Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chili contest

The contenders. My entry is
in the second cup to the left of the spoon.

People seem to think that because I write about food I must be a good cook.

I'm not.

I follow recipes pretty well -- if they're easy. And I do get it in my head to try things. That comes from reading fabulous food blogs and thumbing through the 125 or so interesting cookbooks I have. But I can't say everything turns out edible.

Yet there I was last night, a participant in the annual Big Timber Toot, Snoot, 'n Hoot. The "hoot" stands for the hysterical original musical comedy, the "snoot" refers to the consumption of alcoholic beverages (believe me, the evening is plenty fun without this), and the "toot" is the famed chili contest.

This ambitious 4-hour program was conceived ten years ago and is still written and directed by Gwen Petersen, a charming (sorry, Gwen, but it's true) and colorful character who has ranched, written cowboy poetry and humor, and done everything imaginable to live her life to the fullest. A true role model. That is, if you don't read some of her poetry too closely. Here's Gwen posing as she samples the chili.

Anyway, there I was. I had to arrive early with my entry for the chili contest, so I ended up helping cut bread into bite-size pieces for palate cleansers between bites of chili, munching on corn chips, and taking photos of the activities.

I also enjoyed Tumblewood Teas, which were available for those who enjoy a more genteel alternative to "snoot."

There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes of a cooking contest, including mundane tasks such as sharpening pencils to mark the ballots.

Contestants' hearts began beating with anticipation as the chili was set up at the starting line. (Mine is second from the right.) We also helped serve.

As people lined up for chili samples at 5 pm, the entertainment got underway. Elvis was there to get everyone in the mood for the main show at 7 pm, which this year was called "They Came from Beneath the Bandstand."

The eight chilis tasted completely different, including one very hot and one very sweet (mine). Apart from the vegetarian version, each was made with a different meat: beef, venison, buffalo, pork, even pepperoni. The crowd increased as the dinner hour passed and soon two chilis were gone (mine included). Finally, we were scraping the bottom of the cookers and letting latecomers enjoy a single bowl of mixed chilis. Even the dessert table was reduced to crumbs.

The excitement mounted as Gwen called the contestants onstage to briefly describe their chili. The three winners deserved their awards, and I vowed to try again next year and win one of the coveted medals (not to mention the prize money).

Kate, Big Timber librarian,
proudly wears her second-place medal

The evening ended with two hours of side-splitting laughter as the Wild West Posse, comprising professional musicians and talented amateurs, followed Gwen's script and sang, danced, and acted crazy. Among featured acts were the Beach Bums, the Ink Snots, Hot Mama, and Patsy Decline.

There's a DVD of the performance, so just let me know if you'd like to relive the evening with me. I'll bring the chili.

My chili entry

Recipe note: This took me less than 30 minutes to make, which included slooowly browning a pound of frozen meat over medium heat, opening countless cans, and stirring everything together. If the meat is thawed, it takes about 15 minutes. You can easily make this vegan by omitting meat and using maple-flavored vegetarian baked beans.

The following is my version for the cook-off; substitute ingredients as you wish and create your own award-winning chili.

Quick Chili

1 pound ground buffalo meat
3 28-ounce cans Bush Maple Cured Bacon Baked Beans
2 14.5-ounce cans diced tomatoes
11.5-ounce can of V8
11.5-ounce can tomato juice
2 1.25-ounce packets McCormick Original Chili Seasoning Mix

Brown meat, and stir in everything else.

I told you it was quick -- and easy!

This makes a lot, maybe 20 servings. Who could say for sure? It depends on how hungry everyone is. And how many late-night snacks you need. If you have leftovers, you can freeze them and/or give them to neighbors who have been nice to you -- or neighbors you hope will be nice to you in the future.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hi-tech crown

Technology has made the dentist's office an interesting place to hang out. Well, I can think of other places I'd rather be, but as long as you have to be there . . .

Today I had to have a crown put on to replace the inlay that fell out again and broke off a bit of tooth on the way out. You might recall my initial visit to the dentist.

In the photo above is the computer imagery of the designed crown. The dentist took infrared photos of what was left of my tooth (which involved much internal swearing on his part no doubt; "patient" does not describe my attitude in the dentist chair), then manipulated the image with Sirona software. It's a magical process.

His thoughtful assistant showed me how the image becomes a real-life bit of enamel to put in my mouth.

The raw material is composed of different sizes and colors of enamel, to [hopefully] match the other teeth in your mouth.

The perfect piece is placed in a machine (below, right) that carves the enamel to the computer specifications.

The result is a tiny purple piece of tooth; the minuscule handle (left side) facilitates handling of this wee thing.

