Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Candied Ginger and Orange Peel

 Have you ever tried candied ginger?  No?  Neither had I.  Well, I have used it in turkey brine, because that's what Alton Brown says to do.  But I have no idea how 1 1/2 teaspoons of candied ginger really affects the flavor of a 14 lb turkey.  I have been trying to remember if I have ever used my stash of candied ginger for anything else.  I have a vague memory of doing so, though I can't remember what the recipe was.

Never the less, I decided that this year is going to be different.  Honestly, I have learned to love ginger root this past year.  I have decided that I love Thai food. Not so much the coconut side of things.  But the garlic, ginger, cilantro, lime, peanut, sweet, salty, sour, bitter complexity of Thai food   is interesting to attempt to cook and delicious to eat.  And at the top of the list of ingredients in the best Thai food I have ever eaten or attempted to cook, is ginger.  Oh, the ginger rice soup at Thai Palace restaurant in Holland is so worth the trip out there.  Yup.  I love the stuff.

So why, I asked myself, have I never really used the candied ginger from Penzey's that I keep in my pantry, other than in Thanksgiving brine? Ginger is a warm flavor, so it goes perfectly with the other warm spices that we use at this time of year.  In fact, most pumpkin pie recipes use powdered ginger.  And what about gingerbread?  So I kept thinking, and it seems to me that ginger would work well with cranberries and apples.  I decided to add some candied ginger to the cranberry sauce.  And maybe the apple pie.  I haven't quite decided if I am ready to mess with the Thanksgiving apple pie.

Of course, this is all experimental.  And when I am doing something experimental, I don't want to blow a load of money on it.  And candied ginger isn't exactly cheap.  Ginger root, however is quite cheap.  So is sugar.  And water is nearly free.  And guess what?  That's all you need to make your own candied ginger.

I have to tell you, this is nothing but fun.  I still don't see myself chewing on candied ginger as though it's a Sour Patch Kid (unless I had an upset stomach--ginger is supposed to be good for that).  But I do see myself tossing a few pieces into many different dishes over the next few months.  So let's get started.

First, this is ginger root.  It's quite unattractive.  But that doesn't matter.  It's fantastic.  By the way, I have read that if you can get young ginger (some Asian markets apparently sell it), it makes better candied ginger.  Ginger has these tough, long fibers in it, and apparently young ginger is less fibrous.  But I just had the regular stuff, and it worked out just fine.

 You have to get the peel off of ginger, but it's really easy.  Use the side of a regular table spoon--the kind that you stir your coffee with.  The peel scrapes right off, and the spoon seems to get into the knobs and crevasses more easily than a vegetable peeler or knife would do.  Of course, you will have some dried out ends where a piece of ginger had been broken off of the piece that you bought.  Just slice those off with a paring knife.

 And that's what is left.  The naked ginger on the left, and the pile of skin on the right.  Now you just have to decide how you want to prepare it. You can slice it thinly and just have some coin-shaped pieces.  I decided to mimic the stuff that I bought at Penzey's, so I sliced it a little more thickly, and then cut those pieces into two to four smaller pieces, ending up with chunks.

 You just have to make sure that the pieces are not so small that they will fall through your drying rack (aka cooling rack).

 I decided that, if I am candying ginger, I might as well candy something else.  I had these pretty oranges around for the cranberry sauce, so I figured I might as well get my money's worth and candy the peel.

 I think that the vegetable peeler works best for this.  I tried the thick part of the little zester that I have, but it dug deeply into the pith--the white part between the zest and the flesh.  The pith is bitter, and pretty much good for nothing, so I knew I wouldn't want it, and I didn't want to deal with trimming it by hand.  The peeler just shaved the strips of zest off, with only a trace of the pith left.  I wasn't worried about that little bit.

 I was picturing thin, maybe even curly little strips of candied orange peel, so I sliced some of the strips in half, lengthwise.  I wouldn't do that again.  They don't curl up, they don't look particularly more interesting, and they are harder to work with.  You can always cut the finished product up any way you want, but the original strips are easier to work with.

