Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Week 28 - Alton Brown

Week 28 was all about Alton Brown. We've watched a lot of Good Eats over the years, but when I tried to think of what to make by Alton Brown, all I could think about was chocolate chip cookies since A has mentioned them from time to time. I wanted to make something for dinner instead so I ended up scanning lists of Alton Brown recipes just looking for one I liked. I found it when I saw this recipe for the best ever green bean casserole. We have green bean casserole from time to time since A makes the traditional one with green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and the French's fried onions. The Alton Brown version made everything from scratch, so I was excited to see how it would turn out.

The ingredients for the casserole were:

for the "fried onions"
- 2 onions, thinly sliced ($1)
- 1/4 cup flour ($0.20)
- 2 tbsp panko ($0.30)
- 1 tsp salt ($0.05)
- nonstick cooking spray ($0.03) 

for the beans and mushroom sauce
- 1 lb green beans ($1.99)
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter ($0.50)
- 10 oz box of mushrooms, chopped ($1.79)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper ($0.03)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced ($0.05)
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg ($0.05)
- 2 tbsp flour ($0.10)
- 1 cup chicken broth ($0.30)
- 1 cup half and half ($0.45)

The original recipe used fresh green beans and freshly ground nutmeg, but in the interests of time, cost, and convenience, I went with frozen green beans and the nutmeg from the spices cabinet. The total cost for the recipe was approximately $6.84. I'm not sure whether that's more or less than the one that A usually makes, but probably about the same if I had to guess.

The first step in making the casserole was to make the onions. After slicing up the onions, you combine them with the flour, panko, and salt in a mixing bowl. I was a bit confused about how the bread crumbs and flour would stick to the onions without something to bind them, like eggs, but that's how Alton wrote it so that's how I did it. Once they were all mixed together, I sprayed the sheet pan with cooking spray, spread out the onions, and baked them at 475 degrees.

I don't remember how long it took for them to get "golden brown" but the recipe said to bake for 30 minutes. I do remember baking them in 5-10 minute intervals and stirring a lot because I didn't want them to burn. (I think I must have read that in some comment or review that I can't find at the moment.) Maybe I baked them for 40 minutes. Not sure, but since every oven is different, I guess I'm not sure it matters. Just check them every so often until they're golden brown. Once the onions were done, I took them out of the oven and set them aside. They actually turned out better than I thought they would, even though they were probably supposed to be a little crispier and golden.

While the onions were baking, we blanched the green beans in boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drained the water and cooled the beans, and then set them aside.

To make the mushroom sauce, you start by melting the butter over medium high heat, then add the mushrooms with some salt and pepper, and cook until they start to release water and soften. After about 5 minutes or so, you add the garlic and nutmeg, cooking for another few minutes. Then the flour and cook for another minute, and then the same for the broth. Once all of those ingredients are in the pan, the heat gets turned down to medium low and you add the half and half, cooking it until it's thicker, about 10 minutes or so. I don't remember how thick it actually got, but the flavors seemed better melded together so I figured it was done.

The recipe called for the entire mushroom mixture to be made in a large cast iron skillet, so that you could just add the green beans and pop it in the oven. I didn't make it that way since, for one, we don't own a cast iron skillet, and just made the sauce in a pan and added everything to a baking pan afterwards.

In the (sprayed) baking pan, I combined the green beans with the mushroom mixture and 1/4 of the onions, and then topped the whole thing with the rest of the onions. It baked at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes.

The green bean casserole looked really good coming out of the oven. I really liked it. The flavors were good, and it tasted so fresh since it was all made from scratch. The main difference was in the onions since they weren't the crispy fried onions that the traditional one has. I liked these because I felt like they were a bit of a "purer" onion flavor, for lack of a better word, but A preferred the crispy fried onions out of the container. (We have those too but I didn't use them here because Alton doesn't.) I think that really just comes down to personal preference, since both are good. Overall, the green bean casserole was a pretty good choice. Not sure how to determine if it's the "best ever," as there are only so many variations of it, but it was good.

I wasn't sure what to pair with the green bean casserole at first. I knew that it probably wouldn't be enough for dinner (although, in retrospect, it might have been), so I thought about pairing it with some potatoes or something. That was still the plan all the way up until my visit to Trader Joe's when I was trying to decide what size container of half and half to buy, and then it hit me. Maybe I could use some of the half and half to make mashed potatoes. Did Alton ever publish a recipe using half and half in mashed potatoes? Turned out that yes, he had. I stood in the aisles of Trader Joe's in Edgewater, searching online, and then I found this recipe for creamy garlic mashed potatoes. Perfect.

The ingredients for the potatoes were:

- 4 large potatoes ($1.35)
- salt ($0.05)
- 2 cups half and half ($0.90)
- a few cloves of garlic, minced ($0.08)
- about 6 oz of grated parmesan ($1.25)

That came out to about $3.63, mostly because of the parmesan cheese. Potato dishes are so affordable.

The steps start out like any other mashed potatoes. Peel the potatoes, chop into smaller pieces, boil until soft, drain the water, mash the potatoes. While the potatoes are boiling, you make the sauce by combining the half and half with the garlic, heating it until simmering. Once the sauce is done and the potatoes are mashed, the sauce gets added to the potatoes along with the parmesan.

Then you stir the potatoes to combine well, and let it stand for at least 5 minutes to thicken up. I noticed it was much easier to stir these mashed potatoes than it usually is when I use some combination of milk and butter. The half and half made the potatoes much creamier, and I really liked the texture, so much so that when I made a few batches of mashed potatoes for the freezer (I bought 20 pounds of potatoes from Costco, couldn't let them go to waste!), I used up the rest of the half and half for as many batches as I could. The potatoes were good, and they were an appropriate side dish for the green bean casserole, but flavor-wise, we were expecting a little bit more. Between the garlic and the parmesan, we thought we'd taste those in the finished product, but they really were just nice tasting potatoes with little hints of garlic and parmesan. Maybe next time I'll just add more of each.

It's easy to see why Alton Brown has been so popular over the years. He's got so many great recipes and both of the ones we tried here were good. It was an interesting theme and it made for a tasty dinner.

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