Archive for May, 2008

Idea: Farmers’ Markets

Posted on May 30, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge |

Looking for something different to do this weekend?  Why don’t you check out a local farmers’ market?
Farmers’ markets aren’t just for foodies, they’re for everyone.  In fact, you’re going to get better flavor, more bang for your buck, and support your local economy.
In most parts of the country, produce is shipped a large distance from where it’s grown.  Thus, there is a huge sacrifice in quality of flavor.  The reason is twofold.  First, most varieties of  fruit and vegetable start to loose flavor the minute they’re picked.  If a peach has to spend several days in storage, then several more on a truck, then several more at the bottom of a giant pile, it’s not going to taste anything like it’s meant to.  The peach you find at the farmers’ market was likely picked the same day, perhaps the day before.  Have yourself a little taste test.
More importantly, I think, is the variety in flavor.  Produce bred to be shipped long distances is designed to be beaten up and held over a period of time.  Ever slice into a bright red grocery store tomato only to find that it’s pale orange on the inside and tastes like water?  Bet you have.  That’s because it was designed to look nice, and not bruise.  Taste doesn’t factor high into the equation.  At the market, you’ll find varieties of produce grown with flavor in mind.  Since it doesn’t need to travel far or sit for long, farmers can concentrate on flavor.  When you think “strawberry” or “corn” you probably think strawberry or corn, not ‘albion,’ ‘seascape,’ ‘luscious,’ or ‘rainbow inca’.  You’ll notice the difference!
Speaking of corn and breeding, the grocery store corn we see today, especially the ears found in winter, are so different from what corn is meant to be it’s shocking.  Corn gets a bad wrap sometimes as an ’empty’ food.  That’s because it’s been bred to contain obscene amounts of sugar.  At the end of the day, you’re eating a lollipop.  Corn, in pre sugar-packed form, was the foundation of great North & South American civilizations.  Is it corn that’s empty, or the ‘corn’ they sell to us that’s empty?
People often say they’d “go organic” if it weren’t so expensive.  By shopping at your local farmers’ market, you’ll be able to pick up sustainably grown food for less than you would expect to pay at the local supermarket.  At the market, you buy direct from the farmer, cutting out the middle man.  No marketing fees, storage/shipping costs, and corporate markup.  Also, especially if you’re buying in bulk, you might be able to negotiate a discount.  Try that at Costco.
Finally, you’ll be supporting your local economy.  Most of the produce supplied in grocery stores is sold by giant agribusiness.  For them, it’s about the money, not about the health of people or land.  Local farmers are better stewards of the land, promoting the growth of their farms instead of trying to maximize yield at the detriment of the soil.  The healthier the soil, the healthier the food that’s going into your body.  Makes perfect sense to me.
To find out about your local markets:
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Garlic Snow Peas

Posted on May 28, 2008. Filed under: easy, healthy, recipe, vegetable |

1/3 Pound Fresh Snow Peas

3 Cloves Garlic, smashed
1 Small Shallot, Chopped
Nothing says spring like fresh snow peas.  Alright, that’s possibly quite a big statement, what with cherry blossoms, girls in summer skirts, and, for those of you outside of SoCal, warmth.  Still, as far as fresh veggies go, snow peas are a delight.  Went to the farmers’ market and picked up a bunch.  Here’s a quick and easy way to cook them.
Place a generous pat of butter in a medium hot pan.  Add garlic and shallots immediately, and allow to soften for about two minutes.  Throw in the snow peas, toss, and cook for three more minutes.  You’ll know the peas are done when they turn bright green.  Don’t overcook.  
That’s it!  Easy as can be and wonderfully tasty!
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Technique: Thickening

Posted on May 26, 2008. Filed under: favorite, technique |

A sauce is no good if it’s running all over your plate and onto your table. What’s a fella to do? You gotta thicken, thicken, thicken. Below are my four most useful thickening techniques.
Corn Starch
A corn starch slurry is my favorite way to thicken sauces. It provides reliable thickening power, and you can easily measure how much it will thicken. But what is a slurry, and why would I want to make it? Well, a slurry is a mixture of corn starch and water. You want to make it because if you put corn starch directly into hot liquid it would turn into a giant lump of cooked nasty. So, instead, you mix one part corn starch into about four parts water. Don’t worry too much about exact measurements, just make sure all the starch is dissolved. Simply pour the slurry into the sauce, bring to a boil, and it will thicken!
Wondra is a fine flour powder, and you can find it in the baking isle of any grocery store. Unlike regular flour, which both lumps and requires cooking, Wondra can go straight from the can into the sauce. It’s the easiest way to thicken, and does a pretty good job, especially if you have just a little bit of sauce. Wondra claims it won’t make lumps, but that’s not entirely true. Put in only a little at a time, and whisk it in quickly. You’ll be lump free that way.
Butter doesn’t thicken much. It is, however, butter, so whatever you’re making is naturally going to taste better! Perfect for adding a velvety texture and creamy flavor. A fine way to finish anything served over pasta.
A roux is a combination of equal parts butter and flour. It is the most labor-intensive and flavorful way to thicken a sauce. Combine butter & flour, then whisk continuously over medium heat. The flour must be cooked in order to avoid a raw flavor. The earliest stage of doneness is when the roux reaches a blonde color, and it can be cooked all the way to a deep brick red, nearly black. As it cooks flavor increases and thickening power decreases. I only make roux on special occasions, or when I’m making a dish that just isn’t the same thickened in another way, such as my mac ‘n cheese.