 Once the ginger and orange peel are prepped, it's time to make a simple syrup.  Simple syrup is just sugar and water.  The ratio will depend on what you are using it for.  If you want a syrup to flavor coffee, tea or lemonade, probably equal parts water and sugar.  If you want the syrup to be thicker, use more sugar.  Here, I used equal parts.  For three oranges, I used a cup each of sugar and water.  For the ginger, I used two cups of each.  Just pour the sugar in, then pour the water over it.  No need to stir at this point.  Place it on the stove and turn it on medium heat.  After it looks like it is getting warm, just use a stainless or silicone utensil to gently stir the sugar.  Don't use a rubber spatula! This stuff gets hot, and rubber will melt.  Silicone spatulas, however, are heat-resistant and work great.

Don't walk away from this!  It doesn't take long for the sugar to melt, and the syrup will begin to simmer.  It's a big mess if this boils over (not that I have any personal experience, mind you), and it can happen quickly.  So stay close to the stove.

Once the syrup is at a simmer, it's time to add the ginger and orange peel.  I almost dropped the ginger in, straight from my hands.  But then I remembered how hot that syrup is, and how I really didn't want that sticky liquid to splatter up on my hands.  So I grabbed my trusty spider, filled it up, and gently slid the ginger into the syrup.  Accident averted.

 If you don't have a spider, I would highly recommend that you get one.  It is cheap and very useful.  I use it when making pasta dishes that have blanched vegetables in them.  I can blanch the veggies, fish them out with the spider, and reuse the water for the pasta.  I often use the spider to scoop larger pieces of pasta out of water and into sauce, without having to get a colander dirty.  And on the rare occasion that I deep fry anything, the spider is perfect for lifting the finished product out, draining over the pot, and keeping the mess to a minimum.

The ginger will need to cook longer than the orange peel.  My peel cooked on medium heat, at a vigorous simmer, for about 40 minutes before it looked translucent.  So I worked on draining it while the ginger finished cooking.

I used a fork to grab each piece of peel from the syrup and lay it out on a rack set over a sheet pan.  It's not super fussy, but you will want to keep them as separate as possible.  By the time that I had all of the pieces on the rack, it was cool enough to toss in sugar.

Just put a little sugar on a dinner plate, and lay several pieces of peel on top of it.  Press down lightly, and then turn them over and press again.  Then just toss them around a bit to adhere the sugar all over.

Then move the pieces back to the rack, and sugar another batch.  Leave them to dry until the ginger is ready.

 Finally, once the ginger is done cooking (because there's no need to dirty a second rack!), the orange peel will be cool and dry enough to place in a ziploc bag and refrigerate.

I did try a piece, and it tasted good.  But I can't help but think that it would taste even better with some melted bittersweet chocolate drizzled over it all willy-nilly. And I will probably throw some into almond scented muffins and cookies with some Craisins.  I might try mincing some up and tossing it into a salad, too.  Hmmm...possibilities.

I cooked the ginger for probably an hour and 15 minutes, or until it was tender. Just drain the ginger the same way that you drained the peel.  Again, try to keep each piece separate.  It is coated with sticky syrup, and you don't want the pieces to glue themselves together.  Let the ginger dry and cool a little longer than the orange peel.  About 15 minutes should do it.  Then coat the ginger with sugar just like you did with the peel.

 And that's it!  You now have candied ginger.  Lots and lots cheaper than buying it, ready made at the store.

Except.....that's not quite it.  You see, there is a beautiful side benefit of candying ginger and orange peel.  Remember that simple syrup?  You just infused it with orange zest and ginger.  That could be really good in hot or iced tea, or brushed over a piece of angel food cake.  So don't waste it!

 This is the orange simple syrup.  I was thinking about how nice that would be in a hot cup of tea or apple cider, and then thought about the ginger syrup, and eventually, I thought of the words "orange" and "ginger" close enough together to have a revelation of sorts.

I love orange and ginger together!  At least, they smell amazing.  Best shampoo in the world.  It makes me happy every morning.  So I decided to add some of the ginger syrup to the orange syrup and have a nice mix.  It will still be good in tea, and if Bath & Body Works is to be believed, drinking it should give me a boost of energy every morning.  Yeah, I know....wishful thinking.  But it still tastes and smells amazing!  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brine: The Weird Idea That Works!

Okay, I am going to be honest here.  I have no new recipe for you.  That's because I strongly believe that you don't mess with perfection. And Alton Brown's Good Eats Roast Turkey recipe is perfection.

I love Alton Brown.  I learned to cut onions from him, and that made me enjoy cooking.

Plus, he's funny.

Good Eats is a cooking show that everyone in the family can enjoy.  I enjoy it for all the great cooking.  Jeff and Jacob enjoy it because he explains just why (with lots of props) a recipe or technique works the way that it works. Kind of like food science.  The little kids even enjoy it because there is an abundance of silliness.

