Friday, October 24, 2008

A Trio

The good thing about learning to cook for the ingredients instead of with them, is that you can reuse them and not leave your recipients bored. My wife did the shopping this time, and returned with some of her favorites. Asparagus, spinach, red potatoes, and yellow squash were my muses this week.

The first night, I decided to fire up the grill. I used a mixture of hard lump charcoal and regular to get a higher cooking heat for searing steaks. I threw on some asparagus and onions over aluminum foil so they would not suffer as much. Added a few tenderloins, and combined them over mashed red potatoes. I reduced some balsamic, beef stock, and brown sugar to drizzle over them. Simple meat and potatoes, but tasted wonderful.

The next night, I started with some split chicken breasts and cut multiple pockets into each.

I stuffed them with a mixture of ricotta, spinach, dried figs, white balsamic, and the obligatory salt and pepper. These were roasted in the oven to an internal temperature of 155 degrees.

I simmered some great white northern beans with a diced tomato in beef broth until they could be mashed into a refried bean consistency and plated it with sauteed squash and asparagus. I reduced orange juice, beef broth, brown sugar, white balsamic, and some spices to drizzle on top.

For the third and final night, meatloaf.  This consisted of ground turkey, a couple eggs, ricotta, salt, pepper, sauteed onions & garlic, and a couple pieces of wheat toast pulsed into breadcrumbs. For the sauce, I used ketchup, molasses, garlic, onions, cumin, paprika, beef broth, and chili powder. I plated this with mashed squash and red potatoes and topped with spinach and figs sauteed in butter.

I love food and I love challenging myself with new ideas and techniques. Good food does not have to be difficult, just simple and fresh. You know what you like, so give it a shot. If it ends up less than ideal, learn from it. In the story of Hercules, we learn that a true hero fails many times before he gets it right. We live, we learn, we eat.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I don't normally suffer from the typical machismo associated with it, but I have always enjoyed grilled meat. For those of you that believe humans were not meant to eat meat, I am glad you were overruled.

Growing up, we always used a charcoal grill mainly because we could not afford a gas one. I think there are advantages and disadvantages of each, but both are able to produce wonderful things. Since leaving the nest, I have always used gas, mainly due to convenience. Earlier this year, I received my first charcoal contraption. A beautiful Weber smoker. Now those of you who know me are aware that I love finding great deals and am not brand loyal in most cases. This is not one of them.

Cooking is all about heat. The more oxygen the heat provides, the faster the fire will burn. If there is not enough oxygen, it will go out. Weber lines their grills with porcelain enamel coating. This absorbs and evenly distributes heat like a pizza stone or brick in and oven or ceramic briquettes in gas grills. These spartan devices are designed for maximum control over airflow. It's a trial and error process, but eventually you get it right.

Basic charcoal is what I use since I like to smoke at 250 degrees or lower. Many people like the hardwood charcoal, but that burns at a higher heat, so I leave that for cooking steaks and searing. Throw a couple lumps of hard wood on the coals, and you will have all the smoke you need. It is important to remember that for a pork butt, most of the 'smoke rings' in the meat are obtained before the meat reaches 140 degress. After that, the meat starts breaking down the connective tissue and fat which is where the flavor and tenderness comes from (sort of like bone marrow, mmmm).

Ok, enough theory for today - on to the food!

I always start my pork butt and ribs with a dry rub. This consists of whatever you like. I normally use chili powder, paprika, mustard powder, cayenne, lots of brown sugar, and whatever else I feel like at the time. This is in the vein of a standard Kansas City rub, but you could even use curry if you like. Try experimenting.

I usually apply the rub, some molases, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1-2 days. Once the grill is ready, they go on. (Yes, I know the ribs look like they form 666. Not to worry, I used Bee Blessed molasses)

I started the pork butt at 1am the night before, so it in the end it spent 16 hours, and the ribs a distant second at 5 hours. With all this time, I tend to make way too much food.

