Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Weekend hits and misses

As I had a touch of insomnia the other night following the adrenaline fest at The Ballpark (go Rangers!), it seemed like a good idea to mellow out by reading a cookbook and drafting my shopping list for the week.  Knowing I would be traveling during the week, I had but two days to get my cook on.  The wealth of fall recipes from my various cooking magazines once again trumpeted their siren song, but I fought back and also picked up a cookbook off the shelf - Emeril's TV Dinners

I probably have had this cookbook 10 years (or more) by now since it was a Christmas gift from IceDaddy shortly after it was published.  You've heard me wax poetic on Emeril in prior blog posts.  This cookbook in particular is Emeril at his finest - before he had his ill-fated sitcom on NBC and wrote more cookbooks than Rachael Ray.  He had several published prior to this one that are considered better, but this is a good compilation.  No offense to his later work - I admire his goal to make "gourmet" accessible to everyone, but this one reflects his personality and gives dishes that span his childhood, New Orleans influence, and his food philsosophy overall.  He has better cookbooks (such as Lousiana Real and Rustic), but as that focuses more narrowly on Louisiana food, I prefer this for its variety. 

I decided to try a mushroom and prosciutto potato lasagna.  It sounded intriguing and, as potatoes are one of my and IceDaddy's favorite foods, how could we go wrong, right?  Also chosen for a weekend meal was a trio of Cooking Light recipes from their feature "Dinner In Paradise" from last month's issue.  The trio featured a sauteed, then baked chicken breast with a pinot noir sauce, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a side of green beans and mushrooms.  To round out the weekend, I selected

Onward to the lasagna....  I started early in the afternoon, assembling all of the ingredients and cooking the mushroom ragu before the lasagna assembly and baking.  I love my mandoline (thanks sweetie for the Christmas gift!).  I made perfect 1/16th inch potato slices without any trouble.  The recipe suggests a variety of potatoes.  I chose to interpret this narrowly and selected russets and reds, both peeled, then sliced.  It suggested sweet potatoes, but as those are not to Ice's taste, I elected not to use them. 

$10 worth of mushrooms later (dried exotic mushroom mix that I rehydrated, shitakes, baby bellas, and cremini), I sauteed the mushroom melange with sliced prosciutto.  How can you go wrong with pork fat, right?  Three layers of potatoes, four of the sauce, and perhaps one of the best ricotta/paremesan/mozzarella mixtures I've tasted (I swear the heavy cream just elevated to perfection).  The lasagna smelled wonderful baking and I followed directions (except that I halved the recipe).  45 minutes of baking and... epic fail.  The potatoes did not cook through (and I promise, I could not slice these any thinner - they were transparent!).  I popped back into the oven for 30 more minutes and... still too firm.  As I now had a starving sweetie that was looking longingly at the Cheez-Its in the pantry, I elected to microwave it to try and finish it off.  That helped a little, but it still did not result in a successful dish.  I served with a side of sauteed broccoli that wasn't half bad, but I can tell you that we had no desire to salvage as leftovers.

On the opposite spectrum was the Halloween candy bark recipe from Bon Appetit magazine.  YUM!~  First of all, I recently discovered Ghiradelli Bittersweet Chocolate Chips at my local Target.  I was making a brownie recipe and used them for that, but loved them so much I've keep them in the pantry as a snack.  Yeah, they're just that addictive to me.  Sorry, I need a moment.... Anyhoo, the bark called for a variety of chocolate bars and candies, plus peanuts chopped up and sprinkled over the melted bittersweet chocolate.  I did not follow the recipe exactly, but stuck with the general idea.  I combined chopped Butterfinger candy bars, chopped Heath bars, chopped Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Reese's Pieces, and some melted white chocolate into a decadent treat.  This recipe is completely versatile - the bittersweet chocolate is an excellent foil for the salty taste of the peanut candies.  My only complaint is that the bittersweet chocolate does not stay very firm unless refrigerated.  I'll have to work on that... darn, more research!!

We wrapped up the weekend with a healthy meal (under 500 calories a serving) courtesy of Cooking Light.  For starters, a pretty unique way to prepare the boneless, skinless chicken breasts that made them ridiculously juicy without the skin.  I seasoned them with salt, pepper, thyme, and rosemary, then lighlty floured.  Sauteed for about 4 minutes (2 per side) in a tiny bit (less than a Tbsp) of olive oil, then placed on a cooling rack in a sheet pan and baked at 425 until they reached a temperature of 160 degrees inside.  It took about 15 minutes to get them to temperature.  I let them rest prior to serving.

I seem to be in a groove of making wine reductions lately.  This weekend was no exception.  I created a pinot noir reduction (ok more like a syrup really) with shallot, the wine, and chicken stock.  It's finished by mounting with butter.  (Get your mind out of the gutter!)  All that means is that after the sauce is done, you add a little butter for sheen and flavor.  Like I said, it wasn't so much a gravy as a syrup and thus I dribbled it carefully over slices of the chicken breast.

I served these with a side of simply prepared fingerling potatoes that were tossed with olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper and baked at the same time as the chicken.  The final side dish is one of sauteed mushrooms and green beans.  I borrowed a techique from Cook's Illustrated for cooking mushrooms, first starting at lower heat (medium) to get the liquid out and then raising the heat to high for browning.  I deglazed with a little butter, wine, and garlic for a quick side. Quick is relative since it takes 10 minutes to get the mushrooms properly browned. 

I was pleased with the success of the dish - we achieved a filling yet light meal with tons of flavor and all it took was paying attention to the ingredients and treating them carefully to extract as much flavor as possible.  If you try nothing else, attempt to cook mushrooms by concentrating their flavors - it's a revelation!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Ballpark Food (aka my ode to the Rangers in the playoffs)

One of the joys for many in summertime is attending a baseball game.  Ballpark food has certainly evolved from my recollection as a child attending Milwaukee Brewers games in County Stadium.  All I remember eating is a bratwurst or hot dog.  I think Bratwurst was "exotic" outside of northern ball parks such as County Stadium, Wrigley, and Cominsky.  My, how times have changed!

IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to attend a number of Texas Rangers games this year.  He remains a loyal fan from birth, so over the years he has attended many of their games.  There is something so pure about the experience of baseball - I think it transcends generations - the rules remain the same and it's a game children grow up with in America and many Latin American countries.  The same can be said for some of the food - you will find hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels, and Cracker Jack anywhere.  The cuisine (and I say the term loosely) varies geographically.  The Rangers lay claim to ballpark nachos.  Unfortunately, when you get used to good nachos with freshly fried chips, real cheese, and fresh toppings, ballpark nachos can disappoint.  With that in mind, here is my top ten guide to food at The Ballpark in Arlington.  While I wish that the new ownership team would consider revamping the menu to add some choices and some more unique "must get" items, I can always find something to eat.

10.  Stick with the B's - barbecue, bacon, and beer.  The Ballpark offers barbecue sandwiches that, while they will never win an award against a true bbq joint, they are decent and a fairly "Texan" item to choose.  A new favorite is a bacon-wrapped hot dog.  As the saying goes, everything is better with bacon and this certainly is true with this take on tradition.  A hot dog, perfectly cooked, wrapped in a crispy, chewy slice of bacon and served with choices such as grated cheese, bbq sauce, and sauteed onions.  Very yummy and worth seeking out on the main concourse.  Beer is, well, beer.  You can find the typical brands, but recently I've seen a greater variety including both imports and domestic such as Leininkugel's, Sam Adams, and Landshark Lager.  Just don't ask how much they cost!