So when I first saw Alton raving about brining a turkey (and I had never even heard of brining meat before he started talking about it), I thought....yeah....whatever.  But it looks fun, so I'll give it a try.

Let me tell you, it is almost magical.  It was the best turkey I had ever had.  The white meat is so moist, not dry and chewy and desperately in need of extra gravy.  And flavorful!  Who knew turkey breast could taste so good?

So I stuck with Good Eats Roast Turkey for several years.  Then, a couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted more leftovers.  There is an abundance of Thanksgiving leftovers recipes on the net, a way to help you out so that you can use up all that stuff that's taking up room in your fridge.  I had found that I just didn't have enough leftovers to try all the recipes that I wanted to try!  I guess the pendulum had swung the other way.  So I thought, since turkey is cheap before Thanksgiving, I would buy two, and serve one for the big dinner, and just use the other one for additional "leftovers".  It didn't seem that brining was necessary for the second one.  It would be fine to throw into casseroles and for sandwiches, with all those additional ingredients.  It's not like anyone would be just eating a slice of it, right?

Well, let me tell you....if I wasn't a believer in brining already, I would have become one that day.  After enjoying the brined turkey for dinner, I went about carving up the second (unbrined) turkey to put away.  It was obvious, even before tasting it, that this turkey was drier.  And when I took a bite, I couldn't believe the difference.  It was endlessly chewy, dry, and hard to get down.  There was virtually no flavor in the meat at all, especially the breast.  In reality, this was no different than any turkey I had ever eaten before I brined my first bird.  But I had become spoiled by the wonder that is brined poultry, and I now know that unbrined turkey just isn't even worth eating.  I am not kidding.  Other than the little bit that I threw into some soup, nobody touched the white meat from that turkey.  The dark meat was passable for casseroles, but I just didn't look forward to the workout that my jaw would get from the white meat.

So, I never really knew what brining really does until the last year or so.  Well, okay....I still don't know how brining works.  But I do know that it has something to do with osmosis and the law of diffusion.  There is a lot of information that can be found easily through the magic of Google.  For the unscientific among us (since I really don't know what osmosis and the law of diffusion are), here is a pretty simplistic explanation that I found here:

First, the salt in the brine actually starts to break down tough muscle fibers. When cooked, these muscle fibers don't tighten as much as they normally would. This creates a more tender mouthfeel and reduces the chewiness in a tough cut of meat.
(This is also why some brined meats can be a little mushy, especially if they were fattier cuts or have been brined for too long.)
Secondly, the salt interacts with the proteins in the meat to draw in and retain water within the cells. When you cook the meat, a certain amount of moisture still evaporates, but enough remains to give your meat a the 'juicy' texture when eaten.
This is one time when we find our old nemesis "water retention" actually playing a beneficial role!
Well, enough for the science lesson.
While salt is what you might consider to be the "active ingredient" in brine, there are often other ingredients, as well.  The most common is some sort of sugar.  Sugar can add flavor to the meat, though it doesn't make it taste sweet, per se.  However, the main purpose of the sugar is to promote browning.  Caramelization.  This can be important, because one other thing that helps browning is a dry surface.  Obviously, a turkey that has been soaking overnight is not going to be as dry as one that has just come out of the bag.  That's a good thing, but you do want your turkey to be golden brown, not pastey white. So I pretty much always use a little sugar in brine.  Letting your turkey drain for about 5 minutes on a rack set over a sheet pan, and then giving it a good little rubdown with paper towels before applying the canola oil helps browning, too.  Don't skip that.
You will also notice some other ingredients in the Good Eats Roast Turkey recipe.  The big one is vegetable broth.  This ingredient serves two purposes.  For one thing, it has lots of salt in it.  This is the only time that I use broth that is not marked "lower sodium".  It is actually intended to add to the salinity of the broth.  But it also has the vegetal flavor that is so good with turkey.  Onions, celery, carrots....all are in that broth and as the brine does its osmosis thing, it carries that flavor into the meat.  It's like stuffing the bird with those aromatic ingredients, but more effective.  The rest of the ingredients, like the allspice and the candied ginger....well, I don't know.  But again, I don't mess with perfection.
So hopefully, I have convinced you to try brining your Thanksgiving turkey.  I'll probably rave about brining pork chops (our dinner last night) and chicken breasts, not to mention brinerades, eventually.  But for now, here is my recommendation for your turkey this year.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thanksgiving Countdown

Ahhhhh.....the holidays are upon us.  I love this time of year, but I am always confounded by the way that it sneaks up on me.  Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday of November.  So why am I always surprised?  It seems that every year, time passes faster and faster.  Boy, the first few months of school seemed to take forever to pass before Christmas break when I was a kid.  Now, with all three kids in school, it seems like only a couple of weeks ago that the school year started.  It's funny how the days can drag on and on, but the months and years can pass in a flash.

