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Thomas The Accidental Gourmet

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Giving Away the Sangria--Free Milk and a Cow

The first time I had sangria was on a beach in France when I was 15. Fruity, fortified wine, topless women, sand, the Mediterranian sea...what's not to love about that? I've been a fan of sangria ever since.

If you've had sangria bought in the store...I'm sorry for you. You should know better. Mine's better, but it's a bit dangerous. When we first bought our home, we had an open house, and I caught my neighbor trying to serve some to his grandson (he thought it was punch). Be warned if you serve this at a party: you'll likely end up with people sleeping on your lawn.

All I've got to say is that those of you that read this better not start skipping my parties, and give credit where it's due when you serve it. :)

Oh, and as a bonus, a little cranberry drink I blended up last night.


10 liters medium body red wine--I usually use Franzia boxed. One box of their "chillable red" and one of Chianti.
About 1/2 - 3/4 liters gold rum (Cruzan works great)
1/2 bottle blue curacao
1 large can frozen orange juice (plus the water to make OJ)
Sugar to taste (err on the side of "not quite sweet enough" until you've let it sit for a couple of hours)
Add thinly-sliced and quartered oranges & limes, plus red grapes.
Let sit overnight (preferably where your dog can't get to it)

Add ice just prior to serving (obviously, enough to make it cold). We often serve this at Halloween, so we use dry ice for the "double, double, toil and trouble" effect.

Holiday Daiquiri

OK, technically it's not a daiquiri since it doesn't have any rum or lime in it. But it's a lot easier to say "holiday daiquiri" than "frozen cranberry cocktail and cognac with spices," plus it just sounds better.

1/4 blender ice
1/2 blender frozen cranberry sauce (preferably some made with oranges). And if it's from a can, please turn in your apron, along with the remaining dregs of your pride, and exit the building.
1/8 blender cognac or brandy
1/8 (or so) blender sprite (or similar)
2 Tbsp. cardamon
1 Tbsp. cinnamon

Blend. Drink. Be merry.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Southwestern Ribollita

As Thanksgiving fades and Christmas approaches, we're all filled with the same feelings: "What in the *@!#*! am I going to do with more turkey leftovers?" Let's face it: turkey sandwiches lose their shine after two or three, and there's only so much turkey tetrazzini you can pack away before you really don't want any more.

When Jenn and I went to Italy, on our second day we discovered a soup called "ribollita." In a nutshell, it's a hearty soup with a lot of bread in it that has been boiled twice. Like a lot of soups, it's a way to get rid of some leftovers, and it's stone soup at the same time--you add those fresh ingredients you think will make your soup better (if you don't know what stone soup is, google it).

Well, a couple of days ago we were trying to figure out what to do with a few leftovers: turkey, cornbread dressing, gravy and black bean dip we had made, plus a few vegetables that were past their prime. I'm quite pleased with the way this turned out. Frankly, it doesn't have the "leftover" feel to it that turkey tetrazzini does. I'd almost expect to see something like this at a new American cuisine restaurant.

Southwestern Ribollita

32-48 oz. Chicken Broth
2 Poblanos, diced
Leftover smoked turkey (if you don't have smoked turkey, roast the poblanos in a skillet, and you might want to try about 1/4 tsp liquid hickory smoke, but don't over-do it...add 1/8 tsp at a time)
2 medium potatoes
2-3 tomatoes, peeled & diced
3-4 carrots, chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped
4 celery stalks, chopped
Leftover cornbread dressing (if you don't have it, make a little cornbread WITHOUT sugar)--don't add more than two cups, crushed
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lime
6 sprigs cilantro (for soup and garnish)
2 tsp. Cumin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbps. Oregano
8-10 grinds of black pepper
1 can corn
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Avocado
Grated monterrey jack cheese
1 cup pureed black beans--we actually used black bean dip, which has sherry, cumin, shallots, garlic: but if you don't make the bean dip, add:
(1 tsp sherry)

What to do with it:

Sautee your hard veggies (poblano, onion, carrots and potatoes) in olive oil until the onions are translucent, then add the celery and sautee until the potatoes are relatively soft, but still firm.

Squeeze in 1/2 the lime and add everything EXCEPT the avocado, the cheese and the dressing (or cornbread). Cover with lid, boil, then simmer (still covered) 30-45 minutes.

Add the dressing, and bring to a boil again. Simmer another 15-30 minutes.

Dish up into bowls, squeeze a bit of lime juice, add a slice of avocado, a sprinkle of cheese and a couple cilantro leaves. You might also throw a tortilla chip or two into the soup for presentation purposes, or a corn pone if you've made cornbread.