9.  Know your vendors - better to find out where your favorite noshes are and seek them out than settle for substandard fare.  The main concourse offers the greatest variety, so your best bet if you want something unique (Chicago dogs, Tex-Mex, sandwiches, or healthy fare, for example), better to get those items on the way to your seats than find yourself stuck with more limited options if you're in the Club level (2nd deck) or third deck

8.  Lemon Chill and ice cream cookies - In the middle of summer it's just plain hot and miserable at a ball game.  One of the bright spots (and perhaps one of the most popular) is a lemon chill.  It's basically like an airy frozen lemonade.  Strawberry flavor also available and while it's a bit overly sweet by the end, it's a great option on a hot day.  As for ice cream sandwiches, who doesn't love vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies for about 1 BILLION calories?  It contributes to all the important parts of the body - a cookie for each thigh and the ice cream for the middle!

7.  Captain's Corral (Kids area) - For the bambinos, they offer numerous games and more than just hot dogs.  You can get a PB&J with a side of wiffle ball baseball.

6.  Healthy choices - Bravo to the Rangers for thinking about offering "healthier" options.  I'm not sure they actually have a philosophy for it since I've seen some pretty typical fare there (hot dog!?), but they do offer fresh fruit, which is at least a start.

5.  Tex-Mex treats  - I would never tell you to go to a ball park over a good Tex-Mex restaurant, but if you're looking for a Tex-Mex fix while you're there, options abound.  Standard nachos (chips, day-glo cheese-like substance, and jalapenos), deluxe (with lettuce and tomatoes), fajita nachos, burritos, and taco salads to name a few.  It gives you the flavor profile anyway.

4.  Peanuts and Cracker Jacks - who doesn't love these? 

3.  Ballpark sundaes - My first trip with IceDaddy to The Ballpark he made sure we had sundaes in a souvenier batting helmet.  It just tastes better that way and makes you feel like a kid again. 

2.  Discounts - Thank you Hank Greenberg for running the Blue Light or Red Rally specials!  If the Rangers score in the 5th inning, they run a special in the 6th.  One food/beverage item and one clothing item is discounted during that inning.  I wouldn't say the prices are slashed deeply, but it's a start. Last night, for instance, they offered $1 off of beer during the 6th inning.  I've seen people literally sprint out of their seats to get their special.  Another special?  Hot chocolate is available for only $1.  Frankly, it's been a bit of a joke since the weather has not really helped, but the point of having a food item for a dollar is still a great one.

1.  Garlic fries and The Fry Depot - The Rangers didn't invent the garlic fries (I think Safeco Field might have??), but let me tell you, The Fry Depot station at the Ballpark is probably my very favorite.  Fresh thick-cut fries tossed in a choice of toppings and served in their salty goodness to long lines of patrons.  Our personal fave is the garlic fries.  These are tossed with oil, chopped raw garlic, salt, and dried parsley.  This is literally such a garlicky dish that I've had colleagues ask me if I had a lot of garlic the day before!  You will OOOZE garlic from your pores, but they are awesome.  Runner-up options include cajun fries and sweet potato fries.  Skip the standard fries!

We are Berliners!

Our final stop on the National Lampoon's European Vacation, er our trip to Europe (at times it had the comedy of errors feel that the movie did - imagine shopping for clothes in a country where you speak none of the language due to the airlines screwing up and losing your baggage!  And then nothing fits....).

Anywhoo, Berlin was both the start and stop of our trip.  Though we basically saw none of the city on the way out to Poland, we did have the opportunity to spend a day there on the way back.  We rolled into town after a 5 hour drive from Dachau - not the most positive and uplifiting experience, but one that certainly fit with our theme of touring places with historical significance.  I think what fascinates me about Berlin, other than our familial origins, is how truly new this city is.  From the early 1960s until 1989/1990, it was geographically, politically, socially, and physically defined by a wall.  That wall came down and ushered in a different era.  The city has worked to redefine itself since as a model for tolerance and cosmopolitan style mixed with history and diverse cultures.  You're equally likely to find a kebab place near a biergarten.

My cheese plate

We stayed near Potsdamer Platz which, until 1990 was behind the Iron Curtain.  In the last 20 years it has become an office building mecca.  I'm sure there are those that lament this type of change, including our bike tour guide, but it's fascinating to see the Western development mixed with the traditional East Berlin buildings as well.  Our first meal was at a restaurant located in the Sony Center - a place that demonstrates all things good or bad about capitalism in Potsdamer Platz.  The restaurant, Josty, had a great outdoor patio area where we dined.  I don't think the food was the best or most traditional we would ever have, but the standouts were a sausage/potato soup that Ray inhaled and a mixed cheese plate with a variety of local (read; German) cheeses.  For me, the one I kept going to was a caraway-flavored wine cheese that was like cheese and rye bread all in one.  I know, doesn't sound awesome, but trust me, it was.  For my main course,

I had a bratwurst in onion gravy with a side of bacony potatoes.  I swear that pork fat was running through my arteries this whole trip!   The highlight of our evening was seeing a rollerblade team skate through the Sony Center.  Yeah, I really puzzled on that until we found out the next day that on Saturday they were doing a rollerblade marathon(!)

Our next, and only full day in Berlin, we elected to take a bike ride around the city focusing on both the Cold War history and a few monuments to the Holocaust.  If ever you have the opportunity to tour Berlin via bike, we would highly recommend Fat Tire Bike Tours.  I hoped for a hot Aussie tour guide, but instead got a rather nerdy Canadian.  

The one (of 2) sections of the Berlin
Wall still standing

Oh well...  He managed to interject pithy comments and sarcasm for the benefit of native English speakers.  We enjoyed the sights, but I will say this - Checkpoint Charlie is the cheesiest tourist trap in that city.  Seriously.  It's the worst example of capitalistic influence there.  Aside from that cheeseball event, it was quite enjoyable  During the ride,  I was distracted by the Danish woman in our tour group riding her bike in a micro mini - REALLY!  You'd stare too and marvel how she managed to a) keep her bike upright and in a straighter line that I could and b) keep her lady bits covered.  During our lunch in the biergarten, I asked her about drinking and biking and she said that's pretty much what the Danish do - she only owned a bike. The food in the biergarten was some of the best we'd had - a basic Bavarian pretzel and a sausage in a roll.  Uncomplicated and perfect.

Feeling virtuous from the 6 mile ride (yeah, it was a 4 hour ride and we drank beer in the middle, but go with me), and needing a way to induce a food coma since our hotel room kinda sucked, we decided to have one last traditional (read: heart attack-inducing) meal.  After combing our neighborhood for options, we settled on a small bistro near our hotel.  The menu looked appetizing and it delivered.  We had one of the best meals of the trip - Ice had a breakfast delight (I have no idea of the name but it was something he would definitely eat for breakfast) - sauteed bacony potatoes, sausages, and 3 eggs over medium. 

I decided to go for "lighter" fare - a sauteed pork chop, those same potatoes, and a salad.  This was after our appetizer of tomato soup (me) and sausage/potato soup (Ice).  The pork chop wasn't tender, but it was seriously juicy - made me want to suck on it like a pork lollipop.  It was served with a thin peppercorn sauce that complimented the potatoes and pork nicely.  Oh yeah, and they did a nod to healthy with a cucumber slice, tomato slice and one lettuce leaf.  Yeah, neither of us could finish our meals, but they were darn tasty.

