Tuesday, December 11, 2012

La Cotta Steak Maker ~ Review & Demo

After having a question posted in the Kitchen Gadgets and Appliances forum on Food.com inquiring about recipes for the La Cotta pan I was intrigued.  It was a pan I'd never heard of before, and finding information about it online was difficult.
Probably because it was such a unique item, I got sucked into buying one off of Ebay. 

I was so excited to receive it, but life got in the way of trying it out until several months later.  I've now had a chance to use it twice, and hopefully my experience will help others looking to buy or trying to make use of the La Cotta pan.

I was able to dig up several years worth of advertisements for the pan; all from various magazines ranging from 1971 to 1977.  I found it interesting that the price of the pan never went above $9.95, and in particular that in the 1976 Popular Science magazine add, we were only asked to pay $1 per order to partially cover postage and handling.

After reading through the ads I started thinking that this pan was kinda like the original "As Seen On TV" product.  LOL

So what makes it so special?  The ads claim that it is made from volcanic rock found only in Northern Italy; that it is 5 different types of "lead-free" stones ground fine, and then formed into this revolutionary pan.  The porous nature of volcanic rock pulls out acidity, bitterness and fat from your meat, leaving you with nothing but the meat's natural flavor.

Ad from a 1971 issue of The Rotarian Magazine:

Ad from the September 1974 issue of Women's Weekly Magazine:

Ad from a 1976 issue of Popular Science Magazine:

Well, it's time for my official review of the product.
It's approximately 40 years old, and arrived with a rope tied around it to hang the pan on the wall.  It looked like it had never been used, based on my experience with other stoneware baking pans and pizza stones.

This is what mine looked like when I received it:

The online instructions I found at The Healthy from 25 to 100 Blog were the original instructions for the pan, but I quickly found that they weren't very specific on a very important step in preparing the pan for use. 

My first attempt at cooking a thick piece of flat-iron steak was somewhat of a disaster.  Since the pan is rather small, I cut my one large piece of meat into 4 equal pieces; cooked two the first night, and the rest two days later.
Sophie and I had created a basic marinade for the steak, but the pan's instructions say no seasoning other than salt and pepper are necessary, and not to use any oils or butter.  Just before putting a piece of steak into the pan, I blotted the marinade off with a paper towel.
To prepare for cooking the instructions tell you to rinse the pan, inside and out, in lukewarm water.  We did this, then sprinkled coarse sea salt into the bottom of the pan, put my steak in, and then closed the top, leaving a fork turned on its side hanging out of the pan to allow the steam to escape.

The house began to smell immediately.  Not a cooking meat smell, or even something burning in the oven smell, but one that can only be described by admitting to the world that I have forgotten laundry in the washer for more than a day, and then been assaulted with that mildewy smell when I next open the washer.
In the words of the immortal Cat in the Hat, "But that is not all, oh no, that is not all!"
Imagine taking those moldy clothes and stuffing them in the oven to dry them out.
Yep.  I'm quite sure my neighbors thought I was roasting sweaty gym socks. 
The steak was perfectly cooked in about 14 minutes, but the smell had pretty much knocked out any hunger pangs by then.  I ate a few bites and then stuffed it in the fridge.

I allowed the pan to cool before cleaning it, and then I tried the no soap, scraping only, method that the La Cotta ads suggest, and that Pampered Chef recommends for their pizza stone and baking dishes;  no good.  I tried the liquid dish soap, then I tried soaking it overnight in a heavy duty, all natural cleaner, and still nothing.  The next day I tried my favorite homemade cleaner recipe; still no luck, so then I made a simple paste of baking soda and vinegar to soak and scrub it with twice.  I scrubbed and soaked and nothing got the blackened stone to look clean again.  Even the bottom of the pan was blackened, and I have an electric stove. 

