged items for next to nothing. I do some of my best shopping back there! Anyway, as I started walking around the store, my mind was a blank canvas. My first stop was the marked-down meat section (the one where they sell meat close to the "sell-by" date). When shopping for dinner on a day-to-day basis, it's very cost-effective to buy this kind of meat- you get better cuts at lower prices, and you know you're going to be using it within a day or so.

This day, there was a 3lb package of country style pork ribs for $10.09 (normally $16.99) so I thought that sounded good. I know that my wife doesn't particularly like pork, but this is because she's always had poorly cooked pork that is dry and tasteless. Even though I rarely cook pork, I figured that I could make it juicy and flavorful, so I gave it a shot and tossed it into my cart. There were still a few things to decide, like what to cook it with and what to have as a side. The journey continued.

I went down the BBQ sauce aisle and looked at my options. I could make my own sauce, but I decided that i'd prefer to use a store-bought sauce as a base and build from there. Ultimately, I decided on something relatively basic, Open Pit Original BBQ sauce (Since 1954!) and bought a bottle of Hickory Liquid Smoke to modify the sauce a bit. As a side, I took the easy way out and bought a bag of Bear Run mafalda pasta with rosemary and alfredo sauce. In the magical realm of managerial markdowns, I got a dented can of whole-kernel corn, and dinner was set.

Once home, I tore into the pack of ribs so I could get them marinating before I cooked them. I laid them out in a glass lasagna pan and mixed the sauce in a bowl. I added the Open Pit sauce, about six shakes of liquid smoke, six shakes of soy sauce, some onion salt, garlic powder, coarse sea salt and fresh black pepper. After mixing it well, I poured it over the ribs and then stabbed them with a knife (to vent them and get the sauce to cook "into" the ribs). That works, right? Anyway. Then I flipped the ribs, brushed the sauce onto the other side, and covered the pan with tin foil. I baked them at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes, then uncovered and flipped them and cooked for another 15 minutes at 370. They turned out juicy and the flavor was amazing! It went over incredibly well with my wife, as well as my 1 year old son (who helped me brush the sauce onto the ribs!)

Something silly that I do is fantasize about what this meal would cost in a restaurant, then compare what it cost to make. Here's a breakdown of this meal:

Ribs: $10.09 for ~4 lbs
BBQ sauce: $1.49
Liquid smoke: $2.49
Pasta: $2
Corn: $0.29
Total: $16.36 (8 servings @ $2.05 per)

So that's just a look into what goes through my head when i'm looking at making dinner. Homemade, tasty, cheap, and most of all, impulsive.