And so closes another adventure in travel and eating.  This trip, a journey to the part of the world from where my family traces their lineage was amazing.  We were able to experience such a variety of cultures and countryside (hello - 1500 miles of driving through Europe!) that, had we not driven, we never would have seen.  I anticipate that my cooking will begin to show influences of the cuisines of Germany, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic (due respect to Poland, we only really had a danish and McDonald's there - thanks American Airlines).  I'm sure Ice won't complain since his words about the food was, "I'm home!"

Friday, October 15, 2010

A taste of Italy all week

I'm catching up on posting from the past month, so this was actually originally written in September.  I'm sure by the time we leave on vacation at the end of September IceDaddy will be tired of my theme, but for some reason, the food that appealed this week was Italian-inspired.  On the list were a plethora of pork products (ooooh love THAT alliteration!) and pasta.  Since we still have summer corn in the stores, I took advantage of that to create a corn and bacon pasta.  One of two "trends" I've noticed in my cooking magazines was to incorporate corn with pasta, which seemed a little unusual to me.  One recipe I found was from Bon Appetit and it used corn to make a pesto.  Sounded good, but somewhat complex for a first go at pairing corn with pasta.  I ended up choosing a "quick" meal of sauteed corn and bacon with a ricotta cream sauce, found in my Cooking Club magazine. 

The dish was unique, but Ice gave it two thumbs up.  It really gets done in phases, so from a make-ahead perspective, cooking the pasta could be done even a day ahead.  If done that way, I would recommend tossing with some olive oil to keep the pasta separated.  I cooked up the thin penne pasta, and set aside while focusing on the sauce.  The bacon was sauteed until crispy.  My twist on the dish was to then saute chicken tenders in the bacon fat.  After the chicken was cooked, I removed to a plate to rest and cut into chunks prior to adding back to the pasta.  Sauteed up corn (fresh cut from the cob) in the pan, added basil, ricotta cheese, and pasta water.  That is the secret to creating a creamy sauce without heavy cream.  Once heated through, I added in the pasta, chicken, and bacon to toss.  A great way to celebrate the end of summer corn.

Now, Ice won't partake, but I LOVE brussel sprouts.  I don't know why, but it's just one of those "weird" foods that I eat and have loved since I was a kid.  If you like cabbage, I think you'd like this.  Cooking Light  had a recipe for sauteed brussel sprouts with shallots.  Pretty simple - cut up a boatload of shallots (definitely don't buy at the regular grocery store as you'll spend like $3 on enough shallots to make the recipe - buy at the produce market), trim up the brussel sprouts and slice thinly (I cut the bottom off, then sliced into thirds), mince two garlic cloves, and get cooking!  Saute up the shallots until soft in some olive oil (medium-high heat), add garlic, then brussel sprouts, 1 tsp of sugar, and cook about 5 minutes until the sprouts are brown.  Season with salt and pepper and serve!  I think they were tasty good and had both the sharpness of the sprouts and the sweetness of the carmelized shallots and sugar.

I have to admit, I succumbed to a pre-prep ingredient this week - mushroom ravioli from the refrigerated section of the supermarket.  I was buying the ricotta for the corn and bacon pasta and noticed a new line of fresh ravioli at Target - Monterey Pasta Company.  I found a limited edition portabella mushroom ravioli.  It spoke to me, and I anticipated the need for a quick meal at least one night this week.  Since I had some fresh tomato sauce from last week left over, I was able to make a meal in about 10 minutes - 5 to boil the fresh ravioli, then another 5 to heat up the tomato sauce, saute some prosciutto until crispy, and then mixing them together.  Yum!  The mushroom ravioli was limited edition to take advantage of the seasonal produce, so I'm not sure how long it will be around, but I plan to buy a few more! 

Rounding out the week was a sandwich.  First up is the sandwich.  It was a riff on a Cooking Light recipe from the same edition on a mozzarella, ham, and basil panini.    I paired ciabatta bread with fresh mozzarella, sliced prosciutto, and mustard, cooked on a griddle and pressed.  When Ice and I were in Florence last year, we fell in love with a mozzarella and prosciutto panini, so while I respect the use of ham in CL (a more commonly available ingredient), there's just something about the taste of the prosciutto that is more successful with mozzarella - they just scream "eat us together!"  I decided to pair the sandwich with a recipe I had at my brother's house last week that was so different but really amazing - blackened green beans.  Yep - I know it sounds bizarre, but go with me on this.  There is a local burger place in Philly that basically takes green beans, adds oil and blackening seasoning, and cooks them up crisp-tender.  Not that it's a substitute for potato chips, but it does add the crispy texture and salty flavor.

Blackened Green Bean "Fries"
1 lb fresh green beans, trimmed
1/2 - 1 Tbsp. blackening seasoning (pre-prepared or make your own)
1 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. olive oil, divided

Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt liberally.  Blanch the green beans in the boiling water.  Remove and add to ice bath of water, salt, and ice.  (The water should taste like the ocean).  After the green beans have cooled, remove to paper towels and blot dry.  In a bowl, add the green beans and 2 tsp olive oil.  Toss to coat.  Add blackening seasoning and mix.  Heat a skillet to medium-high heat and add 1 Tbsp. olive oil.  When oil is hot, add the green beans.  Saute the green beans until heated through, about 2 - 3 minutes.  Serve immediately.


Beer in Bavaria

Our first impression of Oktoberfest
I don't know about you, but I've always had on my bucket list to go to Germany.  I think part of it is that I am half-German (my mother's side), so I've always associated identified with the food and culture of both Germany and Poland (the other part of my heritage).  It was with great excitement that we had the opportunity to travel to Germany this past week.  As part of that, we decided to stop in Munich to attend Oktoberfest.


I have to say, driving into Munich, I wasn't sure what to expect from Oktoberfest.  I've heard mixed things - the drunken loutish behavior, the fun times, the heavy alcohol consumption, etc.  Upon arrival, we entered our very "formal" hotel - lots of wood, chintz, etc. after seeing our more "informal" neighborhood complete with strip clubs, bollywood fashion, small grocery market, and various restaurants and bars.  Dropping off the bags, we headed out in the general direction of the Oktoberfest grounds, about a 10 minute walk.

Hoffbrau Beer Tent
We received the best tip of the trip from some people that we talked to on the street hailing from Chicago.  They warned us against actually finding places in the beer halls and instead to check out the beer gardens (biergarten).  If the weather is nice, you get a breeze to accompany the beer.  Inside the "tent" (really an actual wooden building), it's stuffy, overcrowded, and rowdy.  That could be fun too, but I'm not really a fan of sitting on vomit while trying to eat.  We immediately headed to the most well-known place, Hoffbrau Haus and found empty tables in the back of the biergarten.  Score!  We played like all the others and ordered two liter mugs of pilsner. 

It was pretty good, but knowing that we potentially had a looooong night ahead, we wisely also ordered 1/2 roasted chicken.  Yummy - crispy skin, properly rendered, and tender meat that only needed a knife to separate from the bone.  Later, we also polished off an order of spareribs.  The only blight to those?  Their version of bbq sauce was - literally - Heinz 57!  We tucked into two more beers - Ice had another liter, while I had half-and-half - a mix of beer and Sprite.  Can't say I loved it, but it probably did save me a hangover!  Our evening ended with a lively discussion that included two Americans from upstate NY, a group of young Aussies, and a recently divorced German man that we instructed on the finer points of throwing a Halloween party.