I'm not having a good experience, but I don't give up quite that easily.  The following day I start again.  This time I've done even more online digging, and found one mention of having to soak the pan in water, not just rinsing it, before using it.  So this time I soaked the pan for about 15 minutes and then I reduced the heat from medium high down to medium.  Hoping that the soaking and less heat would keep the pan from turning black; It didn't.  And I'm not sure how I'd tell anyway, considering how blackened it still was from the first use.  During the first steak the pan began to boil completely dry, so I started adding Tablespoons of water during cooking.  I've already lost one pan from letting it boil dry while making dulce de leche; I wasn't about to risk this new one!  I know the lower heat was a good idea.  I don't think this pan should be over any more than a medium fire, and definitely soaked for a good 20-30 minutes before use.  In the photo above you can actually see how the pan starts to dry out during cooking, and how the area along the crack soaked up more water originally, so it's staying wet longer.

Again, the end result was a very tender piece of meat... but the smell was just as bad as it was the first time.  Maybe it'll get better over time?  I don't know, but I do know that I can't think of steak without smelling that moldy laundry smell, and it was so bad it permeated the garage and into my sealed car, so now I get to enjoy it even when I'm away from home.
I may or may not try doing battle with this pan again... I haven't decided what kind of meat I want to ruin next.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Baked Strawberry French Toast

If you ask my husband to name his favorite part of Christmas he'll tell you it's Christmas morning breakfast.  I love that his family had a tradition of making a special breakfast, and I have carried that on into our family's holidays.  However, I can't seem to juggle both a breakfast and dinner for a crowd on that day, so I've grown to love breakfast casseroles, or stratas, of all sorts.  There are both sweet and savory varieties, and because they're made the night before, it’s possible to make one of each to satisfy everyone the next day.  Doing the prep and cleanup the night before frees up my morning to start the Holiday dinner. 
By definition, a strata is "one of a series of layers, levels, or gradations in an ordered system".  The three basic ingredients in a breakfast strata are eggs, cheese, and bread.  Your dish could be as simple as that, or toss in some vegetables, meat or herbs, and make it as elaborate as you want.  The first known mention of a breakfast strata is a simple recipe for Cheese Strata printed in the 1902 edition of the Handbook of Household Science   By Juniata L. Shepperd.

The strata is layers of various kinds of bread, cheese, eggs and can include milk or creams, as well as different vegetables, herbs or meats.  It is then refrigerated overnight, which allows the liquid to be absorbed by the bread and the other flavors to meld.  Feel free to invent your own combinations.  Often I have to sub cream for milk, swiss for cheddar, or ham for bacon.  It all works.  I just try to have fun with them... and clean out the fridge at the same time! 
Below is one of my family’s favorite sweet breakfast stratas; a baked strawberry French toast that was created during a camping trip.  I had neglected to pack the frozen cherries for a similar recipe I wanted to make, and the nearest town’s only option was a small tub of sweetened strawberries from a chest freezer that also held ice cream treats.  My makeshift breakfast was a hit then, but over the years I have perfected the recipe even more.   You can serve this with maple syrup, but making a batch of homemade strawberry syrup takes just a few minutes, and it really does make this dish shine.

1 loaf bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (buttermilk or potato recommended)
4 cups strawberries, quartered (fresh or frozen)
1 (4  ounce) package cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
7 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup half-and-half cream
2 teaspoons almond extract
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 loaf French bread, sliced into 1-inch thick slices
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons corn syrup
1 cup pecans, chopped

1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup water
16 ounces frozen strawberries, thawed and quartered
1 tablespoon butter or 1 tablespoon margarine

Spray a 13x9 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray.  Sprinkle bread cubes over bottom of dish.  Sprinkle berries over bread cubes.  Sprinkle cream cheese over berries.  In large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, half & half, almond extract, nutmeg & cinnamon.  Arrange French bread slices over the surface of the berries and cream cheese, creating a flat surface of bread rounds and getting in as many as possible without them popping up.  Pour egg and milk mixture over French bread slices.  Mix melted butter, brown sugar, corn syrup & pecans and spread over French bread slices.  Cover tightly & refrigerate overnight.  Remove from refrigerator and let stand 20-30 minutes before baking.  Preheat oven to 350°.  Bake uncovered 50-60 minutes.  Let sit 10 minutes before slicing.  For Syrup (can be made fresh or in advance, refrigerated, and reheated for serving):  In a saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch; add water.  Bring to boil over medium heat and boil for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.  Stir in strawberries and reduce heat.  Simmer for 8-10 minutes or until thickened.  Stir in butter and serve over French toast.

