Friday, May 30, 2008

Top Chef Generation X

If you’re a Top Chef fan, and have been for at least the past 2 seasons, you may remember Dale (Dale from season 3 not season 4) in one of his one-on-one confessionals near the end of the season. He said “For everyone watching at home thinking you can do this, ya can’t.” Yeah, he is probably right. But that doesn’t mean we can’t sit back and critique from the comfort of our couches while we indulge in piles of processed sugars and carbs that would never find their way to the Top Chef kitchen!

We are now into the final challenges, which have whisked the cheftestants away to Puerto Rico for the finale. Last year, there were 3 people in the finale. There were 2 the year before. Perhaps this year there will be 4? Or maybe there is another elimination challenge yet to come. In any event, not the point.

This season, in all honesty, has been a little bit disappointing. We are now down to the final 4, and there really hasn’t been anyone who has emerged as a clear fan favorite. Personally, I think it’ll probably be Richard, but I really like Andrew. Last year, by contrast, how could you not like Tre? What’s that? You’re the one person who didn’t like him? Then certainly you endeared yourself to Dale, the gay cowboy-loving Mohawk-wearing team player. No? Ah…you must have supported Casey, the chef who single handedly raised the sex appeal of the kitchen a notch or two. Still no? Then you clearly loved CJ, the cancer surviving, volleyball playing jokester. Maybe you even liked Hung, probably the most technically advanced chef in the group who everyone loved to hate. Don’t feel too bad, he’s laughing all the way to the bank having won the competition.

My biggest issue is that not only does the overall talent level seem to have gone down this year, but none of those personalities exist like they have in years past. And now that my boy Andrew is out, who will throw out catch phrases like “What’s that look like? Success!” or “I have a culinary boner right now.”

My bigger concern is that it seems to me that this apparent lack of personality and technical prowess has even started taking a toll on head judge, Chef Tom Colicchio. Chef Colicchio is at the forefront of a culinary empire with the success of the Craft family of restaurants. Incidentally, if you happen to stop by CraftSteak in the MGM Grand in Vegas, the oyster appetizers are amazing. He seems a bit more gruff, a little bit less interested, and a bit less patient this season than he has in seasons past. But with a top-notch family of restaurants to manage and make prosper compared with a declining talent, I can’t blame him. I hope I’m wrong. And if by some amazing coincidence of the moons and stars lining up that would lead Chef Tom to read my lowly blog I say “Tom, please don’t leave the show.”

Trina had an interesting thought on the future of the show last night, and I totally agree. For one of the next seasons, here’s what we’re hoping for; we would like to see the four finalists of each of the four seasons thrown back in the mix under the same format that is currently used on the show, and see who comes out on top. Would Harold’s experience outweigh Sam’s technical preparation and love of Kobe beef? Could Dale duel Richard? I have no idea, but I would love to find out.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Flaming Bananas

Banana’s Foster is a fantastic dessert to make for almost any occasion. It’s easy to make a high yield to feed a lot of people. It’s reasonably fast to put together. It tastes great. And it’s impressive as hell when you light it on fire. Also, it’s reasonably mild in flavor so you can serve it to compliment a wide array of dinners.

Banana’s Foster:
6 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1 cup of light brown sugar
4-6 ripe bananas peel and cut crosswise into disks
¼ cup of banana liqueur
½ cup of dark rum (it has to be 80 proof or better or it won’t light and you get a wet sloppy mess)
Ground cinnamon
Vanilla bean ice cream

This will probably serve a decent amount to 4 people. Squeezing 5 or 6 servings out of these proportions shouldn’t be hard. So first off, scoop the ice cream into however many bowls are needed. Put the bowls in the freezer while doing everything else.

Melt the butter over a medium heat agitating regularly. Once melted, add the brown sugar and continue to agitate. DO NOT LEAVE THIS STEP TO IT’S OWN DEVICES!! Got news for ya, everything can burn, and a hot pan with butter and sugar in it is no exception. Not only will it render the rest of the meal inedible, it will stink.

