Friday, April 25, 2008

Retraction!!!! Rob's Pumpkin Roll was homemade

Victim Rob dressed as "Nemo"

Dear me, I made a grand mistake. I referenced that Rob’s Pumpkin Roll was store bought. It was not. He made it from scratch. It’s his fault though. I asked him how he made it and he was quite evasive. As it turned out there was some inside joke going on between him and Tina but my assumption was that he’d bought it.

Rob's fantastic Pumpkin Roll

Well after posting my writing from yesterday, I was informed by Tina that it was home made. Now in my mind, my comments could be taken as a compliment. Haven’t you ever had a cake from the bakery that you thought, “Wow this is fantastic!!! I wish I could recreate this at home.” That’s kinda what I thought. Seriously. So hat’s off to Rob and the Pumpkin roll. I especially enjoyed the filling and I’m glad I had it. Perhaps he’ll share the recipe and I’ll post it here.

A Night with Friends and Meatloaf

What a tiring week. Normally, I try to keep a rational schedule on the road- as I might do at home. I enjoy being relaxed no later than 9 PM. Well, that didn’t work out so well this week. And honestly, that’s OK. I had fun. Tiring fun, but fun.

I spent the evenings with colleagues and friends dining and imbibing. Tuesday, I met a group of folks for dinner followed by cheese and port with another few colleagues elsewhere. If you read an earlier post of mine titled Niagara on the Lake and Cheese Secrets, then you’ll recall Margaret who owns a cheese shop there. She was in town here in Westerly on business so enjoying nice restaurant cheeses with an “expert” was quite a treat. Some of the assorted jams were disappointing though. Still good times. I got in a couple of hours later than usual for me.

Wednesday night was especially fun and an unusual distraction from my typical nights on the road. You see- I have been sharing my new endeavors at writing with my colleagues (Torturing them, some might say). Surprisingly, they’ve been reading it too. As it ended up- several co-workers made a plan to gather Wednesday night at Christina and Tim’s house so I could cook for them. I was going to prepare a version of my 1st ever penned recipe, Meatloaf. I know, I know. Meatloaf? How about port braised short ribs or blackened Mahi-Mahi? Well, I thought about those types of choices but I decided that anyone can impress with minimal skills and pretentious ingredients. It takes a real cook to lovingly shape routine ingredients into a perfect meal worthy of a dining out experience. I’ll leave it to my colleagues to judge but I was pleased.

So, I left work and headed to the local grocery store for supplies. Tina had gone through my recipe and wrote down the items she did not have. It is worth noting, I think, that if you plan to shop at a store you are not familiar with, expect to double your shopping time. At my store the spices are at the end of aisle 4. I know this. Therefore the only logical layout of ANY grocery store has the spices at the end of aisle 4 (and on the right as you’re facing the rear of the building where I should see the poultry). After crossing from one end of the grocery store to the other several times –only men do this- I had what I needed.

A short time later I arrived at Tim and Tina’s beautiful rural Rhode Island home. I was so pleased in their kitchen. They own the exact same refrigerator as Lisa and I have in Florida. There was a cutting board with knives set out atop black granite counter tops. I settled in nicely. After unpacking, I began on the fresh breadcrumbs. I imagine there are recipes out there that using store bought breadcrumbs is OK but I refuse anymore. I buy fresh (not day old) bread. Then I break it into pieces by hand, drizzle it with olive oil and seasoning, and then pop it in an oven to become like little croutons. Finally a trip to the food processor and my loaf is reduced to a medium grain consistency. In this case, there was no food processor available so I worked in batches in a blender.

Next I got the onions caramelizing (later adding fresh garlic) and the corn wrapped in foil roasting. I tried to move slowly and enjoy the company. It started with Tim and I chatting in the kitchen but soon we were joined by Tina and their boys, Luke and Daniel. After that, Rob, Michele and Edgar joined from work. I sipped a dry red wine Tim offered and chatted while making dinner.

Once the onions were finished to a nice caramel color and cooled, they were added to the meat mix along with the breadcrumbs. I don’t want to make you read the recipe twice but I do want to point out what I think are the keys to this type of recipe being a masterpiece. Of course, quality ingredients matter but more importantly, the attention to detail that is paid to the ingredients make all the difference in the world. Also, lean cuts of meat don’t make flavorful meatloaf. While there are Turkey meatloaves and healthier versions, to be sure, my thought is- If you’re going to have meatloaf, eat meatloaf. If you want to diet, grab a carrot.

So on to some details of prep. I like caramelized onions. The onions give a wonderful sweetness and they have their own seasoning (because I salt and pepper them while preparing). The green bell peppers are chopped more finely because while I like the hint of a crunch, I don’t like big honking chunks of pepper in the meatloaf. The breadcrumbs are freshly made for their silky quality. I used to use a couple tablespoons of heavy cream to add richness but I find that with the fresh breadcrumbs, I don’t need to do that anymore.