The remains of Hoffbrau lunch...
and pretzel!
 The next day, we decided that we needed a bit of respite.  We slept late and meandered our way to Marienplatz (center of town) to hear the Glockenspiel play and have lunch at Hoffbrau Haus (the original).  Their efficiency is a cross between a Vegas buffet serving thousands and a pub like The Flying Saucer.  The oompa band plays, people sing, and you can enjoy a variety of Bavarian fare with (generally) English-speaking staff.  I stuck with the tried-and-true - Bratwurst plate with potato salad (we would call it German potato salad) and sauerkraut.  The bratwurst was yummy - mildly seasoned and the potato salad was typical of the style, but the sauerkraut was the closest to my gramma's I've tasted - porky goodness with both a sweet and sour taste. 

It's a meat fest!
 Ice had the sausage platter consisting of a variety of sausages.  The sauerkraut was his, but, he's not into kraut, so I took that from him. 

Sausage, kraut, and potato salad
The final highlight is the Bavarian pretzel.  It's the size of my head and manages to have both crunchy and chewy elements.  It's richer and more malty-tasting than a typical American pretzel and paired nicely with the beer.  Heading back to our hotel, we acquired some chocolates from a local shop and some gelato because a trip to Europe would not be complete without it.  We ended up consuming the chocolates en route to Berlin and, well, apparently they like hard liquor in their candy - woah!  We also made about our 5th trip to Mickey D's to get ice cold sodas.  If you've been to Europe, you understand the luxury of a drink with ice on a hot day after lots of beer and walking.

Pretzel Love!

Our final foray into Bavarian adventure was to return to Oktoberfest and find another tent.  After about an hour of wandering in and out of the various tents that were absolutely bursting with occupants, we managed to squeeze into a spot in the Schottenhamel biergarten.  We settled in for a round of liters and light conversation with the Aussies next to us.  Later, we engaged in a conversation with perhaps the only American Football fan in Dusseldorf!  Ray and he had such a wonderful time that we ended up heading to the Spaten beer tent for afterhours drinking.  Beer tents generally close by 11 pm (so therefore you have to start drinking early in the day based on that principle, right?), with the exception of one that gets a late license until around 12:30 or 1 a.m.  And yes, we closed it down with the Dusseldorf boys!   


Monday, October 11, 2010

Prague... Or the place Ice thinks cooks food just for him

The roadside diner's version of
 So, after the vodka fest of Slovakia, we drove with my brother and his wife to Prague, Czech Republic.  It was a wonderful road trip since I had people to talk to while Ice drove and a native speaker that could actually converse and order food in a way that would guarantee better service.  We stopped near Bratislava (a gateway to a bunch of countries - Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria to name a few) and ate Goulash.  This is as varied a recipe as you can find.  This version was a thin tomato-based broth spiced liberally with caraway and mustard seeds with chunks of potato and beef  and served with a side of bread.  Not bad, and only about $6 per person, a relative bargain and eaten outdoors on a beautiful day, even better.

Upon arrival in Prague, I was treated to Ice's version of parallel parking on the left side of the street.  All I can say is the city is hilly like San Francisco, cobbled like Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, and with the narrow street feel of Rome, but without the psycho scooter drivers.  Actually, Prague is gorgeous and really worth seeing.  It has the charm of Florence, Italy, is clean, and very American friendly.  Our first evening, we ate at a local bistro where we had perhaps some of the best food in the trip.  B, my brother, chose goulash.  This version, however, was a rich, thick, and beefy concoction with much more developed flavors.  M, his wife, chose a sauteed pork chop with a thin peppercorn gravy.  She also ordered a side of "white bread dumplings." 

Wonderbread meets country biscuit

The process to make them is apparently complicated, but I literally thought it tasted like a steamed piece of Wonder Bread - a very spongy, soft texture.  By itself, rather plain, but the peppercorn sauce elevated it.  As Ice described it, "this is like the Czech version of biscuits and gravy!"  Two thumbs up!

Ice had a breaded and sauteed pork cutlet (good, but unremarkable) and I had the dish of the night.  It was a crock of porky goodness - pieces of bacon, ham, and sausage with sauteed potatoes baked together in a crock.  It was so rich I barely touched the dish, but I had plenty of help to finish it as it was just about the best thing ever.  If I learn to make this, Ice will never leave me.  Some men's hearts are through their stomachs.  I think, in the case of my husband, it's his body, mind, heart, and soul.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Americanized Italian - From Biba's Italian Kitchen

At my favorite bookstore Half Price Books, I was browsing the other day.  My first stop - cookbooks, of course, and more specifically, clearance cookbooks.  While there is generally an overabundance of crappy items in that section, you never know what you might find.  This was one such trip.  I've been grooving on Italian food lately.  Perhaps because the flavor profiles are already familiar to most Americals from birth, the cruise to the Mediterranean last year, or because of the mozzarella making class we did this summer, but I keep coming back to those flavors.  Italian flavors make sense and even the simplest of preparations can taste amazing with the right ingredients.

I've debated whether my Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian is the right Italian cookbook for me at this time.  So, for the bargain price of $2.00, I uncovered From Biba's Italian Kitchen.  Biba's book really had appeal - a variety of simply prepared fare that covered the gamut from appetizers to pastas, to main dishes, with a few desserts thrown in for good measure.  Desserts were a weak point, but since I've now mastered homemade limoncello, once I serve that, people won't care what actually gets served with it.  If the taste doesn't wow them, the Everclear will knock them silly.

Upon delving into Biba's book (based on the TLC series she hosted in the 1990's), I discovered a number of dishes that appear to be inspired by Biba's childhood in Italy and did not appear overly authentic, at least compared to other cookbooks I've read.  Authentic or no, the recipes were appealing.  For my inaugural Biba meal, I selected an Italian version of an American standard - meatloaf.  I chose to pair that with homemade pasta and Biba's recipe for tomato sauce.  On the side was a skewer of baby bella mushrooms layered with sauteed pancetta and fresh sage leaves. 

Overall, my biggest disappointment in Biba's book was the pasta recipe - she calls for all-purpose flour and eggs.  I really had to wonder if, at the moment that cookbook was authored, it really was hard to locate semolina flour in the average supermarket or Whole Foods.  I absolutely, after trying the Frugal Gourmet's pasta recipe (which uses a mixture of bread flour and semolina) could not fathom just using AP flour.  Perhaps she knows something I don't but I'm willing to bet that if the cookbook were updated (15 years later), she would have updated her recipe.  I chose to use my old standby FG recipe and of course the results did not disappoint.  I did like the simple "gravy" of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, and salt/pepper.  It was a nice, simple sauce that I can throw together in 15 minutes (and with canned organic or San Marzano tomatoes still tasted good).  I chose to puree (love the stick blender honey!), and served over both the pasta and the meatloaf.