Once the sugar has melted into the butter, you should almost have a golden brown gel. Add the bananas and allow them to brown while folding them into the sugar and butter (roughly 3-4 minutes). Add the banana liqueur and stir briefly, then add the rum and flame the pan with long match or aim and flame lighter. Or, for style points, you can fill a tablespoon with rum, light it, and literally pour the fire into the pan.

The pan will get hot, and quickly. Continue to stir and agitate the pan until the rum alcohol has burned off. Use a long spoon that is not rubber or wood. After the flame has gone out, quickly pour the bananas over the ice cream and garnish the top with some cinnamon.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Boom and Bust: Black Bean Soup with Empanadas

Last night was both a hit and a miss. I had my first Iron Chef ingredient, chorizo, to work with. If you haven’t ever seen Iron Chef, 2 people have 1 hour to make 5 dishes for 3 judges. The competitor can choose from 4 Iron Chefs (Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, Kat Cora, and Michael Symon) to cook against. The catch is that all the meals have to include the “secret ingredient” which is not known until after the competitor has chosen an Iron Chef to battle.

At home, we have a watered-down Iron Chef. Trina and I will take turns buying an ingredient that the other has never used, and we have to make a meal with it. Mine was chorizo, so a black bean soup was sought along with a dessert of banana empanadas. Here’s how it went…

Black Bean and Chorizo Soup:
1 small package of ground chorizo
1 medium white onion finely chopped
½ green pepper finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
4 cups of chicken stock
2 cans (15 oz each) of black beans
Crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 cup of white rice

As with every soup I make, I start the stock simmering first. Drain one can of black beans and add it to the stock. Add the second can of beans with the juice and cover it to simmer. In frying pan, brown the chorizo with the onions, peppers, and garlic in the olive oil, 7-10 minutes at a medium-high heat. Drain the contents of the pan on a paper towel and add it to the stock and beans along with the spices to taste. Allow everything to simmer together, stirring frequently. About 15 minutes prior to serving, add the rice and bring the pot to a boil for 1-2 minutes. Then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover the pot for 10-11 minutes, or until the rice is cooked through. Give it a final stir, and serve hot, garnishing with a dollop or sour cream if desired.

This is a great meal to put together reasonably quickly for a 4-6 people and for probably about $3-4 per person.

The empanadas… well they didn’t quite work out like I wanted them to. I cut a few corners I probably shouldn’t have cut, so this one is going to need some revision. But I’ll try to get it right and have it posted soon.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dining Out in Southeast Florida

Katrina and I took a quick trip this past weekend to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We went down for a wedding, and didn’t get a whole lot of time to ourselves. Honestly, we didn’t expect to considering we were really only there for 2 full days, one of which was occupied by the wedding ceremony. But in that time, we managed to go out to eat together 3 times. Well, 4 actually, but the last one was McDonald’s that we ate on the pool deck looking at the ocean.

In my humble opinion, dining out should never be tricky. It shouldn’t be difficult or make you have to work too hard. After all, that’s why we go out to eat in the first place, right? But dining in southeast Florida wasn’t quite as relaxing and simple as I was hoping it might be for two primary reasons; the parking and the service.

People can argue that these are not the most important things in the dining experience. I don’t mean outright bad service, just mediocre. I think most people would agree that poor service just sucks. And good food should trump mediocre service right? And parking? Come on! That isn’t a big deal or anything. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because I’m learning more and more about various cuisines. Maybe it’s both, and the older I get and more food I try has taken me to nicer places with better food and above average service.

Starting with the lesser obvious one, parking, everything in Ft. Lauderdale has valet parking. This doesn’t seem like an issue all in all. After all, why not have someone park your car for you and do the hustling? But that means that at the end of the meal, you need to have some cash to tip the valet, or you’re a jerk, and in some cases to pay for the service, or you don’t get your car. Just FYI, if you get down to Miami from Lauderdale on the weekend, expect to drop a $20 just for the “courtesy” of the valet. Chances are a $2 tip is going to make you look like an ass.