For the potatoes, the key is the correct doneness, dryness, mashing and liquid ingredients. Doneness: When a recipe says fork tender, it means fork tender. Undercooked and you have a harder, flavorless and unpleasant bite. Overcook and you have mush. Dryness: Once perfectly cooked and drained, put them immediately back in the hot pot to allow the extra moisture to evaporate (Not back on a flame though). Mashing: That’s a taste thing. I like them a bit more rustic so I tend to leave skin on and hand mash. Add the liquids in bits because adding is never a problem but there is NO subtracting. Using a hand mixer will certainly give you a more whipped and fluffier consistency (the way my mom liked them). Certainly any flavor enhancer you like in the potatoes are fine. For this recipe, I chose sour cream and Gruyere cheese. That combo worked well.

While frozen corn could be used in a pinch (and I am NOT above that), I like roasting corn on the cob then slicing it off and creaming it. The added step retains a great sweetness in the corn.

Hopefully I’m getting my point across. Honing your technique and putting some forethought into it can really enhance a simple meal like Meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn.

After dinner, we sat around the table, chatted, sipped some more wine (Edgar stuck to beer I think- you’d have to know Edgar), and enjoyed a Pumpkin roll that Rob bought. It was a great compliment to a hearty meal. We talked about a lot but unfortunately chatted about work too. Still it felt more like an evening with friends than co-workers.

Ahh, and yet again I crawl into bed way too late. Thursday night, tonight, I am at 40,000 feet, still tired, finishing this, perusing through the photos of the evening and headed home. I can’t wait to see my own little girl. She’s asleep now but she’ll be lovely.

Confession time before the meal: I was quite displeased with my onion gravy. It failed. I used the wrong fat and it was too hot when I added the flour. It was a basic mistake. Stick with the version in the recipe below and you’ll be fine. It’s tried and tested. Now on to the recipe:


  • 1.0 lb ground Chuck

  • 1 lb ground Pork

  • 1/3 to ½ loaf any good white bread fresh from bakery

  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder

  • 4 tbsp olive oil divided

  • 1 large egg

  • 1 medium Spanish or sweet onion diced or sliced

  • 4 cloves garlic coarsely chopped

  • 1 green pepper very finely diced

  • 1 tsp ground Cumin

  • 1 tsp ground Coriander

  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce

  • 6 tbsp Ketchup divided

  • 2 tbsp sour cream

  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh flat leaf (Italian) parsley

  • 6-8 thick center cut bacon slices

  • salt and pepper

  • Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Break bread into pieces and spread on cookie sheet. Drizzle 3 tbsp olive oil over bread and sprinkle garlic powder over as well. Season with salt and pepper. Place in oven till bread is completely dry. Remove before it browns. About 10-15 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

    In the meantime, sauté onions and 1 tsp olive oil over medium heat till the onions are translucent. About 5 minutes. Then add garlic cloves. Sauté until slightly caramelized with hints of darkness to the onion. Remove from heat and let cool.

    Once the bread is dried, place in food processor to make bread crumbs. Pulse till fine. Place in a large mixing bowl. Add the cooled onion and garlic. Add 3 tbsp Ketchup and remaining ingredients. Season again with salt and pepper. Using your hands, fold ingredients together till well blended but not over worked. On a greased cookie sheet shape well blended ingredients into a loaf. Spread remaining Ketchup over loaf. Lay the strips of bacon over the meatloaf to completely cover. Bake for 40 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 145-150 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest for a minimum of 5 minutes (preferably 10-15 minutes) before cutting and serving.

    Mashed Potatoes

  • 3 lbs Yukon Gold (or similar) potatoes cubed

  • 1/3 cup sour cream

  • 4 tbsp (1/2 stick) melted butter
  • ¼ cup cream

  • ½ cup Gruyere Cheese

  • salt and pepper

  • In a pot, cover potatoes with cold water and place over high heat. Add a couple tbsp salt. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Continue cooking until potatoes are fork tender. About 10 minutes. Turn stove off, drain potatoes and replace pot to burner. Return potatoes to hot pot (this helps them dry).

    Add the cheese and wet ingredients, a small amount at a time, and mash. Some folks like a hand mixer but I like the texture that a masher provides. More sour cream and/or cream can be used to thin consistency if desired. Use less if you like them thicker.

    Onion Gravy

  • 1 small Spanish onion

  • 3 tbsp butter

  • 3 tbsp + 1 tsp all purpose flour divided

  • 2 cups beef broth

  • Salt and pepper

  • Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and 2 tbsp flour. Season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook until flour begins to turn a light caramel color, about 10 minutes. Add broth and last teaspoon of flour. Raise the heat and bring to a boil whisking frequently. Once gravy boils, it is at its thickest. Remove from heat and serve.

