Friday, June 27, 2008

Go-To Snack

Taco dip is one of my favorite munchies. I love making eat, serving it, eating it. It is my official “go-to” snack, appetizer, or in some gluttonous cases, meal. It’s no too hard, but it can be a little bit time consuming, so grant yourself a decent window the first few times you make it.

Taco Dip:
Ground beef 1-1 1/3 pounds
1 can of refried beans
1 pack of taco seasoning
1 small can of minced black olives
1 bunch of minced scallions
1 large tomato diced
1 jar of queso dip

Brown the ground beef and cook according to the directions on the packet of taco seasoning. In a 9x11 pan, spread the beans across the bottom, covering it entirely. Spoon the prepared meat on top of the beans. Next, add the scallions, olives, and tomatoes. Spread the cheese on top and bake it all at 350 until it is hot throughout. Depending on its thickness, this could be 20-35 minutes. Serve it hot with tortilla chips.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Beef Stew

While gathering a list of stuff to get while grocery shopping yesterday, I came across a roast in my freezer that has been there a while. I had the best intentions of cooking it some time ago. But as the phrase goes “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Okay, that was just a bit dramatic. Anyway, I was reminded of one of my favorite recipes, born partially out of curiosity as well as laziness. It’s become a favorite of ours over the years, and I can’t believe it wasn’t one of the first that I posted.

Beef Stew:
1 medium size roast, roughly 2-3 pounds (usually either round or rump-skip pot roasts, they’re too expensive)
2 cans of Heinz fat free gravy
2 medium potatoes diced
1 cup of baby carrots
Garlic (optional)
1 Crock Pot

As I mentioned, don’t buy a pot roast. Yes they tend to be the most tender from the store, but you’re going to cook the meat so long it will fall apart. Trim the fat from the meat, (again, you’ll cook it long enough that you don’t have to worry about tenderness) season it with salt and pepper, and cut it into large cubes. Place the meat, potatoes, carrots, and gravy in the crock-pot along with a splash of water (just enough to get residual gravy out of each can), turn it on high, and leave it for 8-10 hours. Before serving, take a wooden spoon or spatula and aggressively stir the stew to shred the beef into strands. This will also help to emulsify everything and blend the flavors. Serve it hot.

I love this recipe because it doesn’t get a whole lot easier. You can turn it on before you leave for work, and leave it all day. It requires no attention at all. And like the black bean and chorizo soup, you can make a huge amount for a reasonably low price, making it great for cold Sunday afternoons watching football.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Application Questions

I know, I need to get a new recipe up on here. I’ve been meaning to, but the past few weeks have been a total whirlwind, and I have hardly cooked a thing.

I went and picked up a job application the other day. I’ve been saying for a long time that I want to really take steps towards chefing, and I know that’s not a real word, but for the intents and purposes of this blog it is. Anyway, I got an application to work in the kitchen at Dewey’s pizza around the corner from my house. Chances are, I’ll be surrounded by kids 10 years younger who just need something to do over the summer because mom and dad made them. Not a big deal. I read a long time ago that you should work to learn, not learn to work. I have always liked that concept, and so away we go.

What got me motivated to put anything in print for a blog was the application itself. There were a lot of questions that had nothing to do with your work status. They asked things like “what job that you have listed in your work history are you most proud of and why” or “rate your knife skills on a scale of 1-10”. One of the questions was “name your top three dining experiences.” Not a question I was expecting to see on the application for a pizza place, but a perfect question right up the alley of a culinary blog. So here they are, in no particular order.

April 2002- Cool River in Irvine, Texas: I was in town for a volleyball tournament and had dinner with a teammate and his brother who lives in the area. I had a 14 (or so) oz. filet oscar which to this day still tops my list as the best steak I’ve ever had.

February 2006- Red Square in the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada: I’ve been there three times in total, but none have quite been as impressive as the first time. It’s a Russian-themed restaurant with amazing vodka drinks. The food was very impressive as well, but the drinks really made it. I highly suggest their White Russian, Russkie, or Persephone’s Pomme. Amazing.

Many, many times- Chili Time in St. Bernard, Ohio: It’s the kind of place that you drive by over and over and never give it a second look. But it’s a Cincinnati institution. They are open for all but about 5 hours a day, and I think those hours are 2-7 a.m. Everything they have is good. The sandwiches are huge, the chili is fantastic, their fries are great, and feeding 2 people until your think you’re going to pop will run you a whopping $15 or so.