Service is a pet peeve of mine maybe because I have worked in the industry or maybe because I’ve seen how exemplary service can vastly enhance an entire evening. It can help to make for a good dining experience with mediocre food. Conversely, crap-ass service can make mediocre food bad, great food okay, and a lovely night a pain. Pay attention to the measure of a good server. Is your food taking a long time to come out? That sucks, but chances are it’s not his fault. He’s not cooking. He’s serving. Is he attentive? Does your drink remain full without having to ask? Is his presence known without being intrusive? If so, he is probably doing a good job. Not sure? Ask him to handle something for you that is well within his control. More Sweet and Low, another basket of chips, some more dressing… anything that he can do on his own, not depending on the kitchen. If he gets back to you on the hop, cut him some slack. If not, sorry that you got a dud.

Ft. Lauderdale is known for having been a popular spring break destination for years. Tourism is key in Florida…duh. Common practice in most restaurants I’ve been in is to charge gratuity to a check automatically for a party of a certain size. Most places are 7 or more in a party. I hate when places do it because then the servers get lazy as all hell. Why bust your butt? You’re already getting yours. Every so often, you get 6 or more. The insta-tip price is usually 15-17 ½ percent of the check. A QUALITY SERVER SHOULD POINT OUT TO YOU THAT GRATUITY HAS ALREADY BEEN CHARGED! He should not do everything to detract attention to the additional fee. In Lauderdale, charged gratuity is reasonable commonplace on most checks regardless of how many are in your party. I can understand the argument; drunken college kids spend every cent they have on booze and can’t afford to leave a tip. I’d be pissed too if I was waiting on them. But know your audience.

Trina and I are good tippers. If you get less than 20% from us, you screwed up royally. And every single time I’ve had someone tell me upon handing me a check that the gratuity was already included, I left them more. Props for integrity if nothing else at all. But all of this begs a question about the work ethic of people in the area. You are working in a town where people have money. Multi-million dollar homes with multi-million dollar yachts and shiny Ferraris are not uncommon. Even people who aren’t millionaires are in the city to spend some cash. If you’re already there doing the work, why not take an extra few steps to convince them to spend that cash on you?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Oven BBQ

Pulled pork without a grill is not out of the realm of possibility either. I figured that pulled pork not on a charcoal grill or a wood-fire smoker was no pulled pork at all. But I was able to find a great alternative for when you’re craving pulled pork and it’s the dead of winter, or you don’t have a grill. You’ll loose some of the smokiness that you get from charcoal or wood, but the end product is still some good eatin’.

Pulled Pork:
1 3-pound pork sirloin
Several cans of chicken stock
Dry rub (recipe follows)
A large frying pan
A roasting pan with a grate in the bottom

Dry Rub:
This is an inexact science. You can make a rub out of whatever you want and in any proportions. But some combination of the following seems to work well:

Brown sugar
Cayenne pepper
Dry mustard

Mix everything together. You’ll have to play with your proportions to see what you like best. But when it comes to putting the rub on the meat, don’t be shy about it. Coat the whole thing. Once the meat is coated, sear the outside of it using the frying pan. Then place it on the rack in the roast pan having put about ½ of chicken stock in the bottom, and cook it for about 4 hours, or until the middle is a sustained 170 degrees just as if it was on the grill. Turn the meat about once an hour while cooking, and if you want to baste the meat with each turn, have a ball. Just as on the grill, allow the meat to rest about 10-15 minutes, then shred with your fingers and a fork once it is cool enough to handle.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pulled Pork

I had my first experience making pulled pork this weekend, and I have to say that I was rather pleased with the result. It took a while, and I totally smelled like smoked food for the rest of the day (which is fine if you’re outside the whole time, but when you go back indoors and you can smell it all over you, it looses it’s luster) but it was some fine eating when it was all said and done.

The original recipe calls for “pork butt” which is actually pork shoulder. Still wondering how that connection was made. But personally, I thought that the pork butts that were available all looked way too fatty for me. Instead, I went the way of a pork sirloin, which worked out very well. Here’s how it went…

Pulled Pork:
1 3-pound pork sirloin
1 large disposable drip or roasting pan
Several cans of chicken stock
1 grill, ideally charcoal

When you are stacking the coals for the cooking, either stack them low in the middle, or in two piles to each side of the grill. The idea is to have enough room under the grate of the grill to set the drip pan filled about ½ inch deep with chicken stock. Get the grill hot, roughly 300-350 degrees, season the meat with salt and pepper, and place it on the grate right over the drip pan. Turn it about once an hour. It’s probably going to take between 3-4 hours to totally cook. Once the internal temperature is a sustained 170 degrees, it’s done. Pull it off the grill and allow it to rest under some aluminum foil for at least 15 minutes. Once it is cool enough to handle, by hand and fork, shred the meat into strands. If you feel inclined to add your favorite barbecue sauce, have at it. You can serve it on buns if you want, or just eat it with a fork.