Okay, enough Deep Thoughts for today.  The fact is, ready or not, this Thursday is Thanksgiving.  I jokingly refer to this week as the Cooking Olympics.  It's the time of great celebration, and cooks look forward to preparing their best on this day, more than any other of the year.

The question is, what is the best?  Do you like experimenting and throwing out new creations?  Or do you like to do what's expected, only better than expected?

Me, I'm a traditionalist, through and through.  Not only is Turkey required on Thanksgiving (I bristle at the suggestion of serving roast beef because turkey is "so boring"---suck it up, people!  It's Turkey Day!), but I am also feeling a little ill about the live show the Food Network broadcast yesterday.  They brought all of their stars together to answer questions via Facebook, Skype, email and phone.  And it was almost ALL about being new and different.  Hey, I can see the attraction to quicker cooking turkey, but cutting it up before cooking is just wrong. There must be a whole, beautiful, bronze, glistening turkey, sitting on the biggest platter you own, on the Thanksgiving table.  And what's all this nonsense about basmati rice stuffing?  Don't you know that stuffing requires dried bread, sage, celery and onions?  And flan for dessert? Fried ice cream?  Bah!  Pie!  It's not hard, folks!

Yeah, for me, Thanksgiving is not the time for gourmet food or pulling new tricks out of the hat.  It's about the basics, well done.  Roast turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade stuffing, orange jello, cottage cheese and Cool Whip salad, rolls, and pie.  Yes, I said Cool Whip.  It's the only time you'll ever that item mentioned here.  But there are some things that you just don't mess with.

On the other hand, how many days do you get to just cook for people?  No work, no school....just family and friends sitting around, waiting to eat what you cook them.  It's a little hard not to take advantage of that.

So here's what I do to get the most out of the Event:  Go traditional on the above absolute necessities.  And then I play with the rest of the meal.

I have, in the last few years, played with the dessert.  I'm past that.  It's not that I am against it.  I like the idea of pumpkin bread pudding with whiskey creme anglais.  The pumpkin cheesecake I made a couple of years ago was, indeed, outstanding.  Here's the problem: we're not big dessert people.  I was underwhelmed by the bread pudding, and while we loved the cheesecake, we also threw away its molding remains (over half of the cake) a couple of weeks later.  So if I want to experiment on desserts, I have to save it for when I am feeding large crowds, like parties and potlucks.  Then I am less likely to watch a day (or more) worth of work decompose over the following days and weeks.  For Thanksgiving, I am sticking to the tried and true.  This year, that means pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and apple pie (though I may throw some cranberries in with the apples).

So what's left?  Well, you may have noticed that I didn't mention vegetables.  I am not attached to the infamous green bean casserole.  I can throw it together, since lots of people do like it, but if it's just my family, I would be fine to leave it out.  So what then?  Well, there's a corn casserole that I remember liking years ago.  I looked up recipes, and there are scads of them.  I guess my best bet is to take elements of several that I think might work, and see what happens.  Also, butternut squash is so perfect for Thanksgiving.  Funny story:  I once had several butternut squash from our garden.  I had no idea they were so hardy.  I had never tasted the stuff, but I felt that I should use them up. So I found a recipe for butternut squash casserole.  Let me tell you, it's more dessert than veggie side dish, but really tasty.  Well, I took it to a family Thanksgiving, and it was well-received.  Except by one brother, who is generally not too fond of veggies.  Eventually, he was talked into trying it.  A month or so later, I got a call from this brother, asking if I would bring the casserole to the Christmas get-together, because he had been craving it.  Yup.  It's that good.

However, as I said, it's pretty dessert-like.  I want to serve an actual vegetable.  So I think that this year, I am going to roast cubes of butternut squash, lightly coated with oil and thyme, at a high heat.  Somehow, I am going to use a maple syrup glaze near the end.  I haven't figured that out yet, but it sounds good.

