Colcannon: Decoding the Missing Information Between the Lines of a Recipe

A traditional Irish dish, Colcannon was reserved for special occasions since “few Irish cottagers grew turnips or cabbages.” (1)  How interesting since those foods are so common nowadays!  Common though they may be, when combined with affordable potatoes you get a lovely dish that is not only budget-minded but also highly nutritious and tasty enough for company.

The following recipe for Colcannon caught my eye, no doubt because I’m part Irish, but also because autumn’s cool weather has finally blown in, making a hearty potato dish sound perfect.  What’s more, it takes good advantage of cool-weather produce:  I have lots of kale and green onions from my garden along with plenty of potatoes in with my CSA share.

Read Between the Line Pic

Reading Between the Lines  While making the recipe, however, I noticed how often I was “reading between the lines,” making additions and substitutions based on my health needs (I’m dairy-free), tastes and experience in the kitchen.  Another post explained how a lot of a recipe can be missing–as if written in invisible ink between the lines.  Read on to see how much and what information can be “missing” from a recipe, and how to begin building your knowledge base of trick and tips to make meals that are ever more satisfying for you.

Mind Your Ingredients  It all starts with good ingredients.  They are especially critical in dishes that have only a few to rely on for flavor, particularly when 1) the main ingredient (potatoes) is on the bland side and 2) when the main flavorings (cream and butter) have to be reduced or eliminated for health reasons. This is where tricks, tips and experimentation come in:

Colcannon RecipesColcannon--Substitutions

Health Boost  Interestingly, the modifications above also had the effect of improving the healthfulness of the dish.

  • Nothing against butter, but with 100 calories per tablespoon, it’s helpful to be moderate–and it’s not so very hard to reduce  5-6 Tablespoons to 2-3 Tablespoons.
  • While I eliminated the cream due to a dairy allergy, it also saves a lot on the calorie count.  Since butter and cream are the traditional  flavor enhancers, however, reducing or eliminating them makes it all the more imperative to use the flavor boosters listed above.
  • Potato skins, besides adding flavor, are loaded with vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B-6, thiamin, niacin and vitamin C, as well as iron, potassium and magnesium (2)-–plenty of reasons to leave them in the dish instead of tossing into the compost bin.
  • Finally, increasing the kale from three cups to four and tripling the green onions also boosts flavor along with nutrients.

My Recipe for Colcannon  See how I used all this information from “reading between the lines” to create my healthier version of Colcannon.

(1)  FoodTimeLine.org

(2)  “Does the Skin of a Potato Really Have All the Vitamins?”

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Recipe: Slow Cooker Roasted Chicken

After a recent post on storing your slow cooker, one reader asked why we didn’t include any ideas for using a slow cooker.  So here is one from Lauren, our long time volunteer adviser and the class assistant in our New Kitchen Cooking School.  I had always slow cooked chicken by submerging it in water and cooking on low for 8 to 10 hours–essentially poaching it.  Then Lauren shared her method which essentially roasts the chicken. Guaranteed good results–and ridiculously simple:

Slow Cooker Roasted Chicken

Step 1:  Plop Bird into Slow Cooker, Breast Side Down

Picture of Slow Cooker Chicken

Keeping the breast down helps it stay moister.  The wide, shallow style slow cooker is better for roasting since it allows more air circulation around the bird, although the tall narrow style can work, too.

Step 2: Season Chicken

You can be fairly generous with the salt and especially the pepper.  If you want, be creative and toss on some herbs or spices, e.g., Herbes de Provence, Italian Herbs, a Moroccan rub . . . .

Step 3:  Cover and Cook on High ~ 3 Hours

Slow Cooker Chicken

Timing is where things can be a little tricky, because of differences in cookers and bird sizes. So start monitoring after two hours, until you learn the right timing for your slow cooker and usual bird size.

Step 4:  Uncover and Cook on High ~ 1 More Hour

Browned Slow Cooker Chicken

Even covered, the bird browns and crisps fairly well. Now, in an unusual twist, leave the cover off another hour to brown even a little more. Be sure to leave the temperature on high.

Step 5:  Baste Every 15 Minutes (optional, but really adds flavor and moistness)

Basting Chicken

Basting is what makes the chicken taste more like those succulent rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. I just baste as I pass by the chicken while doing things around the house, or while preparing the rest of the meal. IMPORTANT: Before serving, test the chicken for doneness (see Note below.)