I marinated a turkey breast and a chicken for a day or two as well. I realize the pH balancing benefits of it, but am not a big fan of water when marinating. I normally use chicken broth, beer, wine, juice, or whatever else I have. I also grabbed a couple beer can stands. I normally just take an empty soda can and fill half way with any of the above or vinegar to keep the bird moist.

Timing is everything, and I am a gadget freak, so I picked up a few wireless meat probes on clearance for $10 each, and keep one each for the pork, chicken, and turkey.

Many hours and drinks later, the meat was ready.

I always whip up some coleslaw and potato salad, which to me are the classic southern accompaniments for pulled pork, and our new neighbor made the best banana pudding I have ever eaten.

Now for a word on pork......In SC they have the mustard based sauce and Kansas city has their dry rub, but in NC we have two distinct styles. The eastern side of the state celebrates the vinegar based sauce, and the western uses a barbecue mop sauce. While I like the eastern style, I prefer western. I use lots of garlic, onion, brown sugar, and southern bourbon.

My new experiment this time was sweet potato gratin. This was a very easy invention. Very thinly sliced sweet potatoes layered and topped with a mixture of melted butter, white balsamic, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla extract, salt, and pepper. I recently started using the white balsamic, so you may see that quite a bit. It is a bit lighter in taste, especially if you are a white wine fan. The vanilla extract can easily be made at home by adding scored vanilla beans to either vodka or brandy. Vodka will be ready in a week, and brandy in about a month, but I don't mind the wait.

Cookouts are all about good people, good food, and good drink. There are always standbys and surprises, but always much to choose from. Like my mom always says, "If you leave hungry, it's your own fault."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Me and T

About once a month, my friend Taria and I get together to cook. We formulate some ideas and go from there. We do not plan together, but always seem to compliment each other. Sometimes we forget ingredients, and sometimes receive inspiration along the way. A friend of mine said, "Cooking is like jazz. You learn a basic scale and riff on it." I agree. Get the basics down, and you can improvise from there.

This time, Taria decided on Red Snapper. Once filleted, our friend received a sprinkle of salt, pepper, and mustard powder and was pan seared. For the sauce, the carcass was simmered with water, white wine, and a slice of ginger until reduced and finished with butter.

Next, she simmered some smoked turkey necks in water and chili sauce. The meat was removed and mixed with napa cabbage that had been sauteed in butter.

Taria finished the plate with a potato gratin. This consisted of grated Yukon gold potatoes, marscapone cheese, sauteed leeks, salt, pepper, and allspice.

I started with some roasted poblano peppers, which I made into a bisque. This consisted of onions, salt, pepper, chicken stock, cumin, paprika, and a touch of cream. I will dedicate a post at some point to making bisque. It is great and easy.

I then made ricotta gnocchi. This was surprisingly easy. Ricotta, egg yolk, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cilantro. I added flour until it came to a dough and flash froze it. All that was left to do was boil until done and top with Parmesan.

I thought I would try my hand at beef carpaccio. This has been a long time favorite of mine that many people steer away from due to the fact that it's raw. I picked up a whole tenderloin and used the short loin end, specifically the tips. (If you do not know how to section a tenderloin, chicken, or anything else, search the internet for a diagram.) I placed the piece of meat in the freezer for around 2 hours in plastic wrap. Next, I sliced it thin and placed the slices in a plastic storage bag. I pounded them flat with a mallet and plated on chilled plates. These were topped with salt and pepper.

I topped with collards sauteed in malt vinegar, salt, pepper, and butter.

Finally, I topped with chopped green onions, parmesan, and a mustard vinegarette. For the vinegarette, I used malt and white balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard powder, and olive oil.

I cheated a bit on the next one. I had some leftover mashed red potatoes that I had mixed with a Thai curry sauce. I stirred in some shredded chicken that was pan seared, and some chopped green onions. I filled squares of puff pastry (yes, frozen), and baked. Then I topped it with a sauce made of pineapple, jalapenos, cilantro, white balsamic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon curd. The lemon curd was last minute, but made the sauce wonderful.

We paired the dinner with a nice red wine.

The final results were outstanding. We were pleased as usual. We ate, we learned, and we had fun.