The enamel is painted much like pottery, with a dab placed in the middle groove to make the crown look more tooth-like. Here the dentist (left) looks on.

The crown is placed in a miniature kiln.

After about 20 minutes, it is finished but still hot. So it is placed on another, cooler surface (here, a mug) to await placement in the mouth.

Within 2 hours of arriving at the dentist's office, I was driving off with a functional tooth. Amazing.

And thus this is another reminder to take care of your teeth so you can enjoy Montana's bounty. If you need a dentist in south central Montana, I can recommend a good one.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A new bakery in town

Who doesn't love a nice bakery? Big Timber happily welcomes De Notre Cuisine ("From Our Kitchen"), where locals are enjoying freshly baked cinnamon rolls, scones, and muffins, accompanied by Yellowstone Coffee, Tumbleweed Teas, and Ghirardelli hot chocolate.

Many people lined up at the summer Tuesday farmers market to taste Jay and Kristine Vallandingham's fruit tarts, artisan breads, cheese crackers, granola, fleur de sel caramels, and rosemary cashews. Now everyone can find these tasty treats year round in a cozy shop on the main street downtown.

The bakery opened January 26 and still looks a bit bare. But Jay and Kristine have delectable plans. Chilled shelves will showcase lemon cream tarts, eclairs, deli items, and more. The menu will include breakfast foods like savory croissants and sausage rolls. One room will be a gourmet market, and in another groups will gather for catered meals.

But for now, customers are welcome to sit at a table to watch the world in Big Timber go by or warm themselves by the fire, knitting and sipping tea.

Kristine also points out that if you don't see something on display, ask for it. You can order anything and expect prompt service.

"If it's not on the shelf, it doesn't mean we don't have it," she said. "Special orders are not only expected, they're encouraged. We like to be useful to the community."

Cakes and fancy desserts might take 24 hours, but if you get in early to order dinner rolls, they could be ready that evening. While you're in the shop, look through the book of photos of past culinary marvels, and you will be ready to order red velvet cake, iced cookies, and a dozen other goodies.

My enthusiasm for baked goods can easily be whipped up to a frenzy. But without letting my emotions get out of control, I can say that the food made by the Vallandinghams is very nice indeed. I noticed this last summer at the farmers market, where the fruit tarts always tasted fresh and the rosemary cashews were a perfect balance of savory and sweet.

During my evening visit near closing time at the bakery, the oatmeal raisin scone was light and flavorful. This morning, a cinnamon roll was soft, with exactly the right amount of spice and sweetness, even with a coating of sugar icing.

They could have truthfully named this bakery Just the Right Touch.
104 McLeod Street
Big Timber

Tuesday - Friday, 9 am - 6 pm
Saturday, 9 am - 3 pm
Sunday and Monday, closed

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

30-second rule

Whew! This cracker with Amaltheia Organic Dairy cheese
landed upright on the floor! I can still eat it!

If you don't know the 5-second rule, someone is bound to tell you about it at the crucial moment: when you drop food, if you pick it up within 5 seconds, it's still safe to eat.


Now we have a handy flow chart -- The 30-Second Rule, A Decision Tree, created by Audrey Fukman and Andy Wright at SFoodie -- to help us figure out whether it really is safe to eat that dropped food.

Click to enlarge the following photo.

(This blog entry is a public service of Yummy Montana.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Chocolate cake . . . oh, yeah!

To give me energy to dig out of the snow that's been drifting around here, I decided to try the King's Cupboard Rich and Dreamy Molten Chocolate Cake Mix that I happened to have in my own cupboard.

King's Cupboard products are made in Red Lodge. The mixes I've tried are very simple ones, so if you're in a hurry or just want to pull something together quickly, they are perfect. (And by the way, they also make chocolate and caramel sauces, which you will want to eat straight out of the jar -- haha!)

Alas, not everything is foolproof, as I discovered when I eagerly pulled my molten cakes out of the oven. But let's start at the beginning . . .

The basic recipe is: pour cake mix (containing chocolate bits), along with butter, into a pan and stir until everything is melted. The box tells you to divide the batter equally among 8 ramekins. "How big??!!" I cried. Are ramekins supposed to be a standard size?

On a baking sheet I set out four 6-ounce and two 8-ounce Pyrex custard cups, figuring those ought to hold the batter one way or another. I have pretty made-in-France 4-ounce ramekins but didn't want to mess with them for this "how much batter does this make anyway" experiment.

Conclusion: I now figure the 8 ramekins could be 4-ounce or 6-ounce size, so take note of that when you try the mix yourself.

