Monday, December 29, 2008

Reflections of Christmas

I hope your Christmas was as wonderful as ours. With my kids are getting older, I keep thinking this may be our last holiday all together. I’m not saying that for pity or out of depression, but instead, I really want to celebrate their presence. So we do have a good time. We sit around and chat and catch up and I learn a little more about them each day. We went for a little boat ride to check out the decorated boats and docks in the neighborhood too. That was cool. They don’t photograph well from a moving boat but I hope you get the idea. Some were quite elaborate.

This year was especially enjoyable because I got help in the kitchen. In the past, it has been me and me alone in there. Also in years past, I have had elaborate menu schemes taken from various publications. I have since found that a more simple menu can be stimulated with some wonderful ingredients. Here was our Christmas dinner rundown (Click on the image to get the "chalk board" effect. Can you find the labeled item that is out of place?):

Rosemary Crusted Standing Rib Roast with Au Jus and Creamy Horseradish
Turkey Breast with Rosemary and Orange
Mashed Potatoes with Citrus Gravy
Dressing (One with sausage and one without)
Herbed Creamed Corn
Kale with Bacon, Vinegar and Cherry Tomatoes
Braised Leeks

Raspberry Pie with Vanilla Whipped Cream (from the Thanksgiving post)

Now that Christmas is past, I won’t go in to each recipe here but I have created a folder on the Epicurious website where I have begun posting my recipes. These will be up in the next month or so. I did learn a few new things. With an eye towards simplicity and some sous-chef chopping help from the kids, I only spent a few hours in the kitchen and still turned out an 8 course meal for 10.

All in all, this was a great holiday. Everyone really seems to enjoy it. So, what’s on the table for 2009? Well, I have a couple of surprises in mind but for now, mums the word on that (mum is not a particularly strong suit of mine). I look forward to my 1st anniversary as a food blogger coming up in March and I have some feelers out to expand my culinary adventures beyond just the hobby stage. We’ll see how that goes. For now, I’ll just keep chatting here.
John and I on the water. Didn't look like Christmas, did it?
So to my friends, family and the occasional passerby that reads this blog, I wish you all more happiness than your heart can hold and a spectacular new year!!!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'm a Morning Person so How About Breakfast. Oh and Merry Christmas, too!!!

First of all, Merry Christmas.

Now -I just don’t understand people who aren’t morning people. A true optimist HAS to be a morning person. I wake up excited about the potential of most days with little hint that I could be disappointed (which can happen). After the usual get the coffee on and freshen up chores, I sit at the computer and make a little mental checklist of the day. If it’s particularly busy, I consult my calendar gods. Also, as a family man, this is that time of day where there is tranquility. What I really wait for though is that hint of color in the sky through the back sunroom (yes, I’m always up before the sun no matter where in the world I happen to be). Then it’s time to move to the back patio to watch the sunrise over the lake with laptop in tow. How could anyone not be a morning person under these circumstances?

It would also make sense then that I take great pride in Breakfast. While they say it’s the most important meal of the day, for me it’s just the one I enjoy the most. From Crepes to eggs to frittatas to sausages, I love the traditional as well as the avant-garde like the black pudding that I enjoyed in England. Prosciutto wrapped melon is a great snack any time of day and fresh berries in yogurt are little sweet energy boosts.

Now I will share a couple of recipes here with you but this post isn’t really about some great new breakfast recipe but more about the inspiration behind breakfast. Many folks this time of year are either a houseguest or are having houseguests and everyone appreciates being presented a delicious breakfast. When I have a guest over, I make sure I have some simple ingredients around. Bacon or sausage, fresh potatoes, a good loaf of bread from the bakery, some fresh herbs, a good cheese and eggs will do the trick. If I’m making pancakes or crepes, fresh berries or citrus bring a little zing. The key is to put your stamp on it that says more than a couple of eggs and toast (although that would be appreciated, I’m sure).

Lisa really likes my potatoes. There’s nothing special about them, really. They are thinly sliced Yukon Golds made with onions and peppers done on a large griddle. What you see below are just on the griddle. When done they are a rich golden color.

Do you have one of these? If not, I highly recommend you add one of these super inexpensive items to your repertoire. A flat top grill cannot be beat for breakfast for more than 2 people. I can do a couple of orders of eggs at once, about 6 pancakes or a pound of bacon. Very convenient.