Honorable mentions:
Carrabba’s Italian Grill- every single time we eat there it’s good. We’ve never left having had a so-so meal.
Back Porch Bar and Grill in Destin, Florida- Great scallops, far better than you would expect from a place it’s size, great oysters, and a view of the Gulf that would make you swear you’re looking at a piece of heaven.
The Grand Finale- This was the first place I ever saw desserts flambéed tableside. Very cool stuff. Not to mention they have an amazing brunch every Sunday.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Culinary Q&A

I was killing some time looking at recipes this afternoon, and starting noticing the consistencies and variations used in terms of ingredients. I noticed that a lot of the baking recipes called for unsalted butter while a lot of the meal recipes called for sea salt. So I took it upon myself to look deeper into definitions and terms regarding ingredients that are commonly used. I never really gave a lot of thought as to why to use sea salt in cooking other than I think it tastes a little better. But then, why not use it in baking? Or when I recipe calls for unsalted butter and all I have is the salted kind, can I swap them in and out? That said; consider the following Q&A…

Q: What’s the deal with salted and unsalted butter?
A: I know this one sounds easy enough right? One is made with salt, and one isn’t. But why do recipes, specifically those pertaining to baking, call for unsalted? Ultimately, it’s to control the salt content in the product. Since the salt content per brand varies, you will have a hard time knowing just what your salt content is which may upset the balance of salty and sweet. Baking doesn’t work like cooking. You can’t call timeout and taste the food as you’re going to make sure it’s on par. You just have to be right. Why is salt content seemingly more important in baking? When’s the last time you had a salty chocolate cake?

Q: Why use kosher sea salt as opposed to table salt? Salt is salt right?
A: Well, kind of. Sea salt is obviously coarser, coming in larger individual pieces, almost like small flakes. By definition, all salt is at least 97-½ % sodium chloride. But table salt is mined from an underground source with a little bit of calcium silicate added to keep it from clumping. Sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater leaving behind some of the minerals found in the water that manipulate the flavor just a bit. Also, because table salt is a finely granulated compared to the flakes that make up sea salt, ratios become skewed a little bit. So a teaspoon of table salt will contain more product than a teaspoon of sea salt.

Q: Why do so many pastry recipes call for a splash of ice water here or there?
A: My wife is the baker of the family, not me. I’ve tried a few pastries here and there, but because of the aforementioned “you can’t taste it as you go” methodology, I am not a good baker. But I have noticed that a lot of recipes call for a splash of cold water that seems to hold almost no substantive use? The answer is that when baking, you are probably using butter or margarine, a.k.a. fat. Splashing a bit of very cold water in there keeps the fat cold. So? The reason you want cold fat is because warm fat will release it’s water content into the flour you are probably also using. Moist four creates gluten, which will make the pastry tough.

Q: I heard the term “Puttanesca” on Top Chef a while ago, now I’m seeing it everywhere. What does it mean?
A: According to Top Chef judge, Ted Allen to make something puttanesca (i.e. pasta puttanesca) means “pasta the way a whore would make it.” I don’t think that’s what chefs have in mind when putting it on their menus, so here is a more practical definition: Puttanesca is a tomato-based sauce loaded with garlic, anchovies, capers, olives, and red pepper.

Q: Another Top Chef inquiry; they make “braised” meats all the time. Everyone seems to have a variation on the meaning. What’s a braise?
A: Braising is a slow, wet cooking method for meats used to blend flavors and soften the meat. It’s used a lot with meats that have a lot of connective tissue. The tissue breaks down while cooking into more of a gelatin and makes the meat very tender while helping it to hold its juices. If the same meats were cooked in a dry heat and/or quickly, you can be assured they are going to be very tough.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Top Chef Chicago Finale

Top Chef Chicago is now in the books. We can chalk it up to the annals of history with some of the least noteworthy competitions known to man alongside Olympic Curling and the Detroit/St. Louis World Series.

If you have not yet seen it, read no further. I don’t want to give anything away. However, if you are up to date, read on my epicurean friends.

True to form and tradition, the chefs had to make a meal. No, that’s not quite right. They had to make the ultimate meal. They were assigned to a sous chef who had an assortment of proteins from which to select and base their meals. From these, they needed to derive a 4-course meal for what would be their final culinary test.