Serve with a granache wine (we used a spanish wine, Las Rocas de San Alejandro: Garnacha, 2006 vintage)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

My Dinner With Nana

For our anniversary, Jenn and I ate at Nana in Dallas. I'm glad we did: the chef was very experimental, and we had a lot of flavors we wouldn't normally have tried. I don't think I'll ever go back.

A problem that a lot of chefs have is that they focus on a process, or an ingredient, and they forget that ultimately we eat food because we like the way it tastes. Good food with a gimmick is just that: Good food. With a gimmick. It's not great food, and it's not enough to make you want to go back again and again. Unfortunately, at least that night, the chef was so concentrated on pushing boundaries and being clever that he lost focus on making food that tasted great. And what could have been one or two surprising and exciting courses became a tedious and overwrought meal.

We enjoy ordering chef's pairing meals because it forces us to go outside of our normal favorites, so we did just that: seven courses with wine pairings.

There were a couple of bright spots on the menu. The beginning and the end. The meal started with squares of "tuna tartar" (in other restaurants, known as "sashimi"). The twist was a bit of watermelon, which initially sounded a bit odd, but added a nice balance to the other flavors. The surprise was that the tuna and the watermelon were about the same size and color, so you never knew what you were going to get. I enjoyed it. From there, things got...interesting.

The next item was day boat scallops with celery "root beer" puree (more like foam) and maple syrup. On the plus side, the scallops were perfectly cooked. On the down side, I don't know if there was actual root beer in the foam or not, but it certainly tasted like it. In case you're wondering, root beer foam and scallops tastes as bad as it sounds.

The third offering was veal sweetbreads on cauliflower couscous with prawns on the side. The "couscous" was imaginative and complemented the richness of the sweetbreads, which were really good. And normally, I'm not a fan of sweetbreads. Rather than being fried, they were grilled, exceptionally rich, and perfectly cooked. Now the prawns...they were an afterthought on the plate for the non-sweetbread fan, that showed a lack of confidence by the chef, and simply didn't go with the rest of the dish.

The sweetbreads , followed by "snickered" foie gras and then pork belly, were the first of a trio of rich, fatty dishes with nothing to separate or cut them. I couldn't tell you if the pork belly was any good or not because by the time I was two bites into it, my mouth felt as if it had been coated by lard, and not from the fat of the pork belly (which was not crispy, and so if not bad was at least undercooked). We actually requested passion fruit sorbet instead of the next scheduled dish to try to cleanse our palate a bit prior to dessert.

I have to go back to the foie gras: chocolate, caramel, peanuts and foie gras instead of nougat. This was a daring dish. It tasted good. The chef didn't know if it was a dessert or main course, as the waiter readily shared with us. Neither did I, but in between sweetbreads and pork belly it was misplaced and confusing. Furthermore, the foie gras was whipped (I guess you can't make a foam out of foie gras) and had been squeezed through a pastry bag so that it made a little mound that reminded me of a cross between soft serve ice cream and a novelty toy that imitates a bodily substance not fit for discussion in polite company: it was off-putting.

In all, the food was imaginative and well cooked. The wine pairings were generally decent, although nothing knocked it out of the park for me. The food pushed us outside of our normal box. However, the menu was not well thought through, and several of the dishes seemed to be accompanied by an apology or excuse. Ultimately, Nana is not a restaurant I would recommend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Getting Sauced

A few years ago, my wife requested a red currant sauce to go with some venison we were cooking. After about 30 minutes, I had what can only be described as an utter failure. It was tart. Among other things. Fortunately, I hadn't started cooking the venison. So, a few teaspoons of molasses, some tomato paste, and a few spices later, and I had red currant barbecue sauce. Talk about accidental gourmet! Grilled venison with red currant barbecue sauce: it doesn't get any more accidental than that.

The problem is that sauces are a bit scary. Or are they? Have you ever made gravy for biscuits and sausage in the morning? If so, you've made an integral sauce.

I believe that integral sauces are the easiest way to get into making sauce and gain some confidence. Basically, an integral sauce uses either drippings or fond (the stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan when you've braised meat) and some sort of liquid. To that, you can add spices, thickener (flour or corn starch, for instance), onions, mushrooms...

So, here's a simple sauce for steak.

Start with a pan-seared steak. Prior to cooking your steak, mince half a shallot and 4-5 mushroom caps. Cut a lemon in half. If you've got some fresh oregano, prep about 1 tsp. (pull the leaves off the stem and mince them); otherwise use dried.

While the steak is cooking, sautee the shallots and mushrooms in a little olive oil.

Once your steak is almost done, pull it up and place it on a plate in the oven on "warm." Add 1 cup liquid directly to the pan you just pulled the steak out of. Try 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup wine (use the wine you're going to drink with the steak). Throw in the shallots, mushrooms, oregano, a few dashes of pepper and salt, squeeze in some lemon, and then scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spatula. Turn the heat up to medium-high. Keep cooking until you've boiled away about 2/3 of the liquid, occasionally scraping the bottom of the pan. Take a quick taste to make certain you don't need any more salt or acid, pull your steak out of the oven, and ladle on a little sauce.