Another personal favorite are poached eggs on some kind of toast. The pic at the top of this post is a version with a bit of cheese toast. YUM!!!

If you really want to impress, try a home made hollandaise sauce. This is a combination of egg yolks with melted butter and lemon juice or vinegar spiced with a dash of cayenne pepper. With a few possible twists the recipe is fairly strict and consistent. Here is one version (I disagree with this author's distaste for a double boiler for several reasons but this website has tricks for fixing broken sauces). There is a touch required for this that takes a bit of practice to keep from breaking the sauce or scrambling the egg yolk but once proven, it is a rich and powerful addition to eggs, ham and toast (or English muffin) to serve a traditional eggs Benedict. Add some spinach for a delicious Florentine twist. I learned this in my early days of cooking and hollandaise is a staple for me.

So with all of the blogs helping you with perfectly prepared Christmas Prime Rib or Turkey, I thought I’d go another direction. Below are a few ideas for breakfast that are delicious and easy (especially with a flat top griddle) and clean up in quick order so you can get down to the meal that everyone REALLY is looking forward to. Make any of these and you will be a rock star with your guests, I promise.

Potatoes, with onions, peppers and smoked paprika

Approx 2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes, thinly slices preferably with a mandolin or food processor blade
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
Approx 3 tbsp canola oil, divided
1 tsp smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste (I have to say I think this needs generous salting)

Combine about 1 tbsp oil and all of the other ingredients in a mixing bowl and toss to evenly distribute and coat with oil and paprika. Place on hot 400 degree preheated and oiled griddle. Allow to sit about 5 minutes before checking or moving. Lift the corner of some potatoes to see that they are turning golden. If they are, gently turn. I babysit these to see that all are getting “bottom time” against the griddle. Be patient and do NOT turn frequently. Cooking these takes about 20-30 minutes so that all are done. You may also need to re-oil

Poached eggs on cheese toast

My first successfully poached egg was a cooking nirvana. I’d made it. I could cook. Like all things, this is pretty simple once you know the rules and some tricks. Get a pot of water to a light boil. A rolling boil will break up the egg. A tablespoon of vinegar will keep the egg congealed. And lifting the egg gently out of the water with a big slotted spoon allows you to jiggle it a little to see if it is set through the whites. Don’t make more than 2 at a time. I usually pat the bottom dry with a paper towel to keep the water from making my toast soggy. OK now you know the tricks. Try this:

2 poached eggs
2 sliced favorite cheese, I used Havarti
2 slices rye bread
1 tbsp butter

Butter the bread and top with the cheese slices. Place under a broiled until the edges brown and the cheese melts. Top with 2 poached eggs, add some chives for garnish and serve.

1 serving by itself or 2 if there are other accompaniments.

Savory grits with green onion and parsley

Grits. YUM!!! Unbelievable that my northern colleagues have no appreciation for these. I’ve eaten these for breakfast since I was a little boy but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I had a dinner with Grits. In Savannah, GA I enjoyed my first shrimp and grits and my love affair was solidified. This version is super fast, super easy and flat out delicious. Any time I can say Lisa liked something, I feel I’ve struck gold. She liked these. Sorry for no pic but when I made these, I was not intending to blog about it.

3 tbsp butter
2 cups cooked Grits (or polenta) a little on the creamy side (I buy quick cooking grits but whatever you have, follow the recipe on the package but lean on the side of moisture by adding a couple of tablespoons more water that called for)
1 scallion chopped on a bias
Handful of fresh Italian or flat leaf parsley leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly.

Serves 4 as a side or 2 as a main

Links to a couple of other recipes I’ve posted:

Crepes with Orange Bourbon Butter syrup

Eggs fried in Olive Oil with Creamy Parmesan Grits

Merry Christmas!!!!!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Story of a Foodie and Some Great Cajun Memories

I was thinking the other day and wondering exactly how I got here. What factors have lead to my intense love and commitment to food? Why is my time in the kitchen purely cathartic? I’m not in “the business”. I didn’t go to culinary school. I didn’t grow up around restaurants. No one in my immediate family was even a particularly good cook. Yet, I dream of new recipes. Entering the market for me is like a 5 year old walking into the Toys-R-Us in Times Square. I could spend whole days devoted to cooking, hunting down new restaurants or writing about the foods that pass through our lives. So how did it begin? What are my first memories? Well there are early memories of making my mom pancakes for breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day and a few odd-and-end moments but what I’m really looking for is that tipping point; that moment I knew food meant more than sustenance.

