Tapas-Style Potato Chips

I know that Cookbook Exploitation Month ended, well, almost a month ago. But we're still pumping out blog posts about all of the brand new recipes we tried during that glorious month! Here's yet another keeper.

We turn once again to my girlfriend Daisy for an easy and inexpensive recipe for tapas-style potato chips.

These are not the ultra-thin (and usually ultra-salty) potato chips most Americans know and love. These chips are more robust and much sturdier, with a delightful, heavy-duty crunch. If you have a mandoline in your kitchen, this recipe will give you a good opportunity to use it. We used our food processor to slice the potatoes instead.

I can barely do justice describing the sheer fun of dropping these potato slices into boiling oil, watching them burble around for a minute or two, and then happily crunch into them just moments after we made them. What a blast.

Patatas Fritas
modified slightly from Daisy Cooks!

3-4 medium potatoes, peeled or unpeeled
Kosher salt
Plenty of vegetable oil

1) Slice the potatoes thinly with a food processor,
a mandoline, or, if you're a glutton for prep work, with a knife. While Daisy recommends that your potato slices should be roughly the thickness of a credit card, we used our food processor to make 1-2 millimeter thick slices and we were quite happy with the result.

2) Rinse the potato slices in a large bowl of cold water, lay them out on paper towels, and blot them completely dry (this step is important).

3) Pour enough vegetable oil into a large and deep cast iron or non-stick pan so that the oil is at least 2" deep.

4) Heat the oil until quite hot, around 350-375F (use a thermometer if you have one that goes that high, or you can use a lower-tech test suggested by Daisy herself: dip the tip of the handle of a wooden spoon into the oil, if it gives off "a lively sizzle" then the oil is hot enough). The oil should not be so hot that it is smoking.

5) Slip 8 to 10 of the potato slices at a time into the hot oil, and let them fry until they turn a deep golden brown, maybe 1 minute or so. If you want to get a bit complicated, you can also run shifts of potato chips at various stages of done-ness to move things along a little faster (see photo below).

6) Drain the chips on paper towels and sprinkle with a few grains of kosher salt to taste. Let them cool a bit, then eat and enjoy!

Each potato will make roughly 15-20 chips, depending on thickness.

A few quick notes:

1) The original recipe calls for peeled potatoes, but we left them unpeeled (but washed) and were happy with the result.

2) Be sure to blot the chips dry fully. Failure to follow this instruction will cause oil to spatter everywhere. Also, for the love of god, do not make this dish naked.

3) No need to use excess salt. Just a few flakes of kosher salt per chip is enough to give these guys the right amount of zing. A potential modification to consider: a pinch of cayenne pepper!

4) You can save the oil and reuse it the next day on more potatoes if you like.

And of course, here's the real judge and jury:

I think she likes 'em!

Related Posts:
How to Get More Mileage Out of Your Cookbooks
Braised Pork in Guajillo Chile Sauce

Using Salt = Cheating
Seven Rules To Ensure Mistake-Free Cooking

A Rebuttal of "The Last Bite"

Permit me a brief digression from this blog's usual subject matter to address and attempt to rebut a New Yorker article entitled "The Last Bite," which has been circulating around the food blogosphere (thanks to CheapHealthyGood for being the first site to connect me to the article). This article, a Malthusian polemic on how the world's food system is on the brink of collapse, is well-written and highly persuasive.

Correction: it's extraordinarily persuasive.

Unfortunately, the article is also fatuous, wrong, and worst of all (worst in my opinion anyway), not predictive.

What's both fascinating and intellectually intriguing about Malthusian arguments like this one is that they are almost always cogently argued and seem so logically airtight. The math of Thomas Malthus (or our own modern version of Malthus, Paul Ehrlich) is inescapable. Only a fool would dispute the simple fact that while human populations grow at a compound rate, the food supply can grow only at a linear rate. Still worse, land supply is essentially fixed.

On top of that, "The Last Bite" layers on yet another depressing and seemingly inescapable point: per capita food consumption is increasing, as people in the emerging economies of the world adopt western-style diets.

In short, with its compelling anecdotes and dire conclusions, this article is causing outbreaks of gloom and despair all over blogland.

But what's missing from this article, and why its entire Malthusian thesis is fatally flawed, is that it ignores a critical variable: exogenous innovation.