    Herbed Creamed Corn

  • 6 fresh medium sized ears of corn in husks (completely un-shucked)

  • 3 tbsp butter

  • 1/3 cup heavy cream

  • 3 tbsp freshly chopped parsley

  • salt and pepper

  • Before preparing any other portion of the meal, roast the corn in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes. Remove and cool. Shuck the corn, remove the silk completely and cut the corn from the cob. Set aside and prepare the rest below in the last 10 minutes.

    In a sauté pan over medium high heat, melt the butter and add the corn. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cream and reduce heat to medium. Cook down (reduce) the cream stirring frequently (about 7 minutes). Add parsley and serve.

    Once plated, sprinkle more gruyere cheese over entire plate.

    Serves 6.

    Saturday, April 19, 2008

    Stonington Borough

    New England in spring and summer is unbelievable. I really love visiting here. Prior to a few years ago, I was unfamiliar with the area. It was simply a place I wanted to go someday. You know, as a southerner, New England is known for its fall leaves and lobster but it just lacks any reputation for personality, right? Boy was I about to be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes its good to be wrong.

    It all began with a job interview in a small town outside of Providence, RI about 5 years ago. One thing led to another and I accepted a position that required extensive travel, including about 6 or 7 visits a year to the home office in a town on the Connecticut/Rhode Island border.

    That first year was an eye opener. I was hired in November. Now- I live and have spent most of my life in Florida. For those of you who live in Curacao, you might not see any significance in the November thing, but I was in for a shocker. It’s cold. Damned cold. Polar ice cap cold. If you think that’s an exaggeration, and perhaps it is, that’s what it felt like to me. And the whole “driving in the snow” deal is insane. A local colleague warned me one night after leaving a restaurant to be careful driving because, “You’re not used to driving in this mess.” I made it back to the hotel just fine but she skidded on the road and turned her car on its side. She’s fine. My driving skills have since been honed and my sweater and long coat wardrobe have expanded.

    Then on a spring visit, I was quite surprised to see that it was still cold. Well, cold to me. It’s not uncommon to have temperatures in the 30’s in April. Did I mention I was from Florida? But I noticed something else. There were plenty of days that crept up into the 60’s. And with sun shining, the previously day-light deprived New Englanders began coming out to soak in the weather. From the first glimpse of greenery through the end of summer, these days are coveted. And after my first impression being winter, it’s easy to understand why these folks don’t take these lovely days for granted. They are as savored as a cinnamon spiced cider by a huge fireplace on a cold winter’s day. Intoxicating is the scent of the wildflowers and endearing are my images of people enjoying a relaxing day at the lake.

    And on the corridor of sea side communities between New York and Boston (to include Long Island towns), there’s a certain magical feeling here in the summer; a shedding of the doldrums from the cold. Since my experiences here are limited to a handful of small towns, I can only comment on them. But I picture these places as a quintessential sampling of all of New England and I have grown quite fond of them.
    So off the beaten path of Route 1 about an hour south of Providence, RI is one such little town. It’s a jetty really; a tuft of terra firma on the coast with a unique artisan community perched atop. You could casually walk from one end to the other in less than an hour I suppose. Along Water Street, the main drag in town, there are several little shops and restaurants that draw the upper scale sea side residents out. And of course, the curious visitors from other areas (such as myself) marvel at the eclectic hand made offerings in the shop window. This is the community of Stonington Borough. I don’t know its history or even one of its residents but I do know where it sits in my mind.

    Stonington Borough

    A couple of nights ago, I was lucky enough to drop into this great town for a meal at one of my select restaurants in the area. I suggested to a few colleagues we head to a place I’m quite familiar with called Water Street Café. The contemporary New England style menu changes daily. They used to hand write it and pass it around the table but today, its printed on a simple piece of copy paper and everyone gets their own. There are some staples that are usually on the menu such as the Duck and Scallops or the Hangar Steak with Gorgonzola but it looks to me like there are always some new adventures.

    The décor is difficult to describe. While the lighting is a bit dark, the colors are vibrant. You can’t help but get drawn in. It’s not a large space either so it’s always pretty busy. The bar is a fantastic place to eat when dining alone. The locals are friendly and always willing to chat. While I’m a t-shirt and jeans kinda guy, there are plenty of cardigans and sport coats. Both seem equally welcome.