The absolute hit of the meal was the meatloaf.  Most of the recipe is similar to what you'd probably expect - you take white bread, soak in milk, wring out, then add the beef, fresh chopped parsley, eggs, salt/pepper.  The three "twists" if you will are - adding grated parmesan, the addition of pancetta (Italian bacon - if you can't get pancetta, use a couple strips of regular bacon chopped up) - chopped up and added to the meat, and rolling, yes rolling, the meatloaf in dry plain breadcrumbs, then browning in a pan before baking.  This one technique absolutely made the difference in this meatloaf.  I'm not a big meatloaf fan, but I will DEFINITELY make this again.  It wasn't the easiest technique to turn a 2-lb meat hunk held precariously together with beaten egg and soft bread, but the end result was worth it.  The other trick?  After about 30 minutes of baking, she has you add thinly sliced onion to the pan and mix with the pan juices, then bake 30 more minutes.  If you're a fan of carmelized onions you will be in absolute onion heaven! 

While I have to try a few more recipes to give Biba a more permanent spot on my shelf, she has earned the right for at least a few more recipe sessions!

Though I didn't serve this with the meal, I did make this salad this weekend and it would be a GREAT addition to the meal during the summer.  I know it sounds unappealing, but having tried it, I am a believer now!  The recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit.

Watermelon/Tomato Salad
2 cups seedless watermelon, cubed in 1/2 inch chunks
2 cups ripe tomatoes, chopped into chunks
2 - 3 green onions, finely chopped (green parts only)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 - 3 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup Feta cheese, crumbled

Cut up watermelon and tomato and add to bowl.  Mix in green onions.  In a separate bowl, add olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste (you generally want a ratio of 2 parts oil to 1 part acid for a vinaigrette.  I tend to like more acid, so I add more, but create to your taste).  Pour vinaigrette over watermelon/tomato mixture.  Add Feta and mix to incorporate.  Serve chilled.

Holiday Road - The Hambrick's European Adventure Part 1 - Slovakia

Sadly, we tried McDonald's in 3
countries - it was easy to order

Guten tag dear readers! I write this sitting in Berlin, Germany, which is about as exciting as it gets! IceDaddy and I had the opportunity to travel back to Europe much sooner than we planned courtesy of my baby brother getting married here! Well, not here, but in Central Europe. His bride, though now living in the US, was originally from Slovakia. For those that don't know the history or location, the blog posting will probably give you WAY too much info, but if you're ever planning to travel there, I hope this provides you valuable tips as a fellow foreigner. Beyond the history info, I'm going to describe the non-traditional wedding feast we enjoyed since it was so unique and absolutely delicious!

Slovak Republic history - Slovakia for short, is a country of beautiful hills, mountains, and sparse population. The largest city, Bratislava, has about 1,000,000 people. The next biggest city, Kosice (pronounced Co-sheet-za), has about half of that. Slovakia became its own country in 1993 after separation from the Czech Republic (together forming Czechoslovakia prior to 1993). The separation, termed The Velvet Revolution, successfully saw the removal of the authoritarian government. Today, the countries exist separately and are part of the European Union.

We actually stayed about as far East in Slovakia as you can before coming to the Ukraine, nearby to a village Michalovce. Our hotel and the wedding were both about 15 minutes from the village, but in opposite directions. The hotel, Hotel Euro Penzion Salas, was a hidden gem. It is located on a lake popular for outdoor activities in the summer. As we were traveling in late September, they were in the off season and thus we were two of only a few guests. The room is huge - three separate areas for bathroom, bedroom, and a living room opening to our own private balcony. It was a rustic lodge feel, and other than the bed (not comfy by American standards though others in the wedding group said theirs were fine - could have been ours), and bathroom (a little dated), this place ooozed warmth and charm. They recently renovated all of the outside areas with new flagstone steps, garden, and outdoor searting (easily seating 100+ on their patio).

Now, we later found out that basically NO American tourists really ever visit this area. It's literally backing up to the Ukraine, so you have to travel pretty far (about 3 hours from Budapest, Hungary). That mean that the entire town was fascinated by our visit. Not only was my brother (the new husband) there, but myself, IceDaddy, and a friend of my brother who was working in Paris and flew in. None of us four spoke any Slovenska upon arrival, but trust me, the universal language of both food and love (ok shots of vodka if I'm being honest) enabled us to understand each other.

One of many vodka shots
After a long, fairly arduous drive from Wroclaw, Poland, we arrived at M's (the bride) family home. This drive involved highways to Krakow and country roads after. When I say country roads, I kid you not when there were places it was one lane because the road fell off the mountain and they just put up a barricade rather than fixing it.

After about 10 hours of driving plus two hours of having to find clothes because of American Airlines screw-up, we made it to M's family home. The drive was worth it - they immediately welcomed us with shots of vodka, both homemade and non. Now, neither Ice nor I are vodka experts, but I generally know a good from a bad (at least in terms of how "harsh" it goes down. If ever you think to try Nikolai vodka, you might want to reconsider - it's a bit harsh. Now, we also had some homemade liquor that literally tasted like a reposado tequila. I have no idea how they make it, but it wasn't bad. Ice was driving, so he had one and tried a local beer. For those used to our typical American bottles, these were more like "40's."

Everyone was so excited for our visit - I think M's mom and sister were glad to entertain. First we had a delicious chicken soup with homemade noodles (vermicelli-like). I am no big fan of chicken soup, but this one was great, and as a person that makes my own noodles, I really respected the work that went into the dish. From there, they brought out local bread (a cross between rye and white bread), pickles, along with homemade smoked kielbasy (their spelling) and smoked pork shoulder. When I tell you this was smoked for 3 days, the smoke ring basically went to the center of the meat. I would put the flavors up to Texas bbq (though different from that). With pride, we were told by M's dad that the pork was from their own pig that they butchered. When I say they butchered it, I don't mean she was sent off to the sausage factory. I mean they butcher the pig in their backyard. Wow!!

Our main course was a simple meal of a chicken stew (similar to tetrazzini) and rice. Tasty and filling, especially after only eating McDonald's in Poland because we could order there - Mc Royal with cheese does translate! Now, the other part of their culture is to celebrate with drinks. As Ice was driving, I shared several shots of vodka with M's dad (four in about 40 minutes). For those that know me, I'm not used to drinking like that, but blessedly, I think the food absorbed a good amount of the alcohol (thanks for the idea of the asparagus sandwich Collin!), so I managed ok. I think we all knew what we might be in for the next day however....

The wedding couple... Congrats!
 Wedding day!!! The day began early with the wedding at 9 am and a little breakfast snack. The same pork, kielbasy, and bread were present, plus ham sandwiches with hardboiled egg and pickle. They also had a savory biscuit (more like a cookie) made with pork fat. The ceremony was Greek Catholic (an offshoot of Catholicism more common in that area) where the priest said a full mass and then Brad and Marianna took their vows. Not knowing any of the language, we just took in the beauty of the hand painted frescoes on the ceiling and walls in this picturesque 100+ year old church. Following pictures, we traveled back to M's house for a celebratory shot and thus the party began at 10:30 a.m. Happily, the reception was to be at the same location as we were staying, so drinking could commence in earnest....

M and B (the wedding couple) wanted to have a meal of mostly traditional Slovak cuisine as this would be our first exposure to it. Additionally, instead of the usual all-night event, they wanted to have the event from around 1 pm until 8 or 9 pm to allow for a reasonable amount of rest. That or they were afraid we couldn't "hang" with the locals if you will.... I think what they ended up doing was just perfect - it was a really nice event, we had amazing food, and the attendees (mostly) did not get sloshingly drunk.