On a side note, did anyone think that Lisa was going to win? Yeah neither did I. So the 2-horse race of Richard and Stephanie surged ahead with little restrictions on what they were allowed to cook. I am impressed with Stephanie taking home the Top Chef crown and putting up consistent performances week after week. She came a very long way from the girl who’s hand was trembling so badly she couldn’t garnish her food in the firs elimination challenge. But here’s the question; did Stephanie win? Or did Richard lose?

Consider the difference; winning is having been better than someone else. Being beaten is having competed against someone better. But losing is not necessarily synonymous with being beaten. Put is this way, when someone beats you, they did the beating. But if you lose, you did the losing. I don’t mind being beaten, but I hate to lose.

To watch the show, it looks like Richard lost. He was in the kitchen with 3 world-class chefs, and managed to spark such an interest from Eric Rippert that Chef Rippert left his station to watch what Richard was doing. Incidentally, he was making bacon-ice cream with liquid nitrogen. And from there it went south. He seemed to lose sight of what started as a strong, well-planned menu. Make no mistake; I couldn’t make what he made. But then again, I’m not a Top Chef finalist. It was his for the taking, and by his own admission, he choked.

But hats off to Stephanie. She was sure and steady though 16 weeks of extraordinary culinary tribulations. On top of it, she was obviously well liked through out the contest. She was personable. She was polite. She didn’t shoot her mouth off. She didn’t pick fights. She took criticism very gracefully. In short, she was classy the whole time. In essence, she was the exact opposite of what a reality TV producer probably hopes for in a candidate. Didn’t matter. She won anyway.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

I have noticed lately that my menus at home have been getting a little bit repetitive. I have been on a bit of a mission to learn some new stuff and for some reason Italian jumped out at me. With that in mind, I decided to go after some Parmesan crusted chicken. What’s great about this recipe is that it can be whipped up very quickly with a few corners not quite cut, but definitely shaved. It’s pan fried, so the chicken can be ready in about 6 minutes. You can heat up a jar of spaghetti sauce if you don’t want to make it from scratch. You can serve it over any pasta you like. Personally, I like a small rigatoni.

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken:
1 pack of chicken beast
2 cups of flour
2 eggs beaten
½-1 cup of breadcrumbs
1-½ cups of Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 box of rigatoni

Marinara Sauce (if you’re feeling ambitious and have the time):
¼ cup of olive oil
2-3 tablespoons of chopped white onion
1 large can of whole peeled tomatoes
2 garlic cloves

If you’re going to make the sauce from scratch, get it going first. Drain about half the juice from the can of tomatoes into a small pot and get it simmering. Coarsely chop the tomatoes and add them to the juice. In a small pan, sauté the onions in the olive oil until they are brown, roughly 5 minutes on a medium heat. Add the onion with the olive oil to the pot, and season with garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, and basil to taste. Cover the pot and let simmer to thicken, stirring occasionally.

Start the pasta in a boiling pot of water over a medium-high heat. I’ve found that boiling the pasta over lower heat for a longer time will keep the pasta from tearing under the stress of violently boiling water.

Trim the fat and veins from the chicken and pound it flat (roughly half and inch thick) with a mallet or a rolling pin. Set the chicken on a paper towel to dry while preparing the breading. Take 3 separate containers and in them, and in this order, place the following: in the first one, flour and dash of pepper, in the second the beaten eggs, and in the third, the Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs.

Dredge the chicken in the flour, then dip it in the egg, then dredge again through the cheese and breadcrumbs. Once all the chicken has been coated, heat the butter and oil in a sauté pan over a medium-high heat. Pan-fry the chicken until golden-brown outside and white throughout on the inside.

Drain the pasta, and spoon it onto a plate. Place the chicken on top, and dress with the marinara sauce.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Potato and Leek Soup

My man Spike from Top Chef: Chicago was always talking about soups. In particular, he pressed the idea of butternut squash soup a few times. He was insistent that the best way to impress a chef was to make a high-quality, simple soup. I’ve got a few in my repertoire that I like to make from time to time. Clearly I’m not making them to impress professional judges, but rather they are a great way to feed a lot of people for not a lot of money. Also, I love that once you get them going, you can simmer them throughout the rest of the service and servings are hot and ready at will.

My wife loves leeks. Honestly, until not too long ago, I had no idea what they were. If you are wondering yourself, they look like really big scallions with long green chutes. You can get them in just about any grocery store with the produce. And in an effort to use an ingredient that really got Trina excited as well as learn to use something I’d not used before, potato and leek soup was born.

