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.

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.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Omelet Impaired

I came late to the party about eating eggs for breakfast. Growing up, we ate leftovers rather than breakfast food in the morning. Even at Ihop I was known to order the half roasted chicken for breakfast instead of actual breakfast foods that Ihop is better known for.

So, in my older years, I've begun to appreciate the skill that goes into the preparation of eggs. "Top Chef" celebrated that with a short order eggs challenge. Chefs had to prepare a specific style of egg and were judged on how close they came to perfection.

Since I don't often cook breakfast, omelets are just something that I don't try to make. Instead, I've discovered a great alternative that's both easier and infinitely more versatile - the fritatta!

Fritattas are simply omelets without the flipping. You prepare ingredients, put eggs prepped for scrambling into the skillet with the ingredients, cook it on the bottom, and then finish by baking in the oven. For breakfast, serve it with a glass of OJ and you are set. For lunch or dinner, pair it with a simply dressed salad.

For brunch this morning, I made a spicy sausage, new potato, mushroom, and onion fritatta. The recipe was adapted from one I found in a book for "Savory Sausage Casserole" found in "Dark Tort" by Diane Mott Davidson. It's a mystery novel that chronicles the tales of a Colorado caterer and mysery solver.

My recipe used the principles from the original recipe of beating the eggs with half and half for some extra creaminess and fluffy texture, but the ingredients were based on what I had available - farm fresh eggs, homemade spicy pork sausage (made by local farmers), green onions, new potatoes, and mushrooms. Many of the items (except mushrooms and green onions) came from the farmers market. It's a great lesson in using the same ingredients in different ways.

Ingredients ready to bake

Spicy Sausage Fritatta
2 links spicy pork sausage (about 1/2 lb) (Can use 1/2 lb bulk sausage)
1 Tbsp butter
1/2 lb new potatoes
2 green onions
4 oz mushrooms, sliced
3 large eggs
1/2 cup half and half
1 cup shredded Mexican-blend cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add the sausages and potatoes and cook both until just done, about 10 - 15 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool. Slice the potatoes and sausages and set aside. If using bulk sausage, brown in skillet and set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an oven-safe skillet, add the butter and melt over medium-low heat. Slice the green onions thinly and add to skillet. Saute over medium-low until translucent. Add the mushrooms and saute until cooked through. Remove mixture from skillet and place in heat-proof bowl. Spray skillet with cooking spray and laer potatoes in bottom of pan. Distribute mushroom mix over potatoes and sausage over that.
In large bowl, beat eggs with half-and-half over low spped until smooth, about 2 - 3 minutes. Pour over rest of ingredients and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 35 minutes until top is golden and eggs are set. Serve immediately. (Serves 6).
The masterpiece!