Now, the table was set a bit differently than perhaps we are used to. Each person had a plate and silverware (two sets), but in addition to that was a highball glass (to be used for soda or sparkling water), a wine glass filled with a sweet wine and lemon slice (called a "martini" in France)... and a shot glass. There were a planned six courses, plus the table contained fresh fruit, nuts and pastries. Now, I hadn't mentioned them, but the pastries were actually different types of layered tortes - each with different flavors and sliced into modest portions. I had assumed they were ordered from a bakery, but M informed us that neighbors baked them and sent them over as a wedding gift. Literally there was probably a full sheet cake of them, plus a wedding cake for later. The snacks were intended to tide us over during the time between courses. This was going to be a 7 hour meal.

Our first course was actually a surprise - prosciutto and mozzarella with fresh tomatoes. Nope, not traditional, but tasty. The tomatoes literally tasted garden fresh and, based on the observation of how many people have gardens and grow a fair amount of summer produce, I definitely believe these were locally grown. Ice was pleased since this reminded him of our trip to Rome last year and the flavors definitely mirrored that. It was a great (and light) start to the meal. Additionally, there were two "martini" toasts. The martini is basically a sweet white wine with the lemon slice. A summer cocktail if you will.

First course

Next up was chicken soup, similar to what we had the day before, but just not as tasty. I guess mom does make it best! This was one of the longest pauses between courses after that. There started to be a fair amount of vodka toasts as the couple made the rounds of the table. 30 people were at the main table, with 6 to the side in a room decorated like a bavarian country chalet. We sampled the pastries (lemon torte was the best) and visited with B's American friend. At this point of the day, the game plan for survival emerged. We were constantly requested to do a toast with Hrushka (a pear vodka), Nikolai vodka, or another spirit. Knowing that it would be both foolish and impossible to drink every time offered, we started rotating who would take a shot, taking 1/4 or 1/2 shots, and eating bread and snacks. Among the four Americans, we took upwards of 40 shots (again, not all full shots). I personally had 10 (some 1/4 or 1/2) by the end of the evening - absolutely a record by far.

Third course

Third course was perhaps the most unusual to me, though I'm told it's traditional there - a fried pork chop topped with a gravy made with chicken breast pieces, peas, and carrots (like a tetrazzini), fried potato wedges, rice and a garnish of a tomato slice and lettuce. It tasted good, but just was something I had to accept as different - I would not think to put the chicken "gravy" over the fried pork chop. Tasty either way.

Fourth course was a sweet course - potato pancakes (but more like a crepe) with a strawberry jam and chocolate. Delicious, but with so much ahead (and to come), we paced ourselves accordingly. The interim course (I say that because it wasn't designated as its own) was a smorgasboard of stewed beets and cabbage, kielbasy, pierogi, and condiments such as sour cream and mustard. I have to say, I expected the pierogi to be the best I've had, and they were tasty, but not the most amazing thing I ate. They were a dough with dill and a cheese filling.

The Duck

Potato Pancakes

The piece de resistance of the meal was a course of duck legs that I believe were first cooked confit and then roasted to crisp the skin. Paired with delectable potato pancakes dripping with butter, it was a decadent end to the meal. Ice voted the duck as the best, where B and I absolutely loved the pancakes.

The wedding cake was almost an afterthought - people actually forgot to eat it (there was no big fanfare for cutting the cake), but it was good - chocolate cake layered torte-style with chocolate mousse filling.  I would be lying if I said that the wedding cake eating was the end - rather, people began to dance to the traditional Slovak music (including all of us) and continue to toast the occasion with vodka (now including Finlandia). With the "divide and conquer" strategy, we all managed to finish the night and just relaxed after the guests had gone.

We are so grateful to the hospitality and warmth shown by the Slovak people - everyone was helpful and friendly and welcomed us openly. We wish that more people could experience a tradition such as this - for us fast-paced Americans, it represents a reminder to slow down and enjoy something different and to truly savor the experience both before and after. I know we did!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Retiring of cookbooks - YES I CAN!

While the blog has featured more from cooking magazines lately than my cookbooks (how can it now when summer produce is available?!), I have taken the time to cook some recipes from my cookbooks and compare my cookbooks for redundancy.  So, with that in mind, the following cookbooks are retiring to that Half Price Books location down in Frisco to be re-introduced to the public:

The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Cookbook
Top Texas Chefs Favorite Recipes
Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats
Rachael Ray Just In Time

Readers, can you believe I've done t\ough love to get rid of FOUR cookbooks?!  Ok, if I'm being honest with you, it's because I've acquired at least four new cookbooks, so I have to make room, but it's also because my cooking has evolved.  Each of these is retiring for different reasons, but none of these has more than 1 - 2 recipes I plan to keep making.  What used to appeal isn't working for me anymore.  

First up, The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Cookbook by the editors of Southern Living Magazine.  The cookbook plays on the popularity of the movie, "Forrest Gump" and has the folksy voice that aligns with the movie.  I have to say - there are a plethora of recipes for shrimp.  If you truly love shrimp and want tons of new ways to cook them, you really should consider purchasing this book.  It's fairly short, around 100 pages, and covers the gamut of dishes.  Like the famous scene from the movie when Bubba Blue gives the options for shrimp dishes to Forrest, it's divided into categories of "you can bake it," "you can barbecue it," "you can boil it" etc.  The one recipe I found that I will make every summer is Alabama-Style Shrimp Bake.  It's the traditional "barbecue" shrimp recipe\ where you concoct a mixture of worcestershire sauce, butter, and lemon juice, then bake the shrimp in the shell and serve with bread for sopping.  Great summer dish for a crowd.  Other than that, the recipes I tried were nothing I felt compelled to make again and, given that it's from "Southern Living" the salt and fat content were rather high for them.

Next, Top Texas Chefs Favorite Recipes by Ginnie Siena Bivona and Sharry Buckner.   Honestly, it's not a bad cookbook, but it just doesn't have enough recipes that that I want to cook.  Partially, the cookbook is complicated by the fact that some chefs provided recipes per portion, others to serve multiple individuals.  It's a reflection of each chef's preferences and style, but makes it more complicated for the home cook and it was a hodgepodge of items (reflective of the hodgepodge that Texas cuisine is).  Just not a cookbook that I'm going to keep on the shelf in lieu of one I use more.

Rounding out the retiring cookbooks are two from Rachael Ray - 365: No Repeats and Just in Time.  Rachel's schtick is that she provides recipes that can be done in 30 minutes.  Great concept, but in practice, unless you're willing to dirty EVERY pot in your kitchen, it's not always realistic.  I do enjoy her 30 Minute Meals Two, but perhaps in Rachel's quest for cookbook and world domination, she's run out of really creative ideas and starts reaching further.  Neither is a terrible cookbook, but Just In Time calls for tons of unusual ingredients that IceDaddy won't touch, and there is a fair amount of repetition to her other cookbooks.  365: No Repeats falls victim to the ambition of 365 different recipes.  There are a ton of recipes, and for someone without many cookbooks, a tome with that volume can be valuable.  Many of the recipes would have to be modified a great deal to make them appeal to IceDaddy.  In this case, quantity of recipes does not trump quality.

And with that, dear readers, comes the next four casualties of this little project!

Everything food that IceDaddy tries, I owe to Emeril

Ok, I know Wolfgang Puck was really the FIRST celebrity chef, but no chef emerged as THE celebrity chef bringing gourmet food to the masses like Emeril Lagasse. The man serves as a great bridge between the highfalutin food of a gourmet restaurant and "guy food" that an everyday person would want to cook.