Once you're comfortable with something simple like this, branch out. Add some corn starch to thicken it up. Add a little yogurt or sour cream to make it creamier. Throw in some butter to make it richer. Experiment. The worst thing that can happen is that you don't end up using your sauce.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Scallop Soup

Most of the time when I go to the store to pick something up for dinner, I have no idea what is going to end up on the table. I like to browse around, see what catches my eye, and come up with something on the spot. It's fun. It also turns a shopping trip into an odyssey, as I criss-cross the store trying to find the "right" ingredients as I figure out what they will be.

This past weekend, our friend, Chris, asked if he and I could cook together. So while our wives sat on the back porch drinking wine, we engaged in the manly activity of providing food for the table and spent about an hour rummaging around at my crack dealer, Central Market. We decided on making lamb chops, calamari, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus and mixed seafood with home made marinara over linguini But since I'd never made the seafood pasta dish, the lamb chops and asparagus were not going to provide a lot of food, and I'm still struggling with getting calamari cooked just right, I figured that it wouldn't hurt to cook one thing that I knew would taste good. Most importantly, it's easy for all but about three minutes, and then you just have to pay attention.

I particularly like this dish because I really like scallops, but I struggled for several years to find ways to cook them so that they didn't get ruined in the process.

Scallop Soup

What You Need:

Three large sea scallops per person.
1 to 1 1/2 cups of sauvignon blanc. Clos du Bois works.
2 roma tomatoes
1/4 to 1/3 cup oregano. Less if it's fresh
1/3 cup plain yogurt
Salt & Pepper

What To Do with It:

This recipe assumes enough food for 3-4 people. You'll need to increase everything except the scallops if you're cooking for more.

Slice the tomatoes, skin & all, about 3 mm thick.

Put equal parts wine and water into a wide pan. Something in the neighborhood of 10-12 inches.
Add your tomatoes, some salt & petter and oregano & cook on medium heat. Dried oregano will take longer, so you'll have to add some water along the way.

Once you've been cooking for about 20 minutes, your tomatoes should begin to fall apart. Mash them a bit with a wooden spoon to help the process along.

Mix your yogurt with just a little bit less cold water. Stir until it's smooth (this will help your yogurt not be clumpy when it hits the wine). Add to your liquid and continue cooking until your tomatoes are no longer recognizeable as such.

At this point, you should have about 1/2 inch liquid in your pan. Drop in your scallops QUICKLY. Scallops cook in a hurry, so you don't want to tarry.

After about 1 1/2 minutes, turn them over. Once they begin to split on top, they're done (about 3 minutes total, maybe more depending on how many you throw in). Put your scallops in bowls and pour the broth over them.

Drink with the wine you used to cook 'em.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Essential Kitchen Items

Question: if you don't have a ball and a bat, how do you play baseball? Answer: not very well.

Everyone understands having the proper tools for the job. Unfortunately, a lot of folks don't look at the kitchen as a place that needs the proper tools.

Now, I've done my fair share of cooking in condos, on sailboats, and other places where a kitchen isn't very well stocked. It can be done, and done well. However, it's a lot more challenging; and why would you want to handicap yourself? You can play baseball with a stick and a walnut. But it's a lot more fun with a ball and a bat.

Stocking Your Kitchen

1) A good set of knives. Not the serrated "ever-sharp" variety. Knives with an edge. You don't have to spring for a top-of-the-line set, but get something that has a firm blade. And since you have knives with real edges, you need a knife sharpener. I've got two sets: one is for everyday use, that I don't mind putting in the dishwasher. The other is for when I'm cooking for people--the the blades are sharper and firmer. Oh, and get a cutting board.

2) Spices. Lots of spices. Even if all you do is buy a pre-packaged set that hangs on the wall because you're intimidated by them, get a lot of spices. Two things might happen. First, you might find a recipe that calls for a particular spice. Second, you might just one day decide to experiment with some of your spices. Any junior chemist will tell you that without a chemistry set, chemistry ain't much fun.

3) Two good saucepans. Your smaller one should be somewhere around the 3/4 to 1 quart variety, the other 2-3 quarts. There are lots of varieties: copper core, hard anondized aluminum... Get one that's heavy, for starters. A thin sauce pan will not transmit heat evenly, so your food will cook unevenly. If you've got a heavy pan, usually this means that it's got three layers (bottom, some sort of core to transmit heat efficiently, cooking surface).