I would have to say it probably began in my military days while stationed in Louisiana. Shortly after arriving back in 1985, I quickly realized that mess hall food, while free, was going to need some augmentation. Dried pieces of chicken and bland mashed potatoes were only going to go so far and asking for a burger should never prompt the mess worker to stick his tongs in a vat of liquid and retrieve a mystery meat patty (And why was the place I was supposed to dine called a “mess” hall anyway?). So I ventured out and what an experience. The tastes and smells in the backwater bayou country of Louisiana are indescribable. My first of many “favorite” restaurants was discovered in Alexandria, a small town smack in the center of the state.
View from the balcony at Tunk's Cypress Inn on Lake Kincaid

I don’t recall how I found Tunk’s Cypress Inn. I’m sure it was recommended by someone. Alexandria was a good hour drive from Ft. Polk where I was stationed but it was also the closest “city” where young GI’s found some night life. No matter how I found it, once I did, I was hooked. I ventured in as often as I could. It was a building built atop a dock on Lake Kincaid and it was quintessentially “Cajun” (of course, at the time, I didn’t know what the words quintessential or Cajun meant). They offered fare that in the mid 80’s hadn’t even been heard of outside Louisiana. When I first saw the HUGE platter of Crawfish on another table, I was a bit intimidated. How could anyone eat such a mound of food? And they were on MANY tables!! Well, I simply had to try them. I soon found out that the reason for the large quantity of Crawfish on each table was because each individual crawdad (interchangeable term) wasn’t horribly meaty. In fact, eating boiled Crawfish is an experience to be savored. It soon became common for me and a few buddies to head in to Tunk’s, drink some beer and spend a couple of hours picking over massive piles of Crawfish.

Another influence was the festival-every-weekend mentality in Louisiana and these festivals were always centered around a food. I recall some type of berry festival and a gumbo festival and on and on. A favorite of mine was the celebration in Mamou known as Le Courir de Mardi Gras a Cheval (the Mardi Gras run on horseback). So the of age men would wear these wild costumes (at Mardi Gras? really?) and go from house to house on horseback begging for offerings for the pot of Gumbo to made later that night. Typically, the men dance to entertain and pay for the food which turns out to be a chicken that must be chased down and caught. Perhaps in the age of the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360, this sounds a bit mundane but I have the fondest memories of that Gumbo and the spectacle that surrounded a pot of food.
Chasing Chickens in Mamou, Louisiana

It wasn’t too long afterwards that I made my first of many trips to New Orleans and the rest is history, well sorta. It would be many years later before I owned a cookbook or began collecting kitchen ware but I have to say these were the years that I was a culinary embryo. My palate was forming and I was absorbing new tastes at an alarming rate.

So this week I decided to take a trip down memory lane and replicate an old favorite of mine, fried catfish. Now completely farm raised, catfish have a mild, delicate flavor and are quite delicious. I love them prepared in many ways but traditional Louisiana fried catfish is always a winner. I put a couple of twists on it to play around (like marinating all day in stone ground mustard) and I have to say I was pleased. I also served my version of dirty rice and a butternut squash hash (not really Cajun but one of my new favorites). And in true Louisiana fashion, I topped the entire plate with a few fried oysters. For a sauce, I made something I learned from an old Cajun guy and that story is for another time. It had a name but I don’t recall it. It is a bright and tangy reduction of Worcestershire and lemon with garlic and peppercorns. Now that was a touch. The catfish, oyster combo was a renaissance moment for me transporting me back to the earliest days of culinary exploration. Yes, this is where it began.

A quick note about Cajun seasoning. I have made my own many times and continue to experiment with different variations. From mild to hot blackened, I love different varieties. One thing I’ve noticed is that I have yet to make a spice combo that I find better that the off the shelf varieties available in grocery stores. One of my favorites is Paul Prudhomme’s line but I’ve even had store brands that were good. Since most varieties I’ve made have up to 12 different spices and they are between $3 and $8 each, it might be prudent to just buy a few different premixed seasonings and find out what you like best. Also read the entire recipe before beginning since the order is a bit different if you wish to serve all together (that’s the idea, duh!).