Picture it, 1990-something (yes, I return to the shameless "Golden Girls" way of starting a story). I was watching Food Network in its infancy. Ice was in the other room. He walked in and said, "that looks good - I would eat that!" It was like the heavens had opened and the angels were singing down because whatever that recipe was, it was OUT of his meat and potatoes comfort zone. The show? "Emeril Live." I happily searched out recipes on the FN website from his show and tried them. To this day, I owe Emeril for the recipe he put out for onion strings (aka spicy onion rings). They were a football Sunday staple and the first time I think someone called me a food goddess.

That Christmas, I received the first cookbook from Ice (of many more to come) - "Emeril's TV Dinners" based on his hit TV show. I have to admit, back then, many of the ingredients were a bit exotic, or frankly out of a college student's meager food budget, but I conquered a delicious chorizo-stuffed roast chicken (okay - all I could get was Mexican chorizo and not the Spanish chorizo he intended), but it was still yummy, and even cooked artichokes from scratch. If it came from Emeril (cookbook or otherwise), Ray would at least try it. I even sank so low as to say it was an Emeril recipe when it wasn't, until Ice started getting suspicious.

Fast forward over a decade, and I found myself looking on his cookbook with fresh eyes and a much improved food budget, availability of gourmet ingredients, better palate, and more open-minded taste-tester. All of a sudden, I didn't find one or two recipes worth trying, I found DOZENS. With renewed vigor, I planned a menu of two items for a weekend I had a little time to cook.

First was a Heart of Palm strudel. (Really just a stick of Heart of Palm rolled up with spicy remoulade sauce inside phyllo pastry and baked). I loved it - Ice strongly disliked the taste of hearts of palm. No matter - it inspired a new love affair with phyllo that continues!

The second recipe was a bona-fide 100 on a scale of 1 to 10. it was homemade mushroom and prosciutto ravioli. No sauce for this - simply preparation, boiling to cook the pasta, and then a quick saute in butter. The ravioli probably cost me $20 in ingredients alone - prosciutto ($5), dried exotic mushrooms ($5), won-ton wrappers ($4 - yes,they work as pasta sheets!), parmigiano-reggiano ($3 - the real stuff), but IT WAS WORTH EVERY PENNY. Served with some broccoli, it was a gourmet experience I ate in shorts and a t-shirt. Think of it, we didn't have to spend gas money to go to a nice restaurant, dress up, and spend $20 per person on the same food. The true compliment to the meal? Ice came into the kitchen and his face fell when he thought I was about to put the ravioli up. He wanted seconds!

My one statement about this cookbook in particular is that the food is a little more involved and gourmet, with influences from his various high end restaurants as well as his upbringing in Fall River, Massachusetts. It's Sunday food - something that takes time and that you make with love rather than trying to throw together in 20 minutes on a busy Monday after working late and trying to squeeze in a workout at the gym (or just choosing to veg on the couch). That said, I will always turn to this cookbook when I'm feeling adventurous and ready to conquer something away from my comfort zone and, thanks to Emeril, I know Ice will willingly try too!

My love affair with Grill Mates

Ok - I admit it - I don't prepare everything from scratch.  Despite making homemade barbecue rubs, conquering Limoncello, and a killer homemade French Silk Pie, sometimes perfection comes in a bottle or package.  On nights when I don't have the time or energy, I turn to these pre-prepped items to make a meal.  Last night was one such event.  Tough day at work, change in travel plans, and a planned phone call around 8 pm with my mom meant that I had to get dinner on the table around 7 pm after coming home about 5:45.

One of my shortcut items, and something I use even when I don't need to cut corners on time, are Grill Mates marinades.  (I receive no compensation from McCormick for this endorsement).  Our absolute favorite is the Southwest marinade, but for whatever reason, my Target store has chosen to no longer carry that one (are you listening Target???)  So, depressed but not yet desperate (I still have 2 in my pantry), I discovered a new Chipotle Pepper Marinade and thought I would Bobby Flay-up a recipe and give it a try. 

Luckily, I had a pork tenderloin already defrosted and in the fridge, fresh corn on the cob, and a Spanish Rice mix in the pantry.  Dinner!    I followed the directions to marinade the pork in the Grill Mates, then baked at 425 degrees for 20 minutes (this was a 1-lb pork tenderloin).  Because sugar is in the marinade, I recommend baking on tin foil on a cookie sheet.  The low sides of the cookie sheet allow for the tenderloin to cook all around and the tin foil makes for easy cleanup.  After the tenderloin comes out of the oven, you can use the tin foil to create a tent around the meat as it rests.

Spanish rice still continues to challenge me.  For a quick and easy alternative to homemade, I picked up a boxed mix from Goya.  It turned out well and fit my uncomplicated dinner plan.  Perhaps my one criticism is that it was pretty salty versus what I can cook myself.

For the corn, I got creative.  I used the recipe for boiled corn on the cob (in a prior blog post), BUT I augmented the flavor by turning it into Chili-Lime corn!!!  So simple and tasty!

Chili-Lime Corn
2 ears of corn, shucked and halved
2 Tbsp lime juice
Chile salt (recipe follows)
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar

Add corn to kettle and add water to submerge.  Add in the salt and sugar and bring to a boil.  Boil corn for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and drain.  Add butter and lime juice to kettle, cover kettle, and shake corn to melt butter and distribute over corn.  Remove corn from kettle and sprinkle with chile salt to taste.  Serves 2. 
Heck, I should have tried sprinking the Grill Mates on the corn! :)

Chile Salt
1 Tbsp chile powder
3 Tbsp kosher salt

Mix and store in airtight container.

Yummy!  While the recipe is mine, it was inspired by the flavor profiles outlined in Diana Kennedy's "The Art of Mexican Cooking."  This is a lengthy cookbook that chronicles many styles of authentic Mexican (not Tex-Mex) cooking.  Chili powder and lime are commonly paired.  (If I were Alton Brown, the ULTIMATE Food Geek, I'd give you the science behind that).  What I do know is that lime juice hits the same taste buds as salt does, so you can use less salt when you add lime (or lemon).  Try that trick if you're watching the sodium.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The burger bar party that wasn't...

Full disclaimer: My intention is not to give a guilt trip to any friends about this, but to discuss the food I made (in mass quantities) for a Rangers watching party last Saturday.  It just happened that we were expecting 9 others and only 2 showed.  One is excused (you know who you are).