4) A cast iron skillet, and one regular frying pan. For the cast iron skillet, you must season it. Put about a teaspoon of oil in it, then put it on the stove and heat it until the oil burns away, spreading the oil around occasionally. Repeat 2-3 times. For the regular frying pan, again you want one that's heavy. Now about that cooking surface: I've got an apathathetic/hate relationship with non-stick cookware. Non-stick surfaces generally still stick, anyhow, and you can't use anything metal on them. If you're looking to make an integral sauce, then they don't stick enough. But they are a little easier to clean. And since I hate cleaning dishes, I'll deal with the non-stick surfaces on some of my cookware.

5) A wooden spoon; a set of mixing bowls; a hard spatula and a soft, scraping spatula made out of silicone; a wire whisk; measuring utensils (a set of cups and spoons); a cheese grater; and a vegetable peeler. Finally, a good pot holder.

There are, of course, myriad other things that you "need." But getting the ones I've listed will get most people off the ground.

Think I've missed an essential? Post it in the comments.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Smoked Turkey--Your oven will miss you

I know. The latest thing in turkeys is fried. Or turducken. Or carpaccio. (Just kidding about that one). The latest fad, if the amount of ads I receive is indication, is smoked turkey.

Fads come and go. Good taste: that's enduring. Somewhere around 45 years ago, my parents were on a hunting trip at Thanksgiving. Having no oven, they used a charcoal grill to cook their turkey. They've never used an oven since. And about five years ago, I cooked a turkey on an old beat-up weber for my mother in-law. That's her favorite way now, as well.

A couple years ago, my wife and parents bought me a smoker for my birthday. As much as I like turkey cooked on a Weber...a smoked turkey is even better. The last one I cooked, when I tried to pull off a drum stick, I got just a bone. The meat was that tender.

What you need:

A turkey. Preferably fresh, and without injected solution. That stuff just tastes awful. I'm assuming a turkey that's 16-20 pounds.
2 sticks of butter
1/2 to 3/4 cup of rubbed sage leaf
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

What to do with it:

Let your butter soften. Once it's to room temperature, mix in your spices.

Next, if you've never cooked a turkey, pull out the bag from the inside with the neck, giblets, etc. Trust me. You don't want to cook that in there.

Cut some of the excess skin from the back end of the turkey, close to the meat. Now, separate the skin from the meat. You're not cutting it away, just pulling it. Once you've got some separation, make a fist and continue separating skin from meat. Concentrate on the breast, but separate all the way around (don't separate the drum sticks). You're not going to skin the turkey--you're just making space for butter.

Once you've got most of the skin separated from the breast, put about 1/3 of your butter under the skin. You don't want one big clump--spread it around. Put another 1/3 of the butter under the skin in other places (the back, for instance).

Using paper towels, dry the outside of the turkey. Massage in the remaining butter on the outside of the skin. Place the turkey in an aluminum pan, breast side up, throw in 1/4 white onion, a couple stalks of celery, about 12 ounces of water, cover with aluminum foil and set aside.
If you've only got a grill, get a good bed of coals going. Move the coals to the outside rim, close down all the air intakes, and put on the turkey. You'll cook about 20 minutes per pound. About every 2 hours, add fresh coals. Baste at the same time. The key is to keep the coals on the outside: you don't want direct heat.

If you've got a smoker, get your fire going at least an hour before you put on your turkey--you don't want it flaring up. Once your temperature is steady, put your turkey on, covered in foil. Your turkey will take 20-30 minutes per pound, with a temperature between 200 and 220 degrees. You're going to want to check the fire box about every two hours: baste the bird at that time. I like to use pecan wood for the first 4 to 5 hours, then switch to something more mellow, like fruit wood.

In either method, once you're done let the turkey rest for about 20 minutes prior to carving. It may be pink in places. That's OK. It doesn't mean it's raw, only smoked.

Remember that bag o' parts? About two hours before your turkey is due to come up, place them, along with some celery, onion, and a tiny bit of carrots into a pot with 16 ounces of chicken broth, and cook on medium-high. Check occasionally to be certain that you haven't cooked away the liquid. When your turkey comes off the grill, pull out the parts and add some of the juice to this broth along with 1/2 to 3/4 cup of milk, and then add flour or corn starch (in incremental, small amounts) to thicken to your preference. Chop up some of the liver and throw it in. Now you've got gravy for your turkey. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with a good pinot noir.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

10-Minute Miracle--Veal Scallopini with Mushroom Sauce

I had some issues getting home from work the other day. Long story short, my parking garage is valet only, and I'm currently driving a rental car. I had lost my ticket, and sent them searching for a white Ford. Unfortunately, I was driving a white Chevrolet...

Anyhow, I'd promised my wife that I would pick up something for dinner. But now I was running late. So, I picked up a bottle of wine, and headed for the fish counter...which was closed. OK, plan B.