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Drink of the Day: Pimms Cocktail

Posted on May 23, 2008. Filed under: drinks, hodgepodge, summer |

A Pimms cocktail is my favorite summertime drink.  Pimms is a British liquor made with a gin base, and flavored with herb, spice, and citrus.  It has a totally unique flavor, and, blended the right way, makes for a great refreshment on a hot afternoon.
Mix, over ice:
  • Two Parts Pimms
  • One Part Gin
  • 4 Parts Lemon-Lime Soda
Now for the secret weapon…cucumber!  Bet you never thought you’d be putting a vegetable in your cocktail, eh?!  Well, there’s a first time for everything.  Cut about half a cucumber into the pitcher your mixing the drink in.  Give it a good stir.
Pour the cocktail into a glass filled with ice.  Garnish with a little cucumber and slice of lemon.
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Chicken with Lemon Mustard Sauce

Posted on May 21, 2008. Filed under: poultry, recipe |

2 Chicken Breasts
1 1/2 Cups White Wine
3/4 Cup Chicken Stock
1 Onion, thinly sliced
2 Tbs. Mustard, dijon preferred
3-4 Cloves Garlic
1 Lemon
1/3 Cup Chopped Italian Parsley
Pound chicken until it’s a medium thickness.  To make it more fun, use your hand!  Really, you don’t need to go and buy a meat pounder if your don’t have one, not for this at least.  Rinse the chicken underwater, salt, then lightly dust with flour.  Fry lightly in a pan, using olive oil, until the floured chicken is golden brown.  Remove from pan, lower heat.
Add a little extra olive oil if needed, and sauté onions for about 3 minutes.  Keep the heat low, or they will burn.  Add garlic in the last minute.  Add wine, and let cook for a minute or two.  Stir in mustard and stock, then squeeze in the juice of half the lemon.  Return chicken to pan, cook for 15 minutes, turning once.  Squeeze the other half of the lemon, and thicken with one tablespoon of corn starch mixed with 1/2 cup water.  To make things even better, add the Italian parsley right before serving.  It will give the dish a brighter flavor, and look pretty. 
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Technique: Browning

Posted on May 19, 2008. Filed under: favorite, meat, technique |

Happy birthday, dad!

People often ask me what the biggest difference is between home cooked food and restaurant food. In my opinion, when it comes to meat, the biggest difference is browning. Browning, or, more technically, the Maillard reaction, occurs as heat caramelizes the natural sugars in the meat.
Browning brings out the amazing flavor of meat. It adds depth to slow cooked dishes, and highlights taste in quick cooked ones. To achieve best results, browning requires three elements: heat, salt, and courage.
Constant heat needs to be applied. There is a picture in people’s minds of a chef madly moving a sauté pan back and forth, tossing a piece of beef around. Clear your minds. What you want to do is apply constant, hot heat. The less you move what you’re cooking, the better.
Salt helps to create a crust on the surface of the meat. Additionally, as it is salt, it adds flavor. Using a coarse grained sea or kosher salt will work better than traditional table salt.
You’re going to be doing less, while leaving the heat on more. This might test your patience. The temptation will be to check check check every few seconds. Bad idea, buddy. Just let the Maillard reaction do it’s magic. Also, there is going to be smoke. People will shout at you. They will tell you you’re burning dinner. Just smile and open a window. Later, when they are praising your skills, smile again and close the window.
You’ll know success when both sides are a rich golden brown color.
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Failure: A Tale of Two Pizza Attempts

Posted on May 13, 2008. Filed under: grill, hodgepodge, pizza |

I’ve made two tries at pizza so far.  Both, sadly, ended in failure.

So here’s the plan.  My goal is to re-create a coal fired oven on my grill/smoker.  The combination of hot coal, smoke, and stone should produce a great crust.  The right sauce and cheese will do the rest.