Let's back up to Malthus himself to look at an illustrative example. Malthus completely omitted the impact that massive improvements in agricultural yields would have on his argument. He left it out because it never occurred to him that a collection of agricultural innovations, developed gradually by farming communities throughout England, could combine into an exogenous force powerful enough to undo his entire thesis.

And lest you think I'm beating up on Malthus too much, keep in mind that nobody else anticipated his era's green revolution either. It just happened. But it is a particularly harsh irony that this green revolution began shortly after the ink dried on his book.

Likewise, later Malthusians failed to incorporate the even more significant agricultural yield improvements of the 19th century, and of course missed yet again the staggering yield improvements seen in the 20th century (see for example the green revolution in India in the 1960s).

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."
--Yogi Berra

Why are dire predictions about the future so often wrong, and quite often so monstrously wrong? In short, because economic systems--and for that matter most systems that involve human beings--are recursive. Meaning, people inside the system see what's going on around them, hear these predictions about the future, and adjust their behavior. If gasoline prices go up a lot, people will drive less. If beef prices go up, people will become part-time vegetarians. This changes the dynamics of the system on the fly, and it makes even the best efforts at prediction fruitless--and often highly embarrassing for those making the predictions.

Take for example a market for rice. A current rice shortage will drive recursive behavior in the very short term that might well exacerbate the shortage, as people may hoard or gouge prices. But other actors in that market will see the higher rice prices, and--with proverbial dollars signs in their eyes--react by producing more rice. A longer term shortage will unlock additional recursive behavior, perhaps by making it increasingly profitable to till land currently used for other purposes, or by making it worthwhile to invent better seeds or better growing techniques.

Innovation and exogenous solutions will always be the biggest and most unpredictable input in any economic system. We're fortunate that we live in a world where there are enormous economic incentives to solve these types of problems. You can get very, very rich if you can bring a meaningfully productive innovation to the marketplace.

The negative, doom-and-gloom arguments always seems so prudent, so logical and so rigorous. And of course it seems fundamentally unrigorous, even naive, to base a view of the future on some hoped-for exogenous innovation that nobody even knows about yet.

But here's the thing: all innovations are by definition unknown and inconceivable, otherwise they'd already be conceived and in use by now!

It may seem unrigorous, but it is actually more accurate and more predictive to trust in innovation to help solve problems like those discussed in "The Last Bite" that today seem so dire and intractable. That's really the way the future works.

Links for further reading:
1) If you're interested in yet another example of how Malthusian thinking misses the mark, this time pertaining to predicting grievous commodity shortages, have a look at Wikipedia's highly balanced retelling of
the famous Ehrlich-Simon bet. It's ironic of course that if these gentlemen had made this bet 10 years ago (instead of in 1980), it would have gone the other way.

2) Wired Magazine's
engaging profile of Julian Simon, the man on the winning side of the Ehrlich-Simon bet.

3) Malthus's famous book:
An Essay on the Principle of Population

4) Looking for more "rigorously" argued reasons to despair? See Paul Ehrlich's
The Population Bomb

Mexicali Pork Chops

Here's yet another new recipe made during Cookbook Exploitation Month!

Today's dish is from the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, an old warhorse in our kitchen, and it was another successful and easy-to-make recipe. I will concede, however, that it was a bit of what I'd call an ethnic reach for Better Homes.

But this recipe was so easy and required so little prep work that I can definitely imagine us making this dish again. And of course it can (and probably should) be modified to be more spicy. We share our suggested modifications below.

Mexicali Pork Chops
(slightly modified from Better Homes & Gardens)

4 pork loin chops (approx 3/4 inch thick, about 1 1/2 pounds total)
olive oil for browning chops

2 14.5-ounce cans stewed tomatoes
8 ounces canned or frozen corn kernels
1 8-ounce can red kidney beans, drained
1/2 cup white rice
1 4-ounce can green chili peppers, drained, or 1 teaspoon chili powder
Few dashes Tabasco

In a large non-stick pan, brown meat in hot oil for a few minutes on each side. Drain fat. In the same skillet, combine undrained stewed tomatoes, drained corn, drained kidney beans, rice, chili peppers and seasonings (ie, all other ingredients), and bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute.

Transfer tomato mixture into a 7x12 inch pan or a medium sized baking dish (note: a 1.5 quart Corningware casserole dish would be perfect here). Arrange chops on top. Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake about 10 minutes more or until rice is tender and pork is cooked through.

Serves 4 easily.