I decided to cook something that we found by accident one night when we were tired of chicken and pork, but didn't want steak: veal. Of course, we'd never cooked veal before, and had no idea what to do. So, we went rooting around and picked up some tarragon, white beech mushrooms, and a lemon for a bit of tang. What follows is now one of our favorite recipes. The best part is that it takes 10 minutes, start to finish.

Veal Scallopini with Mushroom Sauce

What you need:

Veal scallopini (I cook for 2, so I use four 1-ounce pieces)
Fresh tarragon, about 1 tbsp., chopped
1/2 cup white beech mushrooms (you might also try shitakes--either way, go for something pretty aromatic: your standard button mushrooms won't cut it)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp minced white onion or shallots
Juice from 1/4 lemon (you can substitue 1/8 tsp. white wine vinegar)
1/2 to 1 tbsp. butter (depending on how much fat you like)
2-3 tsp. olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of a pan when heated)
3/4 tsp. salt & 2 grinds on a pepper shaker
1/3 cup chardonnay (I like Chateau St. Michelle)

What to do with it:

First, preheat an oven to "Warm" and put a plate in it.

Put the butter & olive oil in a skillet on medium-low heat. Add salt, and warm until the butter melts.

Add the garlic, tarragon, onion, mushrooms and lemon juice. Cook until the onions turn translucent (about 3 minutes).

Turn the heat up to medium, push the vegetable matter to the edges of the pan, and put on your veal scallopini. Cook for one minute on one side, and 1.5 minutes on the other. If your onions & garlic start to brown, throw in a bit of your wine.

Take up the veal, put it on the plate, and place in the oven to keep it warm.

Add the wine to the pan, turn the heat to medium-high and reduce the liquid until it thickens. Use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan. Pull your veal out of the oven, and pour any juice from the plate into the pan. Keep cooking, and scraping the pan. Your sauce should be a light brown color.

Plate your veal, ladle on the sauce, and serve. Sides could include asparagus, rice, or potato-leek soup.

Total cooking time, start to finish: about 10 minutes.

Want the potato leek soup recipe? Ask my wife. She got it from a cookbook. :)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cedar Planked Salmon--Why I will never fish for salmon in Alaska

I like fish of all kinds. But I've always liked salmon above all.

A few years ago, however, I ruined my salmon experience forever: I shelled out the cash for copper river salmon as opposed to the $6 "Atlantic" (e.g. farm raised) salmon I had previously purchased. Almost deep red in color instead of orange, and full of flavor, this wild-caught salmon is certainly worth it. In season, it's a least relatively speaking.

Which is why I almost feel sorry for my brother in-law and sister in-law. Poor babies went salmon fishing in Alaska. I suspect that they will never again be able to eat salmon bought from a store, even copper river. And if they try this, they'll never eat salmon again until they buy a grill. :)

I must admit, when I first heard about this, I was very skeptical: anyone who's ever roasted marshmallows over a fire with a lot of pitchy pine will understand. But it's good. Really, really good.

Cedar Planked Salmon

What you need:

Salmon filet
Cedar plank (some people will buy cedar from a lumber store, but I'm concerned about chemicals that may be in it)
Garlic powder
2 Green onions
Salt & pepper

What to do with it:

Soak your cedar about 15-30 minutes in water (start it at the same time you get your coals going). I've thought about soaking the cedar in various things such as bourbon, or red wine, but haven't tried it out, yet.

A quick note on your grill (not your gold teeth, the one with the coals in it): if you don't have a charcoal grill, get rid of the gas one and spring for a good one, such as the grillmaster smoker--you can adjust the height of the coals, it's got a large cooking area, and with the firebox, you can try cold smoking your salmon next time!

Place your salmon on the cedar plank, skin down.

Around 5 minutes before you put the salmon on, squeeze 1/2 a lemon on top. Add salt, pepper and garic powder (sparingly), and sliced green onions. Finally, cut off a few lemon slices (little circles). Now, cut them almost in half, but not quite (place the point of your knife at the inside of the rind, and pulll straight back). Now twist the lemon slice--you should have an "S" shape formed by the rind. Place these on top of the salmon (about 1 for every 3 inches of salmon). The lemon juice adds flavor, as well as a little moisture.

Place the cedar directly on the grill (not on the coals).

Cooking is key. I lower the coals to as low as they will go (distance, not heat), and close the lid of the grill. Depending on how many coals I've got on, as well as how much salmon, I first check it after about 8 minutes. Once there are little white spots (fat) just outside the middle of the thickest part of the salmon, it's done. Don't overcook! If the fat comes up in the middle, all is not lost, but remember that your fish will continue to cook after you take it off the grill. So, if the fat is in the middle, slice your filet quickly so that heat will dissipate.

Try serving this with Maudite Ephemere, a green apple beer. If not, go for a light pinot noir--the salmon is too heavy for most whites, and the fat in the salmon needs a red to cut it.