    Water Street Cafe

    Grilled Hangar Steak

    My favorite thing about New England is that as fantastic as I think Stonington Borough is, you don’t have to go there to experience its ambiance. While Water Street Café has its own personality, to be sure, there are plenty of places from Connecticut to Maine that have a similar air. So if the opportunity ever presents itself, put on a pair of clam diggers and get your feet sandy. Look for the shack with a lobster roll that is served on a plain hot dog bun (unpretentious lobster is still lobster). Get up early enough at least one day to sip a coffee while the sun rises and sea breeze rustles your hair. You will be better for it, I promise.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    Shrimp Tacos with Roated Tomatillo and Red Pepper Salsa

    Shrimp Tacos

    I love seafood so much but I’ve noticed that many home kitchens avoid it. Is it scary? Maybe it just wasn’t in grandma’s recipe box so it never got passed down. I know other people like it too because I see others ordering it. Well it should be demystified. The benefits are too great.

    First and foremost, just the flavor. Seafood in general is such a fantastic canvas for every type of herb, vegetable and accoutrement. It can robust and hearty or light and complimentary. The unbelievable variety of seafood available keeps the potential recipe variations incalculable. It’s really the only food that can do that. If we look at beef, we get a cow (I love the taste of a good cow, too). When we look at seafood, we look at clams, shrimp, fish, mollusks, and urchin and on and on… An endless sea (HA- get it? SEA) of variety and all deliciously edible.

    There’s also the health benefit of seafood, right? It has that stuff in it that makes you live longer, right? Based on my cooking style, that’s the extent of my nutritional knowledge. But I do know it tastes damned good.

    Next there’s the ease and speed of preparation. There is no other dinner in my house that comes together as quick as seafood dinners. Fish cooks quick. It’s that simple. And since I eat some seafood raw (did I say that out loud?) the prep time is even quicker.

    OK since I need some real estate down below to keep this post of a manageable length, I’ll get on to the Shrimp Tacos and their story. It’s a bit funny, at least to me. Earlier this year, I decided I was going to begin entering cooking contests. I had been inspired by watching many competition type shows on the Food Network. My first (OK and only thus far) foray into this was a Wild American Shrimp recipe contest. As usual, I sought no counsel but instead I went to the grocery store and just began walking around. Also as usual, my first stop at the store is the produce section. MANY, MANY of my self proclaimed creative moments come from finding what fresh herbs and vegetables are available that day. When I scanned over the limes and cilantro, I immediately knew the basis for my recipe. Things then began to fall together rather quickly.

    I got home and immediately went to work. While I tried several rub variations and topping combos, I kept the base. Tortilla and shrimp. So a shrimp taco was being born. Eventually I settled on the recipe you see below. I’m really sorry I don’t have a photo for you. In fact, that’s part of the story. It seems I didn’t read the contest fine print. I was supposed to send that in with the recipe but I did not. Therefore, I wasn’t even considered. I’ll use that as my excuse for not being lauded for how fantastic this was.

    Let me know what you think. Enjoy!!!

    Spiced Shrimp Tacos with Roasted Tomatillo and Red Pepper Salsa

    (Serves 4)

    Tomatillo and Red Pepper Salsa (make the day before)

    6-7 medium sized Tomatillos, quartered
    3 Red Bell Peppers
    2 Shallots, finely diced
    2 Jalapeño peppers finely diced (with or without the seeds depending on the amount of heat you like. I tend to remove most)
    2 cups of Cilantro (unchopped)
    Juice of 1 Lime
    Dash of Olive Oil
    Salt and Pepper to taste

    Place the Red Peppers beneath the broiler on the highest rack. When 1st side is blackened turn peppers till black all around and skin is completely charred. Place Tomatillos in ovenproof skillet. Drizzle with Olive Oil. Place that skillet on the rack beneath the Red Peppers. After about 25-30 minutes, the peppers should be completely charred and the Tomatillos should have brown edges. Remove both from oven. Place Tomatillos aside to cool. Put the peppers in a brown bag or plastic ware container and seal. Allow peppers to cool (about an hour). Remove the peppers and peel the skin completely away.
    Combine the Peppers, Tomatillos, Shallots, Jalapeños, Cilantro, Lime Juice, Salt and Pepper in a food processor. Pulse about 8-12 times till you have a nice Salsa-like consistency. Place Salsa mixture in a container and refrigerate overnight.

    Spicy Shrimp

    ½ tsp Cumin
    ½ tsp Coriander
    ½ tsp Cardamom
    ½ tsp Mustard
    ½ tsp Garlic Powder
    ½ tsp Salt
    ½ tsp Pepper
    ½ tsp Ceyenne (adjust amount according to desired heat)
    ½ tsp Smoked Paprika
    1 tbsp Olive Oil
    1 lb large Shrimp (about 24 count). Peeled and de-veined.

    Combine all ingredients in a plastic re-sealable bag. Remove as much air as possible and place in the refrigerator for about 4 hours. Skewer shrimp onto wooden skewers that have been soaked in water at least an hour. Approximately 6 shrimp per skewer. Keep refrigerated or on ice until ready to cook.

    At the tailgate event, place the Shrimp skewers on a hot grill about 2-3 minutes per side until opaque throughout. Do not overcook.