And how about cranberry sauce?  I'll admit, I am not a fan.  I haven't often given it much thought, and truly, I am fine with buying the can and slicing it up--just to say it was on the table.  However, it is easy enough to make from scratch.  I thought it might be good with oranges and bits of candied ginger.  As further proof of my belief that there is nothing new under the sun, I found lots of recipes by googling those ingredients.  Again, I will probably pull an idea here, another idea there, and hope it turns out.  If not, who cares?  It's cranberry sauce!

And finally, the completely unnecessary appetizers.  Seriously, who needs appetizers when there is such a big meal coming?  Well, considering my complete inability to put dinner on the table within an hour of my target, appetizers are a pretty good idea to hold everyone over.  Plus, they're fun!  I love appetizers.  This year, I am trying a new spin on something that I tried (with only marginal success) a few years ago.  I'm using phyllo dough to make little cups (using a mini-muffin tin), and baking them with a cube of brie, a bit of minced dried cranberries, and a maple-brown sugar glazed walnut.

So that's my plan.  I like to keep it very seasonal.  As much as I love lemon and lime, they just don't fit into my Thanksgiving plan.  I'm all about onions, celery, apples, cranberries, cinnamon and other warm spices....basically, anything homey and warm.  Of course, that's just me--an ultratraditionalist.

Now, how does it all get done?

Remember, there are lots of things that can be done ahead of time, even days in advance.  I put together a basic plan last night.  Here's what it looks like:

Monday--Clean the fridge and get the kitchen ready for a cooking marathon.  This may not be
                necessary for people with better organizational skillz than I possess.
                Shop for all Thanksgiving and day after food and supplies.
                Make pie crust and store it, shaped into ready-to-roll disks, wrapped in plastic wrap AND in
                a Ziploc bag.
                Dry bread in a low oven, break into small pieces, cool and store in bread bags.
                Start moulding butter in little leaf-shaped silicone candy moulds.  Corny?  Yes.  Awesome?
                Also yes.

Tuesday--Clean the rest of the house and decorate.  See above.
                Make candied ginger and candied orange peel (for cranberry sauce and brine)
Wednesday--Cook and cool brine for turkey.
                Make cranberry sauce and refrigerate.
                Assemble vegetable casseroles.
                Chop onions and celery for stuffing.
                Clean and prep larger pieces of onion, celery and carrot for turkey stock.
                Make all pies.
                Put turkey in brine just before going to bed.

Thursday--Make 1st batch of stuffing.  This is a Banks tradition for breakfast.  Those who marry in
                don't seem to get it.  Whatev.
                Peel and cube potatoes, cover with water.
                Get turkey in the oven.
                Make second batch of stuffing--the one that will bake and actually be served with the turkey.
                Make appetizers.
                Cook potatoes, drain, mash and add gobs of good/bad stuff to them.
                Put stuffing in oven, in a casserole dish (I don't cook it in the turkey).
                Peel and cube squash, prep for oven.
                Take turkey out when done, rest while preparing veggies.
                Turn oven up to 450, roast squash.
                Once squash is done (it shouldn't take long), heat up casseroles and rolls in lower oven.
                Make gravy from pan drippings.
                Hopefully, the veggies and gravy will be done within 30-45 minutes, which is about how
                long the turkey should rest, so dinner is served.  Will it happen this year?  Stay tuned.
                After dinner, remove most of the meat from the turkey and make turkey stock from the frame
                for tomorrow's turkey-rice soup.
                Eat pie and crash.

So that's the philosophy and game plan.  As I am able, I will post some pictures and recipes as I go.  I am already behind today, so we'll see how it goes!

If anything that I have mentioned sounds interesting, let me know, and I will put that recipe at the top of the list to document!

And please, share your philosophy on Thanksgiving dinner.  Do you like to experiment, or are you stodgy, like me?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Easy Weeknight Spaghetti

Spaghetti.  Is there a meal that is more likely to be agreed upon by all members of the family than this?  Whether they call it "spaghetti" or "pasketti", everyone seems to like it.

Except the pesky husbands.  Something about "not enough meat."

I have several versions of spaghetti, and they are all good.  It just depends on how much time I have, what mood I am in, what ingredients I have on hand, and how much money I want to spend on dinner.