Four final notes:

1) Don't get me wrong, I love this cookbook, and we really liked this recipe. But I can't help myself but chuckle a little bit when Better Homes tries to go ethnic. The authors try hard, they really do. But let face facts: this is just not a Mexican recipe. It's essentially a midwesterner's attempt at a facsimile of a Mexican recipe. If you'd like a slightly more authentic example of Mexican cuisine, I'd encourage you to take a look at my mole sauce recipe, or better still, pork with guajillo chile sauce.

2) Be sure to sear the pork chops using high heat. This will help seal in the juices when the chops bake, and it will help prevent dreaded dry pork chop syndrome.

3) Here are the modifications (or more accurately, spice-ifications) we made:

a) Instead of "Few dashes Tabasco" we shook a heck of a lot of shakes of Tabasco in there.
b) Instead of "One four-ounce can of diced green chile peppers, or 1 teaspoon chili powder" we added two teaspoons of hot cayenne pepper. You could also consider using either fresh or canned jalapenos.

4) And of course, feel free to add an optional avocado on the side--it adds a colorful (and tasty) contrast!

Related Posts:
Braised Pork in Guajillo Chile Sauce
How to Modify a Recipe Part 2: The Six Rules
The History of Tabasco
The Bhut Jolokia Pepper--The World's Hottest Chili

Brown Rice: Dietary Penance

Just a couple of quick follow-up comments about brown rice that occured to me since I wrote up the limping dinner post. Today, I'd like to discuss two additional advantages of this simple yet wholesome food.

First, brown rice isn’t just easy to make, it's also healthy and a surprisingly well-balanced food, with protein, some fat, plenty of vitamins and minerals, and of course lots of fiber. This is in stark contrast to white rice, which, while it’s a favorite staple here at Casual Kitchen, is essentially a nutrient-free starch by comparison.

Second, brown rice can serve as a form of dietary penance.

Let me share an example: The other weekend, my sister and her husband came to visit us, and we spent their entire visit essentially eating our way across Manhattan (two amazing and wallet-busting restaurants worth mentioning: Fleur de Sel and Spice Market). Don’t get me wrong, it was a glorious time and I loved every minute of it, but by the third night I was looking around for a walk-in angioplasty clinic.

So our first meal at home after my sister left was--you guessed it--spicy brown rice. We used it to undo all the artery-clogging eating from prior few days and get back to some basic food that’s not quite so hard on our digestive systems.

That's why those macrobiotic “purifying” diets that people did in the 1980s in places like Ithaca, NY (not that I’d know anything about this of course) involved eating only brown rice for a week or more, and then gradually introducing other foods into your diet after the initial detox period.

So the next time you prepare a meal, think about including a side of brown rice instead of white rice. And the next time you have one too many heavy meals in a row and you feel like your body is crying out for an angioplasty, try a limping dinner of spicy brown rice to get your system back to normal.

Related Posts:
The Limping Dinner: Spicy Brown Rice

Why I'm a Part-Time Vegetarian
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The Limping Dinner: Spicy Brown Rice

We usually keep a pretty disciplined household here at Casual Kitchen, and we make a point of eating home-cooked food most nights of the week. But there are days when the idea of cooking is just a little bit too much to bear. Coming up with a recipe to make, heading to the store to buy the ingredients you need, and then actually making the dish—it all just seems too monumental a task.

Last Saturday was one of those days for us.

So we made what we call a "limping dinner"--a laughably easy-to-make (and coincidentally, laughably cheap) meal that can be made with basic staples that you typically always keep on hand in your home. It's not a meal that's going to win any awards, but it is the kind of meal that will get you back on the couch, fueled up and feeling full, with an absolute minimum of effort.

Let’s face it: cooking isn’t always going to be an act of glorious personal expression. You will have occasional days when you just need to get some serviceable food into you and your family’s bodies as expediently as possible. Thus the ability to make a limping dinner, when necessary, is a valuable skill to add to your cooking arsenal.

Today I’ll share with you my recipe for Spicy Brown Rice, which (along with other preposterously easy-to-make dishes like Mock Wild Rice or Pasta with Ken’s) are typical limping dinner fare here at Casual Kitchen.