    Shrimp Taco Assembly

    4 Flour Tortillas
    Approximately ½ cup Baby Arugula
    Approximately ½ cup Cilantro
    Spicy Shrimp Skewers directly from grill
    Roasted Tomatillo and Red Pepper Salsa
    Approximately ½ cup Queso Fresco (a white Mexican cheese)
    Lime wedges

    Place the Tortillas on the grill for about 20-30 seconds per side to make them warm and more pliable. In each Tortilla, layer a few leaves of the Arugula and Cilantro. Place the Shrimp atop that and remove the skewer. Place about a tablespoon of the Salsa atop and sprinkle with the cheese.

    Serve with the lime wedges for squeezing over the taco.


    Tuesday, April 15, 2008

    Just another day on the road and writing

    Sitting at the computer (above)

    This could be any hotel desk anywhere in the world (below)

    Traveling for a living

    How romantic that lifestyle must be, your plane descending early every week into a different city’s sky line. New people to meet, perhaps even a new culture. Just stepping out of the airport must bring a renewed energy for exploration. Well, that is every bit true. For just about a month. Then the realities of the pill that you swallowed begin to set in. You don’t really meet new friends in a couple of days, do you? Well, sometimes. Being on the road about 42 weeks a year is my life. I often tell folks that I weekend in Florida (where the actual house and family are). It is an interesting lifestyle to say the least.

    Like any job, no matter how much you love it (and I do), there are things you find negative. Even though you and I might struggle to comprehend this, I bet if you asked Bill Gates or Donald Trump what the negatives of their jobs were, they’d be able to point a few things out. So I can too.

    First, the most obvious drawback to the sojourner lifestyle is being away from the family. They’re missed. I only live with one of five kids (the whole non-nuclear family thing) but she’s about to turn four and I hate not being under the same roof with her every night. Olivia is remarkable, at least to me (and EVERYONE ELSE SHE’S EVER MET!!!!). She really does light up a room with her personality. I have seen her be shy, but for the most part, she’s anything but. I think she clearly understands that her big eyes and innocent smile can get her what she wants (most of the time). But I digress. No matter how ornate a hotel lobby is, it pales in comparison to my daughter’s bedroom. Next is the hassle of travel. I’m not going to elaborate too much because it’s a beaten dead horse in the media. Suffice to say that travel days are very long days, even if the actual flight time is only a couple of hours. Combine that with working half days on most travel days and doing that twice a week and it’s a bit taxing.

    Having said that, I do like traveling. I do enjoy new places. I do occasionally meet and make new friends. And frankly, I love my work. Primarily though, and you knew it would come down to this, I love the food. Finding where the locals go and exploring regional favorites is what fuels the weekly trek through the terminal. It’s common for me ask the indigenous, “If there was just one place in town I have to try, where would that be?” I have received spectacular answers with a rare dud. I’ve learned a few key points along the way as well. Tips, if you will, for those who don’t get to a new city weekly. Now while these points may sound like common sense tips, you might be surprised to find that many travelers don’t follow these simple philosophies.

    If you’re looking for the best food:

    *Leave the hotel- I am amazed at my traveling colleagues. They get to a new town and order room service. First of all room service is ridiculously priced and should be reserved for a rare “convenience factor” meal. If you want to spend 30 something dollars on a piece of salmon, go to a nice restaurant and order THEIR salmon. Send me a check for the difference. I should net about 18 bucks. Just email me for my address.
    *Ask the locals- The best way to find the best food is to ask the natives. Who would know better, right? This does come with a small caveat. Note how long this native has been native and how old they are. Nothing against the youthful (I miss those days) but I recall asking a high schooler at the front desk where to find the best steak in town (I was in Omaha, NE if I recall) and she said her favorite was the Outback across the street. OK I like Outback just fine but I had something less “chain-ish” in mind. Also be prepared for a mixed bag of answers, I recall sparking a fierce debate in the lobby of the Memphis Peabody. After asking the “If there’s one place…” question, I thought these two locals were going to come to blows over Rendezvous BBQ and Neeley’s BBQ. I had both and found them both to be fantastic.
    *Avoid the overpriced tourist areas- Most of the time there is no need for this. Refer to "Ask the locals". EXCEPTION- Orlando. The best restaurants ARE the tourist areas since Orlando is dedicated to tourists. International Drive has some of the best Sushi between there and Nobu in Manhattan (I could dedicate an entire writing to Nobu). I also enjoy the offerings in Universal Studio’s City Walk area (Emeril’s is great there). Even having said this, there are plenty of non-tourist driven restaurants in Orlando- I like those of Winter Park.
    *A steakhouse is a steakhouse is a steakhouse- What I mean to say is take advantage of where you are and what they are known for. In Chicago, I think of deep dish pizza. Now, Gino and Giorgetti’s is a great steakhouse in Chicago, but I can get a great steak in MANY cities and often pay far less. So, if you’re in Napa Valley, take advantage of the local organic food stops. On the California coast, find great seafood or the Asian fusion. In my neighborhood, get the Stone Crabs in season (October to May). Stone Crabs are just beneath lobster on my personal hierarchy of best seafood ever created. And if you go to Maryland without eating a crab cake, you better have a good excuse (such as your allergy to shellfish will cause you to stop breathing in 4 milliseconds).
    *Internet, Internet, Internet!!!!- Just type into your search engine, “Where to eat in Phoenix”. You are now just a few clicks away from some amazing southwestern cuisine. Often, when searching for places to eat, I find the links to the individual restaurant web sites. This will almost always lead to a menu. Now, I know what’s for dinner before I even go. I do this in every city I go to for the first time. ALWAYS!!!! WITHOUT FAIL!!!! It works.
    *The Rags- I’m not sure this should count but I have to give honorable mention to Bon Appetit and Gourmet Magazines. In fact, they have recommended my favorite meals (such as Slanted Door in the San Francisco Ferry building). The problem with these references is that they tend to focus on the food cities. This makes sense to me but if your not traveling to New York, San Francisco, Boston or LA, you’ll be lucky to pick up the issues that features a restaurant at your destination.