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic and Chives

During the holiday season anything that can be made in advance, and still taste fresh when served, should be done ahead.  The amount of stress reduced is directly related to the enjoyment of the occasion.

Every holiday I cook for a crowd starts with planning the recipes I want to make, and when to make them.  One thing I did different this year was to make the mashed potatoes the day before the holiday meal.  Potatoes don't really seem like a big deal to make on the day, but it's just one less thing to worry about if it's already done.

There are a good many recipes posted online for make-ahead mashed potatoes, and my plan was to test one of those out before the holiday rolled around.  Of course, I didn't have all the ingredients for any particular recipe, so I had to improvise.  My immediate family really enjoyed the result, and when I made the recipe again for Thanksgiving, it was one of the factors that contributed to our early meal.  I was shooting for a 2pm dinner.  Not because I like to eat that early, but because most folks seem to schedule it at that time.  However, I've never eaten a holiday meal at the planned 2pm time.  Every holiday there is some setback (usually involving the turkey) that leaves everyone waiting around until 3 or 4pm before eating.  This year I had a pretty lazy morning; enjoying coffee and our family from out of town before starting the meal.  Even though I didn't rush around getting everything going, the make-ahead potatoes, made-ahead pies, and brining the turkey all contributed to an earlier than planned dinner.  It was the exact opposite of every other holiday I've had or been involved with.  The turkey was perfectly cooked in half the time of a non-brined bird, and we found ourselves rushing around throwing together the last minute sides so we could eat while the turkey was hot.  We didn't eat at 4 or 3, or even 2pm.  We were done and cleaned up by 1:30pm!

Take a little extra stress off yourself this holiday season.  Make your mashed potatoes the day before and spend more time relaxing with your family. The following is two of my recipes combined into one delicious pan of mashed potatoes.  Roasted garlic makes plain white potatoes into something special, and it's easily done while you're peeling and boiling potatoes. 

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes with Roasted Garlic and Chives
1 whole head of garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
16 ounces organic chicken broth
4-5 lbs russet potatoes
16-20 ounces water (or enough to cover potatoes)
8 ounces cream cheese
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons roasted garlic (more or less, to taste)
4-6 tablespoons milk
4 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped (for garnish)

Preheat oven to 325°F.  Remove the loose, outer layers of papery skin from the garlic bulb.
Slice off the top of the bulb, about 1/4 -1/2 inch down, cutting just enough to expose the top of the cloves, but still leave the bulb intact. Tear off a 12-inch square piece of foil, place the garlic bulb in the center and drizzle it with a tablespoon of olive oil. Bring the edges of foil up around the garlic, wrapping tightly, and bake for 35 minutes.  Remove packet from oven and carefully unwrap garlic.  Squeeze each clove of garlic out of its skin and use as needed.  Store any leftovers in a zip-top baggie in the fridge or freezer for later use.
Pour the chicken broth into a large pot and bring to a boil.  Meanwhile, peel potatoes and slice them into 1-inch thick slices.  Add to the boiling chicken broth.  If needed, add water enough to cover the potatoes.  Boil until fork tender.  Remove about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the potatoes.  In a mixer bowl, combine potatoes, cream cheese, butter, roasted garlic, milk, salt, pepper and chives.  Add small amounts of cooking liquid, as needed.  Mix or whip until combined.  Spray a 9x13 baking dish with non-stick cooking spray, and spread potatoes into dish.  Cool and refrigerate overnight.  30 minutes before baking:  Preheat oven to 350° and.remove the potatoes from the refrigerator.  Bake uncovered for 30 minutes, or until lightly browned.  Sprinkle with chopped chives and serve.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween Hijinx