After the suggested time of about 10 minutes, the cakes weren't done, so I let them bake another 5 minutes. I don't know exactly when "molten" becomes "cake," but 15 minutes was too long. The cakes were delicious, but not molten.

The directions explain exactly how to check for moltenness, and I suggest doing so every minute or so after the suggested baking time. They also fairly warn that if you do not serve them right away, they will continue cooking inside and become cakey. This is not bad -- the taste is deep, rich chocolate; sort of like a cake-like candy bar -- but you will have to buy another mix and try again to enjoy the molten version.

I leave you with a photo of how these cakes are supposed to look, according to the company Web site.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cliff's rolls

I am not being very faithful to this blog lately, and I apologize to anyone who is checking to see if I can be trusted to post something more than once a week. Thank you for hanging in there with me while I organize myself and arrange interviews with Montana people who are producing our food. And wait for the road to clear so I can actually drive somewhere.

Meanwhile, I'm reporting about a great roll recipe from Cliff who lives, as he explains, somewhere in the western part of the state.

I'll let Cliff describe the process of making rolls in his own words. His writing style cannot be duplicated and you should have the pleasure of enjoying it for yourself.

He is right that these are easy to make -- no kneading, and a fluffy, tasty result. But Cliff is all fancy in his little cabin in the wilderness: as the rolls come out of the oven, he rubs the tops with butter. On my ranch, we eat them without all that extra effort. (Right now there's hay to be fed to the cows and waiting for calves to arrive. Yeah, sure, I'm not actually involved in this, but I am busy running to the window to watch it all happen.)

OK, Cliff's look nicer, and the butter adds some flavor and tenderness, but I reckon they taste about the same, especially if you spread on some butter at mealtime.

Also, you will notice that my pile of rolls is bigger than Cliff's. I did not mean to try to outdo my neighbor. Rather, as I was mixing the butter, sugar, and salt with hot water I thought that was an awful lot of butter. Then I realized I had used a whole rather than half a stick. I was tempted to see how they would turn out just like that, but I decided to go ahead and double the recipe and so I have plenty of rolls to last a while. Cliff doesn't say, but I'm sure they freeze well. (I'll just put them on the back porch; haha!)

I'm having mine today with some homemade carrot soup. Pretty, healthy, and delish.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Using summer's bounty

My goal for this blog is to share what other people are eating and producing in Montana. There will definitely be more about farmers markets as the 2010 season opens, but right now I am frustrated by being stuck at home in snow. I don't venture out much when the roads are icy.

If you can bear with me for another entry on soup, today is a good day for it.

I don't especially like acorn squash, so imagine my surprise when a cucumber start I bought last spring began producing just that. The true cucumber starts fizzled and died right away, but the sturdy squash spread and spread . . . and spread. I got 9 acorn squash and wondered what to do with them. I gave a couple away, but it grieves me to not use food I've grown.

So today when I craved curried butternut squash soup, I substituted acorn squash (those darn butternut squash didn't do any better than the cucumbers this year). Lo and behold, this is a delicious substitute.

My often-used, standard recipe comes from the Silver Palate Cookbook: Curried Butternut Squash Soup. It's full of onions, apples, and squash, creamed together in a soothing puree.

As with all squash you cook yourself, there is the bonus of roasted seeds, which in this case make a nice garnish.

Outside today . . . beautiful, but brrr!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Here's to abundance in the new year!

Happy New Year!

Here is another year to give us all a new beginning.

I am grateful to live in a beautiful state, where despite long cold winters and short hot summers we still manage to get enough for all of us to eat. Well, yes, even if that means trucking in some of it from other states.

I have long thought that eating locally meant eating only foods produced within a reasonable distance from home. But after receiving an unexpected bounty of oranges and lemons from California, I have revised my thinking. These precious citrus gifts were grown locally where my friends picked them and found their way to me with a minimum of effort.

A Los Angeles friend enclosed lemons from the tree by her back door with a Christmas gift, and a Montana friend, who had driven to San Diego to visit relatives, brought back oranges and lemons from the relatives' yard.

So technically, this is not local food, but I eat it with joy and gratitude, thinking of the generous people who share their bounty.

To make the transition to the new year a bit brighter, I also sipped some Grand Marnier I bought to use in making fortune cookies. The cookies were somewhat of a flop, but I learned that they are not difficult to make even if you are doing it late at night in a kitchen with bad lighting and iffy equipment. (Parchment paper is adequate -- it wrinkles when you reuse it, creating wavy cookies -- but a silicone baking mat would be perfect.) And it was fun to search for and even create fortunes to stuff them with. So I will try again.

Here is a toast to a joyous new year filled with all good things . . . whether they look perfect or not!