    So traveling is a several things to me. It’s work. It’s a pain. It’s tiring. It’s disorienting. It is also a privilege that I love. I have to come to grips with the idea that at some point all of this fun will end, but for now, I savor the next town and drink of the idea that I will find the next great meal right around the corner.

    Friday, April 11, 2008

    Niagra-on-the-Lake and Cheese Secrets

    Hey there once again. Thanks for visiting for the first time or coming back. Either way, if you are really bored, feel free to join me in exploring my recent trip. I had low culinary expectations in traveling to a small city in Canada called Hamilton. Hamilton is a steel town; somewhat akin to Pittsburgh except with less personality. It’s a city of about 500,000 on Lake Ontario between Buffalo and Toronto. While a bit dreary, I did learn that the surrounding communities between here and Niagara Falls hold some rich culture, and some good food. What really stood out on this trip wasn’t any great meal I had (because I didn’t really have one), but instead some great cheese, neat people and fantastic conversations I had in a little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake.

    It began with a first time meeting with a Canadian colleague of mine named Margaret. We met on Thursday, my last day in Canada. In casual conversation, Margaret mentioned that her mother was an owner of a Cheese shop called “Cheese Secrets” in this town I had never heard of, Niagara-on-the-Lake. I became all ears. How cool is that? I suddenly felt like I was in the presence of greatness. After more chatting, it turns out that Margaret and her boyfriend spend a fair amount of hours helping out at the shop and have a stake in it as well. I know she could tell I was pretty excited to hear about it, so she suggested I come by for a tasting after work. “No” was not an option. At about 4 pm I began watching the clock and counting down. I had some finishing up to do so I got out maybe a couple of minutes before 5. After a quick refresh in my hotel, I was off. It’s about 45 minutes from Hamilton to Niagara-on-the-Lake and the drive is frankly quite unattractive. The scenery changes, though, upon pulling in to town. Niagara-on-the-Lake is an artisan community that swells in the summer months. Beautiful boutique-style shops line the downtown area at the edge of the Niagara River. Since this is the “off” season, by the time I arrived at 6:30 PM, the streets had pretty much been rolled up and not a shop was open. It was a bit gray and windy as well. But my GPS took me right to the front door of “Cheese Secrets” where Margaret was waiting for me. (DISCLAIMER- I’m embarrassed to say that I am the WORST with names. I met several really nice folks and I only remember one name besides Margaret. Forgive me.) I was immediately introduced to her mother, her mother’s gentleman friend, Margaret’s boyfriend and a shop worker who was tidying up (her boyfriend Steve becomes relevant shortly).

    After a quick tour of the shop, Margaret took me behind the counter for some tasting. She offered the entire case for my choosing but trying to be a polite guest and having little experience with artisan cheeses, I had her select. I think we tried 6 or 7 flavors. They were all noteworthy and spectacular. From biting to creamy to heady and edgy, she selected a perfect array to sample. We tried both Canadian and imported cheeses. An import that stood out was an amazing Blue Cheese from New Zealand. I was told they have a hard time keeping it in stock because many of the local chefs request it for their cooking. I can see how this creamy and delicate cheese which was perfectly balanced with a softer than usual tang, would be desired by the discriminating palate. It also stood up perfectly to being eaten directly from the cheese knife.
    Next was a unique caramel colored cheddar that was made by with Guinness Stout beer. Margaret began by telling me this was not her favorite. While wine and cheese may be the classic combination, this Guinness Cheddar was a perfect pairing for me. It had a stout headiness and medium to light sharpness. Quite delicious.