Sophie and I spent a couple days this week making treats for her friend's Halloween party on Saturday.  I think the sudden rain (after a summer of barely recordable rainfall) wreaked havoc on my body, brain and specifically my gluten free cupcakes.  It's often difficult to bake gluten free while it's raining, so I wasn't too surprised when the first dozen wouldn't set up properly.  I made some temperature and time adjustments and the second pan came out almost perfect.  The third dozen was a completely new batter, with a little tweak, and it was perfect!  After removing the muffin tin from the oven I set a cooling rack over the top of the cupcakes, and then, just like every cake or cupcake before it, I grabbed both the rack and tin and flipped the whole mess upside down.  Or at least I attempted to.... Apparently my hands were worse than I thought, because they didn't hold onto any piece of that puzzle, and everything clattered to the floor in a spray of fresh, hot pumpkin cake.

Interestingly enough, this post isn't about baking.  It's about the decorating of the cupcakes.  You know, the easy part.  Plus, after dropping a dozen perfect cupcakes on the floor, how much worse could it get?  Okay, don't answer that.  This post is more like a warning to those like me, who are always up for trying something new, even if you know that the best idea in a particular situation would be to do what you know.  If you're a Pinterest fan, this is about good pins going bad.

The original plan was to make two kinds of cupcakes.  A chocolate cupcake decorated with chocolate frosting, Oreo cookies and Reese's Pieces (I used M and M's due to nut allergies) to look like owls.  The second cupcake was going to be pumpkin cake with a neon green buttercream swirl and an adorable witch's hat made from decorative cupcake liners.

The owls were fun and adorable.  Sophie did all the decorating herself!  After making these though, I have concluded that the original photo pinned for this treat had to have been Photoshopped.   Not ONE Oreo cookie came apart without leaving cookie specks in the fluffy stuff.

Original Pin:

Our Finished Product:

Even though our owls look like they've had a long night, they were easy, fun and most important of all, Sophie is very proud of her work.

Hoo-Hoo!  Who rocks the cupcakes?!

After the owls turned out so cute we were excited to make the witch hats that we found in this pin:

The plan was to make another batch of buttercream frosting and tint it neon green, but at the last minute I remembered a pin for marshmallow buttercream, so I decided to make that instead.  Here's the original pin.  Note that the photo looks like a classic buttercream consistency.

Unfortunately, the recipe resulted in what I would consider a sugar cookie glaze; definitely not a decorator frosting.  I really wanted the swirled look with the witch hat set on top, but the marshmallow icing was just too soft.  Adding extra powdered sugar made it too sweet, so we opted to spread it on with a spatula and then add the hat.  However, without a tall swirl to support the toothpick inside the hat, the witch hat just sunk down into the icing.  That's when I remembered another pin that I thought I could take inspiration from.

An adorable marshmallow Frankenstein!

I removed the witch's hat from the cupcake.  I stuck a new toothpick into a marshmallow and dipped it into the neon green marshmallow glaze.  Then I dipped the top of the marshmallow into black sprinkles to make "hair", and placed the marshmallow Frankenstein on the cupcake.  I stuck two mini-chocolate chips on the marshmallow for eyes.  It was awesome!  For about 30 seconds.  By then the hair had slid down considerably, and his eyes were floating in a puddle of icing atop the cupcake.  It was disastrous, but I don't give up easy, so I quickly grabbed the witch's hat and plopped it down on top of Frankie's head.  We decided to call it a melting witch.

But, within a few moments the whole thing looked like the series of mistakes it was, and we knew we couldn't pass it off as anything we would be proud of.
So.... onto plan... oh, I don't know.... C or D?  I've lost count by now, and it's going on 10 o'clock, so we've just got to do something quick!