Each time I followed the same process.  I started with Trader Joe’s pre-made dough.  Why go through the trouble of making dough, eh?  Eventually, I’ll have a stab, but this stuff seems to work really well.  I let it rest, floured it, and rolled/stretched it till quite thin.  It went rectangle, which is easier to do than round!  I rubbed the dough with olive oil and garlic.  Found some nice pizza sauce at Whole Foods, and used whole milk mozzarella.  So far, great.
Then things go downhill…
My first attempt was with a traditional pizza stone.  The coals were hot, I put the stone on the rack, and, snap, it split.  Easy enough to push it together, but, a bad sign!  The pizza was tricky (tricky tricky) to get onto the stone, somehow I managed.  I lowered the cover, came back 3 minutes later, and the crust was…solid black.  Burnt.  Took it inside, scraped off the burnt bottom.  The flavor was promising, but, it was way too burnt.
Next attempt was with real bricks.  Same process.  This time, instead of burning in 3 minutes, it took 45 minutes to even begin to cook the crust.  Perhaps the fire wasn’t hot enough, maybe the bricks didn’t conduct the heat well.  Inedible.  
Let’s hope for third time lucky.  I’m going with the bricks again, this time with a lot more coal!
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Penne Pesto with Chicken Breast

Posted on May 9, 2008. Filed under: favorite, in advance, pasta, pesto, poultry, recipe |

Two Chicken Breasts
1 4oz. Package Basil
1/4 Cup Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese
1/3 Cup Toasted Pine Nuts
3 Cloves Garlic
1/8 Cup Olive Oil
1 1/2 Cups Milk
Pasta, Two Handfuls per Person
This is a creamy preparation of pesto sauce, which, combined with roasted chicken, provides a killer meal for you and your friends. Although it takes a little bit of work, nearly everything can be done in advance! Thus…easy entertaining.
Start by roasting the chicken. Simply rub a little olive oil on the breasts (!), then season with salt/pepper/garlic powder. Throw it in a 425 degree oven, feel free to use your toaster oven even, for 7 minutes, flip, and cook another 7 minutes. Slice at a 45 degree angle (don’t stress about perfection) when ready to use.
Now…pesto sauce! Really easy to make. People will think you’re a genius. All you have to do is combine the basil, garlic, cheese (for the love of Pete, please DO NOT use the stuff in the green can- you can spring for the good stuff), milk, oil, and half the pine nuts. Take your handy hand blender, and whip it up. Done!
To finish, simply cook pasta. I find two regular sized handfuls per person makes a good serving size. Drain pasta, add sliced chicken and pesto sauce. Toss, heat together, serve. Genius.
**If you don’t have a hand blender, get one! They’re great for all sorts of things, from frothy drinks to well, pesto sauce.

To toast the pine nuts, simply toss in a medium hot pan until they turn a golden brown.
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Trying New Things

Posted on May 8, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge |

While in New York, I had the opportunity to feast at Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s latest restaurant. The executive chef, Damian Sansonetti, is a good friend of mine. The meal was amazing, and it reminded me how important it is to keep trying new things.
For someone who writes about cooking and is developing a cooking show, I grew up a surprisingly picky eater. While my palate has expanded considerably, part of me remains resistant to certain foods, namely seafood and mushrooms. Well, since my meal was being prepared by the chef, I thought it best to open my mind a bit.
My buddy Clayton B. Hodges and I were presented with a large selection of appetizers. Some, like the garlic ham, were right up my alley, but I admit to being frightened of the pates, especially the one made mostly of liver and mushroom! Well, although I might not be ordering it on my own soon, I was glad for the experience. Incidentally, my main course- duck, rhubarb, beans, leeks- was a plate I wouldn’t have touched several years ago. It was wiped clean.
This brings me to the picture above. When I tell people that the “I” is a piece of pork belly, most shiver in fear. It was, quite possibly, the best single piece of pork I’ve had in my life. Some may cringe from mushrooms, some may cringe from pork belly. We should all take a breath and taste what we think we might not like. It’s perfectly alright to not like it, as was my reaction to sweetbreads (calf thymus gland). As my mom and dad used to say, “you never know until you try.”
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Smothered Pork Chops

Posted on May 6, 2008. Filed under: favorite, pork, recipe, soul |

1 Pound Pork Chops
1 Bottle Good Beer
1 Cup Stock
1/2 Can Coke
4-6 Cloves Garlic
1 Medium Onion, Sliced Fairly Thin
2 Tablespoons Apricot Jam
2 Teaspoons Dried Thyme
4 Sprigs Fresh Margoram
Small Handful Juniper Berries (optional)

This is my take on a Southern favorite. Start by seasoning and searing the pork chops, making sure to get a nice brown on both sides. Remove pork chops, add onions and garlic and sweat for 5 minutes. Deglaze pan with beer.

Add Coke, stock, jam, thyme, juniper. Return to boil and add pork chops. Cover, reduce heat to simmer. Let simmer 1-3 hours, depending on desired consistency of the pork. Add margoram with 5 minutes to cook.

Optional: Before cooking, make a roux using 4 teaspoons butter and flour. Cook to a medium blond. If you choose not to make a roux, thicken sauce at end of cooking.

This dish is easy to medium, depending on if you make the roux. For the amount of effort, you get a great reward.

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