For sides, go for brown rice, and fresh asparagus, but if you do serve asparagues, try pairing your meal with a viognier wine.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Embrace Your Inner Hippie--Basil Olive Oil and Cognac Vanilla

I affectionately refer to my mother in-law as the earth mother. This is in part because she used to make homemade yogurt on the hood of her car. I suppose that Basil Olive Oil and Cognac Vanilla aren't very hippie-ish. But, hey, they're homemade, and that's as close as most of us will come to our inner hippie.

The nice thing about these two is that they're incredibly simple to make.

The bad thing is that you may have family and friends request that you make some for them and share. Which, I suppose, is sort of hippie-ish after all.

Basil Olive Oil

You'll need as much extra virgin olive oil as you will put in a container. I have a bottle with a little pouring spout that holds about 12 ounces, so that's my measuring stick. Chop up fresh basil leaves, so that you have 1/2 cup chopped leaves. DON'T USED DRIED. Speaking of which, if you don't already have one, go right now and plant a basil plant in your backyard or in your window sill. You should have a rosemary plant as well. Sun is good.

Put your olive oil in a small sauce pan (you want as little surface area on your stove as possible), add the basil, and heat on low heat for about 30 minutes. The size of your pan will dictate your time a bit. Ultimately, keep cooking your basil about 10 minutes after you can smell it from another room.

Another important thing is not to fry the basil. If you hear popping, remove the pan from the heat until the oil cools down.

Once your oil has absorbed the basil taste (you can always taste test it, just don't dip your finger in the pan), strain it through a coffee filter and put it in your container. You can save the basil leaves and put them in a pasta dish (such as the Ravioli Primavera, previously posted). Our favorite uses for the oil include pasta, paninis, salad, and eggs.

Cognac Vanilla

This is so easy, I'm almost embarrassed to post it.

Buy a bottle of cognac (750 ml). Buy 5 vanilla beans (buy in bulk at Central Market or Whole Foods). Cut the beans in half, then cut each one in half lengthwise. Place in the bottle of cognac. Wait 2-3 months, sampling occasionally (it's really tasty, so don't sample it too much). Obviously, you're going to have significantly more vanilla than you could ever hope to use in several years. So bottle some up and give it to your baking friends.

You might also consider using some really good rum to do this.

Passing the Smell Test--Grilled Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken and Basil Tomato Marinara on Cinnamon Rice

I made a mistake recently. I asked some friends coming over for dinner if they had any requests. Normally, unless there's an allergy at issue, I don't pay attention to whether someone does or doesn't like a particular ingredient. This a point of contention in my house. My wife says we are supposed to care about our guests' enjoyment, whereas I like to look at them as guinea pigs.

But, I asked. So I was looking at either chicken or beef. I don't normally like to cook chicken for company because I think of it as a bland food that needs a lot of dressing up. But we'd just had the family over for steaks the night before. Chicken it would be. I decided to adapt a recipe I'd made up for shrimp one evening a while ago. The problem was that the shrimp recipe occurred after we'd all had a few glasses of wine. I remembered that it had cinnamon rice, some sort of marinara, and goat cheese. Beyond that, I had no idea. I was going to have to find the right spice combination...again.

For the novice cook, spices are scary. Once we get past salt, pepper, and maybe oregano, most of us are afraid to venture deep into the spice cabinet. How do we know what will taste good together, and what will be a bust?

The answer is simple: your spices and ingredients have to pass the smell test. If you smell two ingredients, and they "battle each other," then your food is going to have conflicting taste. If one of your spices overpowers the other in your nose, it will in your mouth, as well.

When I'm trying something new, the first thing I do is to smell the various spices and ingredients I plan on using. If I like the way they combine in my nose, then I'm pretty certain that I'll like the way they all fit together as a meal. This way, even though I may use some exotic ingredients, or ingredients that don't normally go together, I rarely end up with food that just flat out tastes weird.

If you try this recipe, prep all the ingredients before you mix anything together. Then sniff one ingredient after another in quick succession. I'll bet you'll like what you smell.

Grilled Goat Cheese Stuffed Chicken and Basil Tomato Marinara on Cinnamon Rice

What you need:

3 chicken breasts
8 roma tomatoes
3 ounces of goat cheese
1/8 cup olive oil
1 large clove of garlic
1 serrano pepper
3 large fresh basil leaves
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4-1/2 tsp lime juice
sea salt

What to do with it:

Get some charcoal going on the grill.

We're going to start with the marinara. Start by peeling, seeding, and chopping the tomatoes. Chop the basil and place in a sauce pan with the tomatoes, olive oil, cardamon and about 1 1/2 tsp sea salt. Start cooking on medium low heat, stirring occasionally. You're going to keep cooking this for a while, until the tomatoes are almost all liquid.