Spicy Brown Rice

Place in a medium sauce pan:
1 cup brown rice
2 1/4 cups water or vegetable stock
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil

Then add any (or all) of the following as your mood strikes you:
2 teaspoons of dried chives
cayenne pepper to taste
black pepper to taste
garlic powder, pressed garlic, or onion powder to taste
1 bouillon cube (optional)
dried oregano or dried basil leaves
Tabasco, to taste

Bring to a boil, cover, and turn down heat to low. Simmer for 45 minutes. Fluff with a fork and eat.

Feeds 2+; can be doubled easily.
Two final thoughts:
1) Sure, brown rice might not be the most aesthetically pleasing dinner ever, but it is simple, healthy, and loaded with a surprisingly wide variety of nutrients.

2) Finally, it’s worth thinking about what kind of inventory of food staples you might like to keep in your home at all times so you can always feed yourself your own limping dinner when necessary. At Casual Kitchen, we generally keep potatoes, rice, brown rice, pasta and eggs in our kitchen at all times. Pasta, rice and brown rice have a nearly infinite shelf life; potatoes, onions and eggs will last for several weeks in your fridge.

Related Posts:
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Mock Wild Rice: An Insanely Easy To Make Side Dish
15 Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating
Top Ten Most Popular Posts of Casual Kitchen

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Seven Ways to Jazz Up Your Morning Eggs

One of the best foods to start off a high energy day is the humble egg. And on many mornings at Casual Kitchen, we regularly boil up one or two eggs apiece for a quick, efficient and energy-dense breakfast.

The only problem is you can only eat eggs prepared the same way for so many days in a row before you start to feel like Cool Hand Luke (remember the scene where Paul Newman eats fifty boiled eggs in one hour to settle a bet?).

My goal with today's post is to bring you seven quick and easy egg-jazzing suggestions, so you'll never get sick of eggs--one of nature’s most efficient foods.

One brief note before we get started: I want to go beyond too-obvious solutions like suggesting the various basic egg prep techniques (e.g.: sunnyside up, scrambled, over easy, etc). Rotating through basic egg prep techniques like this doesn't exactly qualify for “jazzing up” in my opinion, and in any event each of these techniques, if overused, can quickly get boring too. At the same time, I want to avoid highly complex solutions like egg frittatas or eggs Benedict that are outside the scope of what I’d call a quick and efficient meal.

Let’s begin:

1) Tabasco
Instead of seasoning your eggs with run-of-the-mill spices like salt and pepper, why not shake a generous splash or two of Tabasco sauce on them? You can do this with eggs prepared in almost any conceivable way, fried, boiled, scrambled, etc. It will add a little fire to your morning and can make a boring egg seem a lot more interesting. You can also try Chipotle Tabasco--or if you have a truly asbestos-lined mouth, Habanero Tabasco.

2) Creative Spices
But why stop with Tabasco? Consider even more creative and unusual spices for your eggs. How about adding a few shakes of ground paprika? Or sage and marjoram--or even nutmeg? What about a ground hot curry powder? Eggs can be a vehicle for any of these spices. Try a few and see what works for you.

3) Fried Eggs, Spanish Style
I learned this technique from the blog In Praise of Sardines: In a small nonstick frying pan, add 1/4 inch of olive oil (preferably extra virgin) to the pan, and heat the oil until almost smoking. Crack the egg into the pan, turn down the heat to medium, and using a spoon, baste the top of the egg with the hot oil.

Essentially you give the egg third degree burns from the top down, while it also cooks in the pan from the bottom up. Season with a little salt or black pepper, and serve on a piece of toasted bread. Delicious!

4) Master a New Way of Preparing Eggs
Everyone has a cooking comfort zone, even with a task as basic as preparing eggs. But part of the mission of Casual Kitchen is to encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and learn new recipes, cuisines and cooking techniques. So how about mastering a technique for preparing eggs that’s outside of your comfort zone?

For example, I’ve always considered poached eggs to be way out of my comfort zone. But the other day I found a site containing instructions on how to poach an egg that made me realize that it’s not as hard to do as I thought. So while you’re mastering your own new way to cook eggs, I’ll be attempting to master the art of the poached egg.

5) Add Beans
Let’s let Trent from the Simple Dollar take us to school on how to add an interesting tweak (and some extra protein) to simple scrambled eggs:

Beans and Eggs
“Easy as pie. Just crack four eggs, add half a teaspoon of milk and some pepper, and beat them rapidly until they’re consistent in texture. Pour the egg mixture into a skillet and add half a cup of cooked black beans (or a bean mix, if you prefer). Scramble the eggs by repeatedly moving the eggs around in the skillet as it cooks until it’s nice and fluffy and full of beans. Put some cheese and salsa on top and you have one of my favorite breakfasts in the world - plus it’s an ovo-vegetarian dish.”