Going with the Frankenstein theme, I knew I'd seen several versions in krispy treat form.  So we whipped up a batch of Rice Krispy treats, cut them into rectangles, and then I spread them with the marshmallow icing while Sophie cut up sour gummy worms for neck bolts.  Then she sprinkled on hair, put M&M's on for eyes and noses and then used a tube of black icing to finish off the eyes and make crooked mouths.

All in all, they turned out really cute.  If I do them again though, I'll make a double batch so I can make each Frankie a little thicker.  This time I pressed them into a jelly roll pan so that I could get as many as I could, but it made them a little too thin to keep from folding over when room temperature.

The party was great and the treats were a hit!  Here's my Spider Girl and her BFF Little Kitty!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Smoked Tomato Chili

I've been lucky enough to inherit another gadget from my mom.  She gave me her Brinkman charcoal smoker.  A couple friends and I have been buying and enjoying a rarely stocked brand of smoked tomato hummus.  All summer I kept talking about smoking my own tomatoes, dehydrating and grinding them into powder to use in homemade hummus.  When I finally had the opportunity to get the smoker from Seattle to Boise, I jumped at it!  My friend drove up for a family visit and on the way home she stopped by mom's house to pick up the smoker. 

The best part of my first smoking experience was that mom came down to visit a week after the smoker arrived, and we were able to do the testing and creating together!  We smoked lots and lots of tomatoes, jalapenos, a brisket and a chicken.  We made delicious batches of hummus and salsas with the smoked tomato and jalapeno powders.  I've got some more testing to do before I am satisfied with the hummus and salsa recipes, but one recipe that hit the target the first time out was my smoked tomato chili.
I read all about how to make your gas or charcoal BBQ a smoker, and we've smoked fish on the gas grill in the past, but I was still nervous about doing it on anything but a smoker.  The Brinkman is super easy to use, although now that I've had a look at some of the newer, fancier smokers, if I decide to get really serious about this, I might just have to give mom hers back and invest in a new one. 

We smoked several batches of tomatoes.  We tried organic store-bought tomatoes that were large, and we tried home-grown tomatoes that were relatively small.  Although I'd much rather use tomatoes from my aunt's garden, the small ones easily slipped down through the grill racks, while the large, store-bought ones stayed put. 
After washing and slicing the tomatoes, we removed the seeds and placed them cut-side down on the grill grates that were sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.  I simply sliced the jalapenos in half length-wise and put them on cut-side down also, but I think they could smoke whole too.  I left the seeds in the first time, but in the future I think I'll take them out while I'm doing the tomatoes.

The tomatoes smoked for about 3 hours, and since we did several batches we tried different flavors of wood chips, including cherry, apple, mesquite and a combination of mesquite, hickory, oak and cherry.  Our favorite flavor on the tomatoes was the plain mesquite.  After smoking we removed the tomato skins, which mostly just fell off, like when you char a bell pepper in the oven.  Hmmmm..... smoked bell peppers!  :idea:

The smoker can be used with any lighting technique, but mom had bought an electric starter with it, so that's what we used.  I'll be honest, I'm much more comfortable with just another electric gadget than I am lighter fluid and matches.  So, we loaded up the bottom bowl of the smoker with the electric element and a pile of briquets.  The electric element began to glow like an oven or toaster element, and soon the briquettes were glowing and starting to ash over.

When the briquettes were hot enough we removed the electric starter and added either wood chips or wood pellets directly to the briquets.  Then we set in the second bowl above the briquettes and (carefully) filled it with water or another liquid.  You can use any liquid, or combinations of liquid, from water and broth to beer and wine, and even marinades.  We tried several variations over the course of the week.

The fresh garden tomatoes were wonderful, but they were too small to keep from dropping down through the grill grates.  They land in the water bowl below instead of onto briquettes, but I felt like we were losing out on precious tomatoes when it happened.