    The last cheese I tasted probably stood out the most. Margaret had mentioned that this was her favorite and it was quite easy to see why. It was an applewood smoked cheddar. Light in color and not sharp at all. You can almost appreciate the smokiness just before it gets to your lips. It was an unparalleled combination of perfect texture, smokiness and mild cheddar flavors. In recipes, on sandwiches or simply by itself, I felt this was a prize cheese. While Margaret offered anything else I wanted, I felt I had eaten the perfect sampling without being gluttonous (although I continued to nibble on the Emmenthaler and smoked Gouda as we chatted in the now empty shop).

    Once we cleaned up and her boyfriend strayed back in, we headed out the door and next door to an English pub where I met another of my heroes of the evening. The young lady shop worker from earlier and her boyfriend were at the bar enjoying a pint. Steve, the boyfriend of the shop worker (this would be so much less wordy if I had jotted down names), is a chef at one of the higher brow restaurants in an already higher brow community. If that conjures up thoughts of a pompous, pretentious foodie, put that notion to rest right now. Steve is a rough neck Welshman. With thick accent and gruff voice, from cigarettes no doubt, he looks like he’d be more at home in a Rugby Pitch than a kitchen. Nonetheless, as we chatted, I could hear his description of recipes and his passion for cooking them (I can’t wait to add beets to my Gravlax to get the Salmon a rose color). Steve has to be one of the most colorful folks I’ve met in a bit. Quick witted and smart in a conversation about food (he regards the young cooks coming out of school as ‘wanna be’s’ trying to be famous after growning up with FoodTV), he has a confidence in his voice that he knows exactly what to do in the kitchen and loves it there.

    So for the next hour or two and a couple of pints (and a couple of shots), I felt I had made some new friends and learned a bit about the community. My ride back to the hotel was punctuated by thoughts of this writing and if I could do any justice to the fantastic time I had with Margaret and her friends. I look forward to returning for another business trip in the summer and another night at the pub.

    Again, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line at

    Monday, April 7, 2008

    The Photos from my "Fantastic Saturday" Post

    That is one gorgeous pot o chicken

    Ready for the grill or oven

    Can you tell from the bones he was delicious!!

    Evan and his catch. He didn't want to hold it so our new friend Steve helped!!!

    Fantastic Saturday

    Well… what a culinary day we had unexpectedly on Saturday. Some days I go into the kitchen and nothing goes right. I break stuff as I’m loading the dishwasher, food experiments turn to green goo, flavors don’t match and spices fall from the cupboard into the cooking soup pot. That was NOT the case yesterday and what makes it even better was that I didn’t expect to cook at all.

    It all began with a get together at the park up the street. I planned on being out of the house most of the day. We grilled some sausages and fresh corn. Yummy lunch. My 12 year old son, Evan, however met some new friends and they went to a little inlet to wet a hook (colloquial for fishing). In short order, he returns with 2 beautiful keeper Redfish. He was very proud and excited They have to be 18 inches to keep. One was just over that and the other was 20”. Now I’ve never prepared Redfish but I have enjoyed its flavor before. It’s a stronger flavor and not everyone loves it. Most game fishermen that I know however, find it to be one of the coveted prizes of the brackish river mouths and saltwater flats just off shore here in the Tampa Bay waters.

    I learned something new. Redfish are a pain. They don’t fillet well. I must have poked my fingers on the spines enough times that a close inspection of my finger tips would reveal something akin to a diabetic hypochondriac checking their blood sugar too many times a day. After screwing up the first fish and recovering what I thought was too little meat (also unsure where fish blood ended and my own began), I changed direction. Those thoroughly washed fillets are still in the freezer.

    The second fish would not be a repeat of the first. I decided this beast would be whole roasted. So after a couple of band-aids, this one, I gutted. While a far more disgusting procedure, this yielded a beautiful fish. I then went on a veggie hunt. I cut up the following: Bell peppers, Onions, Garlic, Radishes, Carrots, Celery and Lemons. Not only did I stuff the cavity but I basically made the fish invisible beneath this medley with a huge bunch of thyme, salt and pepper, a couple of pats of butter and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil as well. I then wrapped this entirely in aluminum foil and put it on the grill. Now if I’d have paid any mind to the weather report, I would have recalled we were expecting storms. Within minutes it was pouring but thanks to the foil, my fish was unaffected. So into a 350 degree oven it went for about 45 minutes.

    I must say, I was not prepared for what came out. It was amazing. I discarded most of the veggies and transferred the fish and its associated broth to a serving bowl. I placed some of the vegetables around for garnish. I then grabbed some crusty bread and a couple of plates for Evan and I. We sat down and dug in to this fantastic meal enjoying tender and perfectly flavored Redfish “family style”, both digging our forks into the beautiful meat. The broth was savored by lapping it up with the bread. The earthiness of the vegetables combines with a flavor of the sea made for a spectacular accoutrement. Evan and I loved it, and it was thanks to his salty skills that we succeeded.