My very favorite spaghetti, in fact, my very favorite meal, is spaghetti caprese (kuh-pray-zay).  It is a pleasure to both cook and eat.  I start with fresh tomatoes, peel, seed, and chop them, and make them into a quick sauce with lots of garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes and fresh basil.  Finally, I add some chunks of fresh mozzarella cheese and toss it all together.  It's so good.  And so time-consuming.  Better to save for weekends.

Of course, you've heard of the all-day spaghetti sauce.  The one that starts with whole tomatoes and a bunch of other ingredients, and simmers for hours on the stovetop.  Italian grandmas are famous for it.  It's often kind of chunky.  Not my favorite (I absolutely hated cooked tomatoes as a kid, and though I now love them, I can't quite get over the idea that chunks of tomatoes simply don't belong in a spaghetti sauce), but it's a fun process and sometimes worth it, especially if I have the time to make some meatballs to simmer along with the sauce. But still so time-consuming.

It's a common misconception that people who love to cook and stay away from convenience foods, spend hours cooking each meal.  Not true. I wish!  Alas, there is still laundry, dusting, decluttering, and  taxi-ing to be done.  The sad fact is, unless I have the forethought and time to cook in the morning or early afternoon, I need to cook quick meals just as much as the ladies who work outside the home.  Our kids go to a charter school about 15 minutes from our house, so there is no bussing.  I have to pick them up each afternoon, and by the time we get home, it is at least 4:00, or later if there were errands to run.  Then it's time to get the kids on-task.  There are chores to be done, homework to be finished, music to be practiced, and arguments to be broken up.  Burying myself in the kitchen to make a gourmet dinner simply isn't an option most of the time.  And even if I had the time, I still don't have the money.

So some meals are better than others for weeknights.  My weeknight spaghetti has a meat sauce (a little more husband-friendly) that is quick, easy, and cheap to throw together.  You can pretty much put the big pot of water on to boil before even starting the sauce.  By the time the water boils and the pasta cooks, the sauce will be ready.  So let's get started.  First, put a big pot of water on the stove.  It will take a while to boil, and you can start the sauce while you wait.  You might also want to preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  

Start by chopping an onion.  It seems like I start a lot of recipes this way.  Almost all of them.  But then, Ina Garten jokes that most of hers start with a stick of butter, so I guess that's okay.  A medium dice will be just fine for this sauce.

Now mince some garlic.  I like about 3 cloves, but you can start with less and add more next time if you want bigger flavor.  

That's it!  That's all the chopping it takes!  This makes me happy.

Now we need to brown some hamburger.  Whatever you want to use is fine, but I use ground chuck almost all of the time.  Ground sirloin only if I found a really good sale.  I stay away from ground round.

Browning hamburger is something that pretty much everyone has done, right?  But are you getting all the flavor out of your hamburger that you can?  Did you know that you can caramelize hamburger to add more flavor to your sauce?  You may have heard of pan searing.  It's usually done to larger pieces of meat, like steaks or roasts.  It sears the outside of the meat, sealing in the juices for the rest of the cooking process, while also leaving behind browned bits (fond) in the pan.  Those browned bits are full of flavor and can then be used to flavor a sauce.  Well, ground meat can be "seared" as well.  The same basic steps apply.

1.  Get your pan really hot, then add a bit of canola oil.  Don't use teflon here.  Stainless, anodized, or cast iron work well.

2.  Slap your meat right into the hot pan.  If you don't hear a hard sizzle, the pan isn't hot enough.
3.  Don't crowd the pan too much.  This is easier with ground meat, but still be mindful.  If there is too much meat in the pan, it will steam instead of sear.
4.  Step away from the pan.  You have to let the meat get a good brown layer on it.  That's where the flavor comes from.  Don't stir the meat!  

5. Once you see some brown around the edges, check to see if the meat has released from the pan by nudging a spatula under a piece of meat.  If the meat is still sticking, then it hasn't seared, and it isn't ready to turn.  It really will release like magic once it is set.  So be patient.

There!  See that?  See how it's really dark brown, not beige?  Well, you would see that better if I knew anything about taking decent pictures, but trust me.  You want to see some really brown-brown.  You will also see some brown on the skillet....unless you are like me and use cast iron.  It's not quite so obvious on black.  But I like using cast iron, especially with tomato sauces, because the acidity causes some of the iron to leach into the sauce.  I can use all the iron I can get.