Mince the garlic and serrano (don't seed it), and mix them and the lime juice into the goat cheese. Use a fork. Add about 1 tsp salt as you go.

Put some water on to boil for your rice.

Cut your chicken in half laterally so that you have two sides each about 1/2" thick. Don't quite cut them all the way through (you want a "hinge" on one side). Microwave the goat cheese mixture about 15 seconds so that it is a bit softer, and spread it on one half of each chicken breast. Now fold the two halves back together. Use a couple of tooth picks, and cooking twine if you've got it, to keep the halves of the chicken together.

Measure out your rice, and add the cinnamon to it.

At this point, your water should be boiling and your coals ready for cooking. Put the rice on. Check the tomatoes: if they've cooked down, turn down the heat to low. If not, keep going. Put your chicken on the grill. You're going to cook it about 8 minutes per side, depending on your grill.

Once the chicken is done, slice it into strips about 1/4 inch wide. Plate the rice, top with marinara, and put the chicken on top. Serve with a buttery chardonnay, such as J. Lohr.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Bagna Càuda and Frutti di Mare on Linguini

I believe there are three kinds of people: those that can do math, and those that can't.

Hmmmm. Alright, there are only two kinds of people: those that like lists, and those that think of a list as an oppressive yoke, whose sole purpose is to suck the pleasure out of your day by hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles. I'm not a fan of lists.

My wife likes lists. She also likes recipes. Give her a complex, multi-step recipe, and she's in heaven.

I tend to mess up recipes. My classic blunder is to read the list of ingredients, throw them all in a skillet together, and then read the part that tells me that there is, in fact, a very crucial order for adding things.

Sometimes we find a way for our two little worlds to coincide. For the opening of the 20th Winter Olympics, we decided to make a typical Piedmontese dish, bagna càuda. (For those that don't know, bagna càuda is hot olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies into which you dip raw and cooked vegetables, and bread.)

We got to use a recipe to make the bagna càuda, which made my wife happy. But it makes a lot, and once you're done dipping you've got a lot of oil left over that it just seems a waste to pour out. So we didn't. And I got to play around and use it to make something completely different. Everybody's happy.

Bagna Càuda and Frutti di Mare on Linguini

What you need:


Leftover bagna càuda

For the frutti di mare, about 1/3 pound mixed seafood per person, cut into 1" pieces. Examples are: lobster tail, squid tubes, mahi mahi, clams, and sea scallps.

What to do with it:

Let's make bagna càuda first. To 2 cups extra virgin olive oil, add 10 cloves of finely-minced garlic and 12 minced anchovies. Cook on low heat, stirring or whisking often, until the garlic and anchovies have mostly dissolved. Finish by stirring in about 1/2 cup butter. (This is when you place the bagna càuda into a fondue pot and dip in your veggies and bread.)

When you're done dipping, don't throw out the oil. When you're ready to cook the frutti di mare(and it can be "tomorrow"), place the oil over medium high heat in a small sauce pan. Go ahead and start your linguini now.

Once your oil is heated, and your linguini almost done, drop your seafood in the oil and cook for 4-6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not overcook.

Place the linguini in a large bowl and ladle out the frutti di mare--don't worry about draining the oil: you'll want some on the linguini. Toss, salt to taste, and serve. Consider a barbera wine to go with it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Life Is Too Short for Cheap Booze

Most people don't drink just to get drunk. At least not once they graduate college.

So, if you're not drinking to get drunk, why would you swill rot gut instead of something that tastes good? I guess it's like my mother always said: "anything worth doing is worth doing right." Although I don't think she was talking about rum at the time.

Drinking gin and tonic? Don't dip below Tanqueray. Margarita on the rocks? Herradura silver should be your bottom end tequila. Making a mimosa? Avoid the Andre. I know they're a bit more expensive, but we all ought to be drinking less anyhow. Or, skip Starbucks that week!

This concept has broader applications in the kitchen. We don't (or shouldn't) eat just to eat. We should enjoy what's on the plate. To enjoy what's on the plate--that is, to have food that tastes good--you have to start with ingredients that taste good. Sounds pretty elementary. You wouldn't buy a cheap select grade flank steak and pair it with a quality David Bruce Russian River Valley pinot noir. But have you ever bought the cheapest wine you could find for cooking? You know, the one on the very bottom shelf. In a jug. That's not an ingredient that tastes good, and it will permeate your dish.

One thing I like to do is to cook with the wine I'm drinking. Most dishes only call for 1/2 cup or less of wine, so it won't be missed. If whatever I'm cooking calls for a lot of wine, my rule of thumb is to use a wine that I enjoy drinking by itself--when the cooking's done, there will usually be wine left over, after all.