    Now you might think that’s the end of the food story for Saturday. In fact it is not. You see, before I knew we were having fish, I had taken a whole chicken out and I already had a plan. The reason I had so many fresh vegetables available for the fish was because I was planning on using them for the chicken. Ahhhh… chicken soup you might say. No, although that had crossed me mind.

    If you read my very first post, I believe I made reference to the fact that my Big ole flat panel, HD satellite connected, 7000 station receiving, premium package tweaked to the max TV is solely tuned to the Food Network (except football season, of course). Well, some time ago I was watching Paula Dean from her Savannah, GA kitchen and she was describing how she got started in the food business. She started a door to door catering business and one of her dished was her famous “Chicken Salad”. Now I don’t recall if I ever saw the actual chicken salad recipe but how she prepared her chicken caught my attention. Since I had thought the only way to prepare chicken salad was by opening a can of store bought chicken, I was taken aback by her method. She boiled a chicken with some aromatics. Stellar thought!!!!! So, while I’d love to take credit for my pot of chicken with the aforementioned veggies as well as a big handful of peppercorns that boiled away as I was preparing the fish, I cannot. It was Paula.

    Once the Chicken came out (and after an hour, it was fall off the bone tender), it needed to rest for a bit before working with it because it was too darned hot. That’s when I worked on getting the fish on the grill and subsequently into the oven. Once the fish was roasting away, I began to pull the chicken. I discarded the bones, skin and anything that didn’t look like tender pieces of meat and by hand I pulled it into small bite size morsels. Then with no fanfare of fancy ingredients, I added chopped onion and celery and mixed everything with mayo, mustard, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.

    What I ended up with was superb. No magic or expensive ingredients; just a standard chicken salad. I’d never tasted chicken salad made with fresh chicken. Just the processed stuff or maybe once with some leftovers, but this… WOW!!!! I don’t think I’ll ever buy canned chicken again. It also makes me want to try fresh Tuna.

    Alright enough rambling for now. I’m on a plane at this moment at about 38,000 ft headed to Toronto, so I had little better to do. I haven’t blogged yet about any travel adventures and I have many to discuss from a “foodie” point of view so that will probably be the topic of my next posting. I gotta write about the food finds in Hong Kong from a couple of weeks ago.

    Oh and by the way, feel free to Email me at

    CYA Next time.


    Thursday, April 3, 2008

    Forgot to mention

    I drizzled just a tiny touch of olive oil and added some sea salt to the final dish below.... YUM. Feel free to grate just a tiny bit of Parmesian Reggiano but I thouht it was plenty cheesy.

    Ravioli recipe promised

    Ya know, I can think of so many topics that I can’t wait to explore in writing but I promised this recipe so I’ll try to pen it now. I look forward to discussing so much fun food stuff soon. Without Further ado,

    Smoked Gouda and Duck Ravioli with Brown Butter and Crispy Sage

    For the Ravioli:

    ¾ cup Ricotta Cheese
    ¾ cup grated Smoked Gouda Cheese
    ¼ cup grated Parmesan Reggiano Cheese
    ¼ cup Parsley chopped
    1 Egg
    1 tsp Lemon Zest
    1 5-6 oz Duck Breast
    Salt and Pepper
    Drizzle of olive oil
    Prepackaged Wonton Wrappers (enough for about 24 Ravioli)
    1 cup water (to seal the outside of the ravioli)

    Combine the 1st 6 ingredients in a mixing bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour. Season the duck with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. In a hot pan, sear the duck on both sides for about 4-5 minutes per side. You want an internal temperature of around 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Let duck rest at least 10 minutes. Chop the duck into pea sized cubes.

    Put together some sort of assembly station as seen in the photo I posted earlier. Place about ½ tsp cheese mixture as well as ½ tsp in a wonton wrapper. Take the second wrapper and wet the edges. Lay second wrapper atop first and seal from one side to the other removing the air from the center. Repeat this till you run out of ingredients.

    This can be made one day ahead.

    For the sauce and presentation (per about 6 Ravioli). Make 1 batch at a time so not to overcrowd the sauté pan:

    6 Ravioli from above (serves 2 as an appetizer or 1 as a main course)
    4 tbsp Unsalted Butter
    8 large Sage Leaves

    Add the Ravioli to a pot of boiling salted water and cook until they float. About 4 minutes. Drain well. In a sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat until butter just begins to brown. Add the sage and Ravioli. Sauté together about 4 minutes then plate. Drizzle butter and sage over ravioli. Serve.

    This was one of my recent favorites but you’ll see that I say that a lot. ENJOY!!!!!!