So once the meat has released from the pan and turns easily, flip sections of it.  At this point, drain most of the fat.  Just tip the pan to one side so that the fat flows to the lower edge.  Push the meat away from it with your spatula, and then use a spoon to scoop out the fat.  Don't throw it down your sink drain!  It's not good for the pipes and will cause you headaches later.  I keep a pint-size canning jar by the stove. Once it is full, I let it cool and harden, then scoop it out into a trash bag that is about to go outside.  That's it.  You don't have to go crazy getting every last drop of fat out of the pan.  If there is a teaspoon left, try and remember that it is a teaspoon that is going to be spread throughout an entire family-sized meal plus leftovers.  And as unpopular as it is to say, fat brings flavor.  Why do you think gravy tastes so good?  The only other ingredients are flour and water.  But I digress....

Now you can season your meat. Don't be shy.  You'll need at least a teaspoon of coarse salt (less if you are using table salt), plus lots of pepper and garlic powder (not garlic salt).

If I was making a normal batch of spaghetti, I would just push the meat to the cooler side of the pan at this point.  But I made a double batch of sauce, so there wasn't enough room.  I just scooped out the browned meat to a bowl and set it aside.  Now it's a little easier to see the bits of flavor that the meat left behind.  That's going to make the sauce taste better.

Now, just add a little bit of olive oil (the heat won't be quite as high as when you browned the meat, so a lower smoke-point oil is okay, and we want the flavor of the olive oil in the sauce) to the still hot pan, and add the onion that you diced earlier.  Stir it around to coat with the oil, while also scraping the pan to loosen the browned bits.  You will see the onion begin to take on a golden color almost immediately.  Turn the heat down just a little and let the onions soften.  

Once the onion is soft and a bit translucent, clear a small space in the pan.  If the pan seems dry (more likely with cast iron), add just a small drop of olive oil.  Then add the minced garlic and a dash or two of red pepper flakes (if you like a little heat).  Stir these around gently, just to moisten in the oil and keep them from sticking.  In about 20-30 seconds, you'll smell the glorious aroma of garlic and olive oil. Immediately stir the garlic and onions together to keep the garlic from browning.  Then add the meat back into the pan and stir it all together.

That's how I brown ground beef.  All the time.  It doesn't matter what the ultimate dish is--tacos, stroganoff, casseroles--I always use salt, pepper and garlic powder, and add in sauteed onions and garlic.  Even if the recipe I am using doesn't call for it, I brown hamburger this way.  I can make adjustments to the rest of the seasonings later, but in my opinion, the meat has to be well-browned and well-seasoned first.

One exception:  If you are adding any sort of packaged seasoning, check the salt content.  Taco seasoning isn't a problem, but many others are packed with sodium and will make your meal too salty.

Now it's time to make the sauce.  This is really, really complicated, and it requires some specialty equipment.  Namely, a can opener.  

Yup, open some cans.  You'll need a 15 ounce can of tomato sauce (strongly recommend Hunt's) and a 6 ounce can of tomato paste.  Don't confuse the tomato sauce with spaghetti sauce.  Jarred or canned spaghetti sauce has lots of stuff added to the tomatoes.  It's usually heavily seasoned with herbs like oregano, basil and parsley.  And it's almost alway chunky.  I can't say that I have ever had a jarred spaghetti sauce that I liked much.  Tomato sauce, on the other hand, is a smooth, cooked-down version of pureed tomatoes.  There is a little sugar and oregano added, but neither is really noticeable.  They just seem to smooth out the acidity of the tomatoes.  Tomato paste is basically sauce that has been cooked down even further.  It adds a deep tomato flavor, and serves to thicken the sauce.

You don't want it too thick, though.  And because the tomato sauce and paste were cooked down so much, you'll want to add back some water.  That may seem counter-intuitive.  Why not just use pureed tomatoes?  Well, because the sauce and paste add the long-cooked flavor without having to cook them all day, and because, as I said, the sauce has been smoothed out and won't taste as harsh and acidic as tomato puree will taste straight out of the can.  If I was making the all-day-simmer spaghetti sauce, I would use tomato puree.  But Hunt's does some of the work for me, so I don't have to.

So fill both of the cans about 3/4 of the way with water, swishing a little to get the remains of the sauce loose from the can.  Pour them both into the meat and sauce, and stir.  

Bring the mixture to a simmer, and then turn the heat down to low until the pasta is ready.

By now, your water should be rapidly boiling.  It's surprisingly hard to capture rapidly boiling water in a picture.  At least with a phone, it is.