When we decided to host a watching party for the Rangers vs. Red Sox game, we thought, "what can we cook that's as American as baseball?"  The answer - an outdoor grill-a-thon of hot dogs and burgers.   As is my usual overachiever style, we weren't merely content to buy hot dogs, ground beef, and buns.  We had to ensure a variety of toppings to suit any palate.  So, here's my advice to you if planning a burger bar party yourself - KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Here are the guidelines I would give:
- Buy enough hot dogs (I prefer all beef) for 1 - 2 per person
- Make your own hamburger patties out of a mix of 80/20 and 80/15 ground beef.  All 80/20 shrinks due to the fat content, but adds flavor that the 80/15 ground round lacks.  I would recommend 1/3 lb burgers, figure 1 - 2 per person
- Buns!  No, not an ad for Buns of Steel, buy bakery-fresh buns.  They taste better and look way more gourmet than the standard fare.  I selected two kinds - plain and sesame seed.  Not everyone likes (or can eat) sesame seeds or other nuts.
- Toppings - make sure and offer the basics - ketchup, mustard, mayo, and relish (which most people have on hand at all times), but also think outside the box - A1 Sauce, BBQ sauce, and Chile-garlic sauce or sriracha.  If you have time, make your own special "signature" condiment such as a chipotle mayo or ketchup.
- Cheeeeese! - Have fun with this.  Offer 2 - 3 kinds such as a plain cheddar or American, Swiss, and then 1 - 2 "wildcards" such as dilled Havarti or blue cheese
- Fixins' - lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, pickles - you can get crazy and offer arugula or other lettuces, different varieties of tomatoes and onions, but really, the basics are just fine
- Chips - must have varieties for various tastes

We also added some custom condiments - pork candy (OH SO GOOD!), carmelized onions, mushrooms cooked in Worcestershire (woo-woo) sauce, and a portabello mushroom/shallot mixture with a wine reduction.  Again... OVERACHIEVER! :)  IceDaddy wanted to offer a special burger, so we chose a recipe by Michael Chiarello, called the Roasted Garlic Burger.  It was the reason we created the portabello mushroom topping.  It involved roasting garlic in oil, then mashing it up and adding it to the burgers and a special dijon mustard.  Very yum, but also very complicated. 

If I were hosting this again, I would definitely do the burger bar, have others bring side dishes, and probably skip the signature burger if making for large crowds.  It actually worked well for the small party of four that ended up partaking in the burger bar madness, and I would consider coming up with that type of item for another small group gathering.

So while I had mass quantities of food leftover (still working on eating the prosciutto and all those buns - sandwiches anyone?), the party taught me about the lengths to which I will go, and how I should try to simplify as well.  It's a great lesson to learn at any age and for any cooking ability!  And, thanks to the leftovers, I invented the hot dog combination below that was just awesome!  Give it a try!

Cheesy BBQ Bacon Dogs
4 all-beef hot dogs
4 slices bacon
4 hot dog buns
Carmelized onions (any recipe you like will do)
1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 c. barbecue sauce (whatever variety you like)

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Wrap one slice of bacon around each hot dog.  (You can secure the ends of the bacon with toothpicks if you prefer).  Place the hot dogs in the skillet with ends of bacon pointing down.  Cook until bacon is browned lightly - you don't want to render off all the fat and burn the bacon, but you want it cooked - turning periodically to brown all sides, about 8 - 10 minutes.  Remove from skillet. 
Turn down heat on skillet to medium-low.  Slice open hot dog buns.  Place buns face down in skillet to toast, about 2 - 3 minutes each.  Remove from skillet.  Place hot dogs in buns.  Top with warm carmelized onions (you can reheat an already prepared batch), shredded cheddar, and bbq sauce.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Holy herbaciousness Batman!

Have you ever felt like you're eating pine needles when consuming rosemary or chewing on grass with thyme and tarragon?  I now have experienced that, and it wasn't good.  Yesterday, I put together a meal from two different recipe sources - Real Simple magazine and Bon Appetit magazine.  On the surface, all of the recipes sounded really good, but underneath were some (I think) fatal flaws. 

First up was "Real Simple," a go-to reference for simple meals during the week.  I love my "Real Simple: Meals Made Easy" cookbook for ideas that tend toward flavorful and simple - not many complex ingredients, use of both fresh and pantry product staples, etc., so I was excited to try a recipe from them that I've had for some time - Strip Steak with Rosemary and Garlic.  It was from an article they did on cost-saving purchases from wholesale clubs.  Not having strip steak available, I subbed in sirloin steak.  The directions told me to create a "marinade" of fresh rosemary, thinly sliced garlic, and olive oil, set the steaks in there for at least 30 minutes, and then cook in a pan, flipping halfway through cooking.  The "marinade" is then used to make a sauce.  The actual steak turned out juicy, though I thought no rosemary or garlic flavor really came through.  The fatal flaw was the marinade sauce, which really amounted to olive oil that tasted very pine-y.  No real benefit to its use - I could have salted and peppered the steak and had much the same taste.  The off-putting pine-y flavor was especially bad when getting a bite of the rosemary itself.

Second recipe, also from "Real Simple" was from a recent article on the use of few ingredients to make flavorful dishes.  I pulled a recipe for oven french fries with smashed garlic.  It's straightforward - olive oil, garlic, and salt/pepper.  Despite coating the fries with oil, they all stuck (badly) to the baking pan, which caused them to break apart.  To me, that's a fatal flaw.  The flavors were fine, and I'd make something similar again.

Last recipe tasted like a whole lot of herbaciousness.  It was from "Bon Appetit" magazine and was called, Summer Corn Saute with Tons of Herbs.  The idea sounded good in theory, but in practice the various herbs had an off-texture, and the cumin overwhelmed the dish.  I would have to say it was bad enough to be called "inedible."  I ended up making some plain corn with butter, salt, and pepper and serving that to IceDaddy.  Blech!  I hate to admit defeat, but this was NOT a winner. 

Having some issues with the recipes, it reminds me that not everything will be a hit - flavors can work or no, and sometimes the execution is flawed.  That's ok - it just motivates me to keep on cookin!

Monday, August 9, 2010


The title doesn't do justice to the project on which we embarked a week ago. IceDaddy came across an article from NPR on homemade Limoncello (lee-mon-chay-low) and we decided to embrace the time-honored tradition of creating homemade alcoholic beverages. Limoncello has its origins in Italy. Variations to the actual origins exist, but are attribted to Sorrento, Amalfi, or Capri.

Not being from the South, I've never tasted homemade moonshine; the closest I came was some homemade gut rot my brother gave me from his ex-girlfriend's family. After sitting for a year, it was still unpalatable and when I asked him what exactly it was, he couldn't remember (and the girlfriend was long gone). That experience aside, we knew that Limoncello was something we both liked, and figured it was a good complement to the Italian food I've started learning to make.

Zesting the lemons
The recipe recommends Everclear or 100-proof vodka. I can tell you, the fumes are almost enough to make someone pass out! We decided to try a half-recipe, so we purchased one 750-ml bottle. I zested 4 lemons and 1 orange in long strips being careful to have no pith on the strips - apparently even liquor store employees have made limoncello before us! We were sternly warned that any little piece of pith would impart bitterness. After close inspection of each non-pithy piece, I placed them all in a non-reactive bowl (glass) and poured in the Everclear. Inserting a plate to keep the peels submerged, the whole thing was plastic-wrapped and set on the counter for a week. I'm sure the cleaning lady wondered what science experiment we were cooking up this week when she encountered a bowl, plate, and yellowish liquid, but it remained intact and free of disturbances.

Fast forward to Saturday, 7 days after the initial prep. The plan was to keep part of the limoncello in its natural form and make part of it into creamy limoncello - an infinitely more drinkable and versatile beverage. I took just over 4 cups of the alcohol and combined with just over 4 cups of milk and 5 cups (yes 5) of sugar, along with a smidge of vanilla and whiskey. I brought to a boil and then allowed to bubble 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Once cooled, I bottled and stored in the freezer.

We enjoyed a glass of the creamy limoncello as a digestif following a meal of spiced pork tenderloin and corn. It was a great option on a hot summer night. But, not that I EVER gild the lily, I took it a step further and made a zabaglione with the creamy limoncello, egg yolks, and sugar. Whipped and frothy, it was amazing over sliced fresh strawberries and is something I will turn to time and again.