The organic store-bought tomatoes were large enough to hold their own on the smoker, so we did several batches of those.  I couldn't help but throw on some jalapenos too, just for fun. 

Fun fact: Regardless of my Teflon mouth, biting into a freshly smoked, non-seeded jalapeno was NOT a good idea.  I eat jalapenos with seeds raw all the time!  Why was the smoked one so potent?!  Well, for the first time ever my family got to see me cry from a pepper.  I tamed it with snap peas dipped in buttermilk ranch, but what did my family do?  Laughed their butts off, that's what!

These were our first beef brisket and whole chicken.  With the convenience of two grill racks we could put the meats on the lower rack and continue smoking tomatoes on the upper rack. 

My first perfected recipe creation using our smoked tomatoes is Smoked Tomato Chili

Of course this recipe could be made substituting with smoked paprika or fire-roasted tomatoes, but if you have an outdoor grill at home, I encourage you to try the smoked tomatoes.
For further investigation of the smoking process, feel free to visit the Grilling, Smoking & BBQ Forum at Food.com.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Salamander Sal comes to Visit...

Sophie was so excited for Bryan to get home from work last night.  She's always excited to see him, but this time she couldn't wait to give him the lemon-flavored petits fours we bought to surprise him with.  And by that I mean she couldn't wait to eat them herself. 
Of course, being his "Friday" night, it was a late one and he didn't get home until about 1am.  About 5 minutes before he arrived Sophie and I had stepped out on the back porch.  We sat for just a minute before we heard a noise like the wind blowing through the trees, yet the night was very calm.  When I looked toward the sound I remembered the mouse I found trapped in a ventilation thingy (I believe that's the technical term) a few years ago.  We call that little area the "Mouse Hole".  The wind blows dried leaves down in the hole, and when a critter gets stuck in there the leaves make a rustling sound as the animal walks around.

I assumed we had another mouse, but realized it was a lizard (later to find out it's a salamander) when I used my handy iPhone flashlight app to shine light into the hole.  At this point Sophie started freaking out and Bryan was pulling into the garage.  She ran to tell him that we have a lizard (forgetting all about the petits fours!), and hustled him in one door and out the other.  I had went in to retrieve my big camera and started taking photos of the next few minutes.

Bryan used a stick to get Sal out of the Mouse Hole.
Then he lowered him to the ground so we could see what he'd do next.
He mostly just sat, but as we quieted down he began to crawl toward the grass.  As we admired how cute he was, we noticed he had something stuck to his left arm.  It looked like an old goat head to me.

When we moved here we had never heard of the Goat Head, also known by other names like Devil's Vine or Puncture Vine.  I just remember Nick's mountain bike bicycle tires deflating at least twice a week.  The poor kid, I was so frustrated that he wouldn't tell me where he was riding that sometimes I'd even yell at him!  He just kept saying, "I'm not going anywhere, Mom.  It's the goat heads.  They're everywhere!"  It was literally years before I understood what he was talking about.
The Puncture Vine and flower actually looks quite lovely.
Then you see the fruit, also called a nut or seed, in it's fresh stage. 
And THEN you see the dried up seed after it falls off the vine.  Clearly the various names this plant goes by are appropriate.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that our friend Sal has a goat head stuck in his arm.  

 So Bryan puts him in a little box and grabs a pair of needle-nose pliers to pull out the goat head.  The first chunk was the biggest and didn't seem to bother Sal, but the second chunk was definitely embedded in his arm.  He jumped good when Bryan pulled the spine out.

Surgery was successful!
We took Sal out to the front yard and released him under the Mt. St. Helen's Plum tree.  It was pitch black under that tree.  I shot only one photo because after the flash went off a mass of birds living in the tree freaked out, and fled the scene.  Of course, the sound of all the leaves above us moving at once nearly gave us heart attacks.  I'm pretty sure I peed a little.  LOL (just kidding!)

Good luck, Sal!

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TinksTreats by Lorilyn Tenney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License