Make sure you heavily salt the water.  A sprinkle won't do anything for the flavor of your pasta.  A tablespoon will do lots.  A fistful will do more.  And no, it won't taste overly salty.  Also, this only helps before you add the pasta, or right after.  The pasta soaks up the water, so if the salt isn't dissolved in the water, it can't be absorbed into the pasta.

Now add a pound of pasta.  I'm terrible at guessing how much a pound is.  Every once in a while, I get pasta from Meijer on a good sale, and it makes my life so much easier, because it's in 1 lb boxes.  Most of the time, though, I buy it at Aldi, where it comes in 2 lb boxes.  It doesn't seem like that should be so hard....just use half, right?  Only I never guess right.  Fortunately, that can be dealt with later.

I break my spaghetti in half, too.  You don't have to, of course.  I just find that it is easier to both cook and eat.  I don't want to haul out the stock pot to cook spaghetti in, nor use the amount of gas necessary to heat all that water.  But my six quart pot isn't big enough to immerse whole spaghetti in.  Besides that, getting whole strands of spaghetti from plate to mouth can be a messy affair, especially for kids.  Breaking handfuls of spaghetti in half before dropping into the boiling water solves both problems.

Once the pasta is in, give it a good stir.  I like to use tongs for this, because I can both stir and squeeze at the same time.  Squeezing helps to break up clumps.  Clumps of pasta (formed when the starch in the pasta gets wet and acts like glue unless broken up and encouraged to dissolve into the water) can ruin my day.  You'll want to give an enthusiastic stir right away, and every couple of minutes after that.

While the pasta cooks, you can get some garlic bread ready.  Use an Italian loaf from the grocery bakery--or homemade if you were really motivated earlier in the day.  Slice it in half, as evenly as you can, as though making a huge sandwich.

Open it up and spread it with softened butter.  I beg you, don't use margarine.  Margarine is gross.  Use butter.  

Then sprinkle it with garlic powder.  Again, if you want it to be really good, and you had time, you can use garlic oil instead of butter, smooshing the softened garlic into the oil.  Or, use the softened garlic, but save the oil for another use (keep garlic oil in the fridge), and just smoosh the garlic into butter.  Vastly better, but also more time-consuming.  And since this is about weeknight spaghetti, we can be content with garlic powder.  You can also sprinkle on some parmesan cheese if you like, or even shredded mozzarella.  But I didn't.  This time.

Put the bread halves together, and place on a large sheet of foil.  Fold up the ends, like this.....

and then fold the sides up and over the bread.  This will ensure that no melting butter will leak out of the foil wrapping and smoke in your oven. Now just place the loaf into your preheated oven for about 15 minutes.  It should just about be done by the time the spaghetti and salad are ready.

Cooking pasta "al dente" is easy.  It mainly involves following the directions on the box.  Once the water is boiling again, set the timer for the minimum time listed on the box.  When the timer is almost ready to go off, use your tongs to fish out a piece of pasta, and bite into it.  "Al dente" means, literally, "to the tooth."  Basically, it means that you want just a little resistance to your bite.  If your teeth go through it like a hot knife through warm butter, your pasta is overcooked.  If you still feel like it's almost crunchy at the center, you might want to let it cook another minute or so.  However, I like to drain it just at this point--a little underdone.  If it's not quite done, that means that it can still soak up some moisture without becoming soggy.  I want it to soak up some sauce, so I drain it a little early.

First, though, I scoop out a cup of the pasta cooking water.  It is full of starch and seasoned with salt.  So if I find that I don't have quite enough sauce, or my sauce has thickened too much, I can add a little of this starchy water to loosen the sauce without thinning it too much.

Once the pasta has drained (don't rinse it! you need the starch on the pasta to help the sauce cling to it!), place it back in the pot, or straight into the pan of sauce, if there is room.  Again, I made a double batch of sauce, so I put the pasta into the pot and ladled the sauce over the top.

Stir it together, and add a little pasta water if necessary.  You want the sauce to be a bit loose, since some of it is still going to be sucked up by the pasta.  Dry spaghetti is bad.  Now cover the pot and let the spaghetti sit while you make a salad.

Sigh.  I know the color is awful in this picture.  I had lost all daylight (it is November in Michigan, after all), and had to rely on the overhead kitchen light, which washes all the color out.  The sauce really is red.

That's it!  Serve it with a simple garden salad and a slice of garlic bread.  I forgot to take a picture of the garlic bread.  Hungry kids, you know......