6) But Why Stop at Beans?
Once again, let’s not just stop at simply adding beans to scrambled eggs--let's go further: How about adding chopped jalapenos? Fried onions or peppers? Or fresh herbs like parsley, dill or cilantro? What about something more exotic like avocado, or olives, sun-dried tomatoes or even nuts? Don’t let your mind stop at the conventional ideas.

7) The Omelet
Finally, let’s consider the blankest of all egg canvases, the omelet. You can put practically anything in an omelet. Let’s consider some ideas:

a) Dump a couple of tablespoons of hot salsa in your omelet.
b) Make a Fire Omelet with a lot of hot cayenne pepper or Tabasco sauce.
c) How about a four cheese omelet with a separate zones each of brie, swiss, cheddar and feta cheeses?
d) And last but not least: one of my favorite omelets is the Greek omelet, but consider a greek omelet not just with spinach and feta cheese, but with additional ingredients, like dill, olives and even cucumbers. You could call it a Greek Salad Omelet.

What are your favorite ways to prepare eggs?

Related Posts:
How to Make a Perfectly Boiled Egg Every Time
The French Press
The History of Tabasco
When High-Fat Food ... Can Actually Be Healthy For You: Diet and Athletic Training Part 1

A Simple Way to Beat Rising Food Prices

Anyone who has set foot in a grocery story lately has seen some pretty significant inflation in food prices.

Would you like a simple idea that will help you cut your weekly food bill by 20-30% or more, and better still, will increase the health and nutritional content of your diet?

Here it is:

Switch three of your weekly meals to vegetarian.

Close readers of Casual Kitchen know about our predilection for part-time vegetarianism. And vegetarian recipes are typically healthier, higher in fiber and nutrients, and lower in fat.

But the truly underappreciated advantage of vegetarian cuisine is that it’s typically much, much easier on the wallet than meat-based meals.

For example, when we make a huge batch of Groundnut Stew in our kitchen (cost: around $10), we can feed ourselves for at least four large meals. If you're responsible for feeding a family of three or four, you can serve this soup for a couple of dinners as well as a lunch or two with little problem. Thus a meaningful portion of your week’s meals can be taken care of by dropping just one Hamilton!

It gets better. Some vegetarian dishes are not just laughably cheap, they are preposterously cheap--like my Lentil Soup, which can be made for a mere 60c per serving.

Note that this strategy does not require you to give up meat. I'm only suggesting that you change a few of your weekly meals to vegetarian. You can still gain the immense costs savings and health benefits of vegetarian cuisine without having to switch permanently to a vegetarian diet.

But let's face it: the average American's diet, which typically includes a large amount of meat at every meal, contains far more protein (and unfortunately, far more saturated fats) than necessary for good health. Why pay extra for something that your body doesn't even need, especially when the cost of that something has gone up 15-20% in the past few months?

If you would like some ideas for inexpensive vegetarian dishes that you can cook for your family, feel free to search this blog under the label "vegetarianism." You'll find a selection of great recipes, including Spicy Eggplant Ratatouille, Wintry Tomato Vegetable Soup, Portuguese Kale and Potato Soup, as well as plenty of others.

I've also listed four of my absolute favorite vegetarian cookbooks below to help introduce you to this surprisingly diverse and creative cuisine. I recommend each of them highly. These four cookbooks will give you a lifetime of ideas for combating rising food prices.

Try adding more vegetarian meals to your weekly menu. You too can defeat food price inflation!

Related Posts:
Eight Tips to Make Cooking At Home Laughably Cheap
Two Useful Cooking Lessons From Another Cheap and Easy Side Dish
Garden Gumbo Recipe
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Related Books:
Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant: Ethnic and Regional Recipes from the Cooks at the Legendary Restaurant by the Moosewood Collective
Vegetarian Soup Cuisine: 125 Soups and Stews from Around the World by Jay Solomon
The New Laurel's Kitchen: A Handbook for Vegetarian Cookery and Nutrition
The New Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen

* Full disclosure: if you enter Amazon via a link on my blog and buy something, I'll get a small commission on that purchase. Please think of it as my "tip jar"--and thanks so much to those readers out there who support me!