This little philosophy extends beyond food, of course. Bottom line: whatever you're drinking/eating/doing is only as good as what you're putting into it. Use good ingredients. Be a good friend. Be a great spouse. Life's too short for anything else.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Everybody Likes Italian, Right? Ravioli Primavera with Chicken

Most of us aren't familiar with actual Italian food. Most of us are familar with "Italianesque." Think about anything you eat at Macaroni Grill. It's like eating at Cantina Laredo and saying you've had Mexican food.

Of course, Cantina Laredo has its place, and so does Italianesque. The nice thing about Italianesque is that (i) it's easy and (ii) it tastes good. The problem with it is that a lot of people stop at spaghetti with bottled sauce. The difference between spaghetti with Classico pasta sauce, and something that's worth eating, is about five minutes. But how many times have we all opted for spaghetti from a box and sauce from a jar?

Somewhere in there is a metaphor for life.

So, here's a little something for those of you that want more out of your quick food. Total cooking and prep time: about 15 minutes. It's not Italian, but it tastes good. And since it only takes about 5 minutes longer than cooking spaghetti...well, as I said, somewhere there's a metaphor lurking about...

Ravioli Primavera with Chicken


Start with some fresh, firm vegetables. I like to use a leek, a carrot, about 1/2 a bell pepper, and some celery.
1 chicken breast
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tbsp. sour cream
Basil (fresh leaves if you've got 'em, flakes if not)
1 clove garlic
1 tsp. butter
corn starch
Cheese Ravioli (refrigerated, or home made, if you own a pasta press)

What to do with it:

Cut the chicken into about 3/4 inch pieces, and the vegetables about half that size. Mince the garlic and shred the basil if you've got it.

Sautee the chicken in olive oil with the garlic. Add some salt. Your water should be on and heating at this time for the pasta.

Once the chicken is about 3/4 cooked, add the basil, wine and vegetables, and keep your stove on medium. (If your pasta isn't in the pot by now, it should be.) Continue cooking until the chicken is done. Now, add the sour cream, and mix it up into the vegetables. Keep cooking on medium heat until your vegetables are just about to the firmness you want.

Add the butter and cook the chicken and veggies until you've cooked away about 1/2 of your your liquid. Throw in some more salt and some pepper to taste. Now it's time for the corn starch.
If you haven't played with corn starch before, the purpose is to thicken whatever liquid you've got. Right now, your sauce should be pretty thin. Add about a tablespoon of corn starch to 1/8 cup cold water and stir until the starch is completely dissolved. Now, slowly add the starch to your chicken and veggies while stirring. Keep an eye on the thickness--this is purely a matter of personal prefernce. Once you've got your sauce to a thickness you want, add the pasta and toss.

The butter adds just enough fat that, when combined with the thickening of the corn starch, makes this taste significantly more rich than it actually is.

You can easily substitute shrimp for chicken but cook the shrimp after your vegetables. Other veggies work as well, but pay attention to how quickly they will cook: if you're going to add mushrooms, for instance, you'll want to add them after the rest of your vegetables.

My First Recipe Success--Caribbean Shrimp with Papaya-Brie Quesadillas

When my wife and I lived in Austin Texas and I was in law school, we didn't have a lot of money. We allotted ourselves $7.50 each for lunch for the week. If we watched the sales, we could buy Michelenas frozen entrees for 99 cents each, and either have a coke or a V-8. We used to give ourselves $200 per month for groceries and $40 per month for entertainment.

Obviously, if we wanted a meal at a nice restaurant, we had to save for two months or more. Or we could cook a meal at home for $10 to $20. This is when we started experimenting with cooking, and a dish I call Caribbean Shrimp was the first success. More specifically, it's shrimp on a bed of coconut rice with mango-habanero salsa.

Ingredients (these are rough approximations--I never use measuring utensils)
20 medium shrimp, deveined and peeled
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp cayenne
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp paprika
salt & pepper
1/3 cup coconut flakes
white rice
1 mango
1 habanero

What to do with it all
Combine olive oil, cumin, paprika, cayenne, garlic and about 2/3 of the cilantro. Add salt & pepper to taste. Throw in the shrimp and marinate.

Peel & dice the mango and mince 1/2 the habanero (or more, but it's hot). Puree the mango, habanero and the remaining cilantro in a food processor or blender. Heat in a microwave for 2 minutes. This spreads the heat evenly from the habanero.

Add coconut flakes to white rice.

Now skewer the shrimp and throw on the grill and cook the rice.

Serve by plating rice, adding shrimp, and mango salsa on top.

You should have some salsa left over. If you're into dessert, you can make Papaya-Brie Quesadillas. These are pretty simple: slice up a papaya and some brie, place on a flour tortilla, and add some salsa. Either fold that one over, or place another on top. Make certain that you butter the outside of the tortillas, and heat in a cast iron skillet until golden brown on the outside.