Potato and Leek Soup:
2 large leeks
3 tablespoons of butter
4 strips of bacon
4 cups of chicken stock
2 large russet potatoes diced
¾ cup of heavy cream
Salt and pepper

Start the diced potatoes and stock simmering over a low heat in a covered pot. Remove all the grit from the leeks and slice into thin disks. Melt the butter over a medium/high heat and sauté the leeks in the butter until wilting and translucent, then add them to the stock. Render the bacon strips until crispy. Remove them from the heat, blot off the excess grease with a paper towel, and set them aside. Bring the soup to a high boil for about 2 minutes then cover the pot and reduce the heat to a low simmer to let it thicken. Season the soup with salt and pepper as needed.

If you want to thicken the soup further, whip it with a wire wisk or an immersion blender to puree the potatoes. If you still could handle it being a little thicker, add small amount of instant mashed potato flakes, stirring them in and letting them simmer. Garnish the top with some crushed bacon and serve hot.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Top Chef Finale Part 1

I know that I have strayed away from recipes in my past few blogs, and there are 2 reasons for that. One, I haven’t been cooking quite as much at home in the past month as I have in times past. And two, the few recipes I have been experimenting with need a little revision before they are posted.

But last night’s part one Top Chef Finale will remain a topic of much debate. There was a lot of activity packed into that one hour, so I’ll try to make this chronological.

Upon arriving in Puerto Rico, they judges undertook their quickfire challenge, making local appetizers for a local chef. It was not all that exciting to be honest, and Stephanie won granting her an edge. This edge was realized the next day when they were led to the elimination challenge, where they were told to make a meal consisting of a minimum of 2 dishes, all made with pork. The catch is that they had a whole pig to butcher and break down while their sous chefs did the shopping. Stephanie, as the winner of the quickfire, was given the power to assign the sous chefs, Andrew, Dale, Nikki, and Spike to the contestants as she saw fit. She could’ve screwed EVERYONE by assigning people who would not have a good synergy together but aside from placing Andrew with Lisa she really didn’t do that. Side note, everyone would’ve had trouble with Lisa.

While the contestants broke down their pigs, the sous chefs shopped. Everyone reunited for some hardcore prep in a kitchen that was way too small for 8 people. Everyone did their thing for the next few hours until the allotted time was up, and retired for the evening. It wasn’t until the next morning that Stephanie and Dale discovered that Dale had left a seasoned pork loin out overnight, rendering it useless. Not to be thwarted, Stephanie and Dale pulled together and whipped up an alternate dish and ended up before the judges with Richard as being one of the evening’s two best chefs.

Winning the challenge, Richard was given a brand new car… kind of. He won a 2009 Toyota Carolla. Makes sense seeing as Toyota is a sponsor of the show. But the look on his face was priceless. It was something between “wow I won a car” and “I won this car?” Last week, Stephanie won a deluxe kitchen suite of GE Monogram appliances. I am more than willing to bet the grand total of that kitchen was well higher than the price of that car. I think most chefs would rather have the kitchen anyway.

That leaves Lisa and Antonia in the bottom 2. Personally, I’m not a fan of either one. Antonia seems like a spoiled princess and Lisa seems like an angry, agenda seeking lesbian. That aside, I think that Antonia has shown a great deal more talent through out the contest while Lisa has dodged the bottom 2 bullet 6 times now in 12 weeks. Antonia made the mistake of undercooking peas, while Lisa made the only dish all night that the judges didn’t even finish. I didn’t taste the food. They did. And as they’ve said all along, it’s not about what you did last week, and it’s not about your past record. It’s all about how you did tonight. Well that has to be the case, because once again, Lisa dodges the bullet, escapes the gallows, or whatever cliché you like to use to get into the finale.

Once reunited with the other contestants, Antonia said her goodbyes much to the obvious surprise of Richard and Stephanie, and took her leave. And this is the point where Lisa decided to pick a fight. She was angry that neither of the others had congratulated her on winning and staying in the contest. She said something to the effect of “instead of congratulating me, you’re sitting there looking like the wrong person went home?” And looking at Richard, he was fighting every motivation to say “yeah, that’s because the wrong person did go home.” Later in one of the confessionals, he admitted as much. No surprise there. Then follows up with “Yeah, congratulations. You won the bronze medal.”

It should be a 2-horse race from here on out. Of course, everyone said that it was only a 3 horse race coming into this week, and Lisa had no chance at all. But I really don’t think she can keep pace with Richard or Stephanie when the time comes to make whatever they want however they want.