Step 6:  Use the pan juices to make a delicious sauce, e.g., with just a little grainy mustard and Herbes de Provence, maybe a little wine.  Try making it in the slow cooker, but if it’s too slow, scrape everything into a small skillet or saucepan.

Fair Question:  Why not use the oven?   I prefer the slow cooker because of the “tolerance” and “visibility” factors.  While an oven doesn’t exactly speed cook foods, the window between not quite done and overdone may be only 10 to 15  minutes.  Outside that narrow window, the chicken gets tough and dry, something I’ve experienced plenty of times because I’m not one to stand guard over food.  With a slow cooker that window is much longer, maybe 30 to 60 minutes.  And even if I go past that window, there’s a good chance the chicken will still be pretty good.  It’s hard to ruin a dish completely in a slow cooker unless you completely forget about it.  At the same time, it’s easier to monitor a chicken in a slow cooker sitting on the counter than one buried in a hot oven in a heavy pot.

Note on Doneness:  According to Joy of Cooking, chicken must be cooked to the point where the meat releases clear, not pink, juices when pricked to the bone with a fork.  This correlates with an internal temperature of 170 (F) on an instant-read thermometer.  However, for the breast meat, doneness is reached at an internal temperature of 160 (F).  I usually slice between the thigh and torso of the chicken to see that the juices run clear and the meat is no longer red.

Recipe: Millet (or Rice) with Garlic Scapes

Millet with Garlic Scapes

Millet with Garlic Scapes

Problem:  You’re having rice for dinner, again.  We love brown rice because it’s easy and delicious.  But if you’re craving just a little pizzazz, here’s a solution:  Lightly Fried Millet with Seasonal Garlic Scapes.

1)  Vary It  When cooking a pot of grains for the week, try a different grain.  I’ve been playing with millet–and developing a taste for this fluffy yellow grain.  Cook 1 cup of grain in 2 1/4 cups of water.

2)  Fry It  There’s a reason we all like fried rice.  Added fat up the flavor quotient of almost any bland food.  But you don’t need to add a vat of fat to get the taste benefits.  I used just 1 Tbsp. of a good fat–safflower oil–for four servings.  Hint:  leftover, cold grains are best for frying, after they’ve dried out a bit.

3)  Brighten It  Garlic scapes and green garlic are in season and add wonderful color and flavor to plain old grains.  They’re easy to slice.  I tossed about 1 cup of them in oil before frying the grain.  Sauteeing just a minute or so takes off the raw edge.

4)  Crunch It  While sauteing the garlic, I went one step further (totally optional) and added a handful of pine nuts. Slivered almonds or chopped walnuts are a perfectly fine (and a lot less expensive) alternative.  Toasting for just a minute or so really brings out the flavor.

5)  Finish It  After sauteing the garlic and toasting the nuts, I added about 2 cups of cold millet.  Crumble before adding as it forms into a solid mass when refrigerated.  After adding, leave it alone a couple minutes to brown before turning.  It might pop just a little.  Cover briefly with a lid if necessary.  Once the grain is browned and slightly crispy, turn off the heat and stir in just 1 tsp. toasted sesame oil, if desired.  Serve and enjoy.

Comfort Stew: Beef Daube Provencal

Recipe for Beef Daube Provencal

This is the slow cooker version.  See the notes below if you prefer to make it stovetop, as I did.
What to have with this stew?  I was hankering for mashed potatoes, which is why I cooked the stew on the stovetop.  That freed up the slow cooker for my famous Slow Cooker Mashed Potatoes.  Write me for the recipe , if you’d like.
By the way, this makes a big stew, easily enough for two days, since it always taste better as leftovers and you might as well get a time-free meal one night!  The second night I’ll probably serve it over brown rice with a little cabbage slaw.  Read how to make dishes like this A Bright Spot in troubled times.

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 lbs. stew meat, trimmed of fat and cut into 1-2” cubes (use more or less, depending on your liking for meat)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Heat oil in a large, heavy bottomed saute pan until hot but not smoking.  Sprinkle beef cubes with salt and pepper, and then place carefully in hot oil in a single layer.  With heat on medium high, brown sides of cubes quickly, turning with a fork or small spatula to brown most of the sides.  As soon as a cube is browned (maybe 2-3 minutes total), drop into slow cooker.