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Night at Jags

Last night, Trina and I were fortunate enough to have one of the finest meals we’ve had in the Cincinnati area. We have been extremely fortunate in the course of our life together to have some really impressive meals and some really impressive places, Red Square, Mon Ami Gabi, and Craft Steak in Vegas, Destin Chops in Florida, Apsara and SoHo in Cincinnati just to name a few. But last night we had an amazing dinner at a privately owned, non-franchised restaurant in West Chester called Jags.

If your from Cincinnati and enjoy good food and a great dining experiences, then this place is really no surprise to you. Jags has been opened now for a little over 4 years. Trina and I have been meaning to get there for pretty much that whole time, but forces in the world conspired to prohibit us from getting there. It is on the expensive side of things, so it’s certainly not somewhere we would just stop into, not to mention, the place is PACKED almost every night of the week.

I want to clarify something real quick before going further, and that is the difference between the use of the terms expensive versus pricey. Chances are that Webster’s probably has them listed as synonyms. But so far as I’m concerned, there is a very different connotation. Both refer to money, but expensive always seems to suggest to me a certain level of value or making an investment in something that turned out to be “worth it”. Pricey always says to me that you spent your money, and would happily take it back if you could.

That said, Jags, while expensive, was totally worth it. Executive Chef Michelle Brown has put together a wonderful combination of continental indulgences and fresh seafood, not always the easiest thing to do in the Midwest, highlighted by a very nice selection of sushi. The desserts were amazing as well. My consisted of a short trip through the raw bar yielding wonderful oysters, shrimp, and crab legs, a beautifully presented lobster bisque, and a filet with black truffles, asparagus, and wild mushroom risotto. Dessert was a chocolate soufflé with Tahitian vanilla gelato. This only barely edged out the “Big Oscar” which was another filet prepared in an Oscar format. Trina has a beautiful piece of salmon which was very well prepared, flakey, and most of all, not spoiled with a lot of rubs, oils, or off the wall seasonings. They let the steak be and taste like steak, and the fish be and taste like fish.

At a glance…
Pros: concise and clean tasting menu; beautiful décor; comfortable seating; extensive bar; cigar humidor.
Cons: parking is tight; while ambient, the whole place was a little bit dark; they serve Pepsi, not Coke. That’s more of a personal preference, but no alcoholic drinks call to be mixed with Pepsi. Ever mixed Captain Morgan’s and Pepsi? It’s nasty.

But I digress…

If you live in Cincinnati and are looking for a fine meal, have a run at this place. You will not be disappointed. Not sure where it is? I have a link to their website just to the right of where you are reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

An Interesting Alternative

This past week I celebrated my 28th birthday. Closer to 30 then 20! Okay, so that’s actually been the case since I was 25 and a day. I went out shopping with my mom for my present, which is not a practice to which she usually subscribes, but she wasn’t sure just what I wanted. Anyway, we went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and I came home with a new set of Calphalon cookware.

Let me tell you, this is some really cool stuff. All of it has a lifetime warranty attached to it, theoretically making it the last set of cookware you’ll ever need. It can go right from the stove to the oven. It can sit under a broiler. It even feels good ergonomically. The only slight drawback is that it’s not supposed to go into the dishwasher. But I can happily overlook that for the quality it adds to the food.

Here’s what I learned;

The care manual for the cookware (yeah it comes with a care manual) says that non-stick anything that utilizes a spray propellant should not be used on non-stick pans. The spray’s propellant has a chemical in it that will lead to the deterioration of the non-stick coating in the pan.

The solution?

Take a mist bottle and fill it with your favorite olive oil. Remember, cold-pressed extra virgin is better for seasoning, standard is better for cooking. Keep the bottle on hand, and use it whenever you need to add additional non-stickiness to your pans. Cool stuff huh?