  • 2 med. yellow onions, diced to about ½”
  • 12 whole garlic cloves (about 1 head), chopped roughly
  • 4-6 stalks celery, dilced to about ½”
  • 8 oz. mushrooms (or 2 large portabellas), sliced about ¼” thick (optional)
  • 6-8 med. carrots, sliced about ¼” thick

Once the meat is browned and removed from saute pan, reduce heat to medium and add onion, stirring to scrape any bits of meat from bottom of pan.  Cook onion a few minutes, then stir in celery and cook a couple minutes more, then stir in garlic and cook just 1-2 minutes, then quickly stir in mushrooms, if using, and cook a few more minutes. Stir in carrots then remove all vegetables to slow cooker.

  • ½ c. chicken or beef broth
  • ½-1 cup red wine
  • 1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2-3 tsp. minced fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp. dried rosemary leaves, crushed)
  • 1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme (or 2 tsp. dried leaf thyme)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2-3 dashes ground cloves
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Once vegetables are removed from saute pan, reduce heat to low , add broth and deglaze pan, which means scraping the bottom of pan with your spatula to loosen any remaining browned bits.  Add wine, tomatoes, tomato paste and spices, stir until everything is thoroughly combined, then pour carefully into slow cooker and stir again to combine the liquid, vegetables and meat.

Cover and cook on high for 5 hours or low for 8 hours.  Before serving, taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed.

What I did differently

Recipes are always just a starting point.  It’s good to make them once as written, so you have a point of reference.  Then you can innovate for fun or, as is more often the case for me, you can adapt to work with whatever you have on hand and need to use up!

  1. Mushrooms I didn’t have any and wasn’t going to make a trip to the store just to get some.  So I omitted.
  2. Bacon To make up for the lost flavor of the mushrooms, I chopped up (just two) strips of bacon, cooked it slowly to render its fat and used that to brown the stew meat, instead of olive oil.  Not quite as healthy, I know, but it’s a small and occasional thing!
  3. Stovetop Cooking Once the vegetables were sauteed, I returned the meat to the saute pan (I had removed the browned pieces to a bowl), then stirred in everything else.  I have a BIG saute pan which can double as a stew pot.  If yours isn’t big enough, transfer everything to a heavy bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven.  If your pans aren’t heavy-bottomed, be sure to stir the stew frequently so it doesn’t burn as it simmers.  Stovetop cooking also benefits from more liquid, so I used 2 cups of broth, rather than just ½ cup.  This also made a nice gravy to put over the mashed potatoes.
  4. Wine Speaking of liquids, I only had a ¼ cup of red wine, so I used up some leftover white to make ½ cup.

Cooking School

  1. “Draining” Stew Meat Before browning the beef cubes, place in a colander and press out any remaining blood that would likely splatter and impede browning.  This is also a good time to sprinkle with salt and pepper and then toss to coat the meat cubes  evenly.
  2. Brown Don’t Steam It’s important that beef browns, and doesn’t steam or simmer in the first step.  That’s why it needs to be in a single layer.  So if you have more than one layer of beef cubes, brown them in two batches.
  3. Be Quick Browning beef cubes is a QUICK process.  Overcooking the little guys on high heat makes them tough and chewy.  So don’t let them cook much further than the surface level. before removing them to the slow cooker.  In other words, you should probably focus on just browning the meat, not doing three other things while the meat browns!
  4. Cleaning Up a Burn Hopefully, none of your stew meat burns instead of browns, so you can just add the onions to the saute pan after removing all the meat.  BUT, if your meat cubes have the audacity to burn, first pour in a cup or so of water, scrape them up and discard.  Reheat the pan and add another tablespoon of olive oil to before cooking the onions.
  5. Gentle with the Garlic Garlic can burn easily and then it tastes awful.  So only let it cook a couple minutes, really, then quickly stir in the next ingredient, which will cool things off and prevent the garlic from burning.
  6. Tomato Paste Trick Remember that extra tomato paste can be stored in the freezer.  Freeze in ice cube trays, or just spoonfuls on waxed paper, then place the frozen portions into a zippered freezer storage bag and you’re ready the next time you need just a tablespoon or two.
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