Without further ado:

Cornmeal Fried Catfish and Oysters with Dirty Rice, Butternut Squash Hash and a Special Worcestershire Reduction

Dirty Rice

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp Cajun seasoning
1 ½ cups cooked basmati rice
1 scallion, sliced thin and on a bias (45 degree angle)
Salt and pepper to taste

A true dirty rice has meat in it and is usually much spicier, but without meat this is a fantastic accompaniment to fried catfish. Melt butter over medium heat but do not brown. Add the seasoning and toast for just a moment in the butter. Add the rice and warm through and add the scallions at the end. Divide between 2 plates.

Butternut Squash Hash

1 butternut squash, peeled and diced into very small cubes. About 2 ½ cups.
1 tbsp honey
1tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp cumin

Combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and stir well. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Can be done the day before.

When ready to cook, heat a skillet over medium high heat. Put a touch of olive oil in the pan and add the squash mix. Sauté until soft and the edges of the squash are caramelized.
Place next to the rice mix on the plate.

Catfish and Oysters

2 catfish fillets (5-8 oz each, I suspect)
3-4 tbsp stone ground mustard
Salt and pepper
8 large oysters (reserve the liquor for the sauce)
2 cups cornmeal
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional and adjust to taste)
4 tbsp butter divided

Salt and pepper the fish and rub the mustard all over. Place in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Mine were in about 6 hours when I made this.

Mix the cornmeal and cayenne pepper together and divide into 2 vessels, one for the catfish and the other for the oysters. Lightly dredge the catfish and shake off the excess. Let sit for at least 10 minutes before frying. In a fry pan over medium high heat add 2 tbsp butter. When melted and beginning to brown, add the catfish fillets. Fry about 2 minutes per side and remove from pan. Place on paper towel lined plate. Add the next 2 tbsp butter to the pan.

Dredge the oysters in their cornmeal mix and shake excess. Add to hot pan and cook about 1-2 minutes per side, turning only once. Remove and also let drain on the plate for a couple of minutes.
Place a catfish filet and half of the oysters atop each plate with the rice and Butternut Hash.

Worcestershire Reduction

1 bottle Worcestershire sauce
Reserved oyster liquor
1 lemon, cut in half
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ onion roughly chopped
2 tbsp peppercorns
2 tbsp butter

Combine all the ingredients except butter in a sauce pan and simmer over medium heat until sauce is reduced by a little less than half (about 25 minutes). Strain. Place back in sauce pan and whisk in butter. Remove from heat and drizzle a few tablespoons over each plate of catfish and oyster dinner. Serve the rest on the side.

Serves 2.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Pumpkin and Pear Bisque

OK people, I got lucky. I was having just one of those weeks. Nothing was going my way. Work is challenging at the moment, I’m not ready for Christmas, the lights aren’t up yet and our Christmas tree isn’t straight (why we didn’t see that when picking out the tree is beyond me). But hey, all isn’t lost. With the economy slumping, I can always turn on CNN to see that others have worse problems. Plus, I got lucky. I did one of those “lets-just-rummage-through-the-kitchen-to-see-what-I-can-come-up-with” tricks. Some of the greatest recipe creations have come from this method; things like the famous peanut butter and banana sandwich come to mind. Now while I like to think I have an eclectic pantry, I really was a lot lower on supplies than usual. I guess last time I was at Publix, I only grabbed what I needed in the moment. So here’s how the recipe process began and how I got lucky:

“Well… OK… what do I have? Oohhh, I have that pumpkin puree in the freezer. Well, I’ve been meaning to use that for something. We’ll start with that. A soup!!! A pumpkin soup!!! That sounds a bit yummy. I could probably make a bisque. Excellent. First I’ll sauté some onions and garlic then I’ll… wait…hmmmm… What’s that over there? Why its those 2 pears I bought to eat with some blue cheese (if you have not eaten sliced pears with blue cheese, you are missing a corner of heaven). I’ve never put pears in soup before... I wonder how that would taste. I guess we’ll find out!!”

And what we were left with was pretty darned good. I ate several helpings of this over the next couple of hours and it left a warming feeling throughout. I used a few chili flakes for a bit of heat and the touch was successful. This is the definition of comfort food. AND WITH PEARS!! I will be adding this accidental find to this years Christmas dinner. You should think about it.

OK try this:

Pumpkin and Pear Bisque

2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 tbsp salt
Pepper to taste
1 tsp chili flakes (or to taste)
1 tsp cumin
2 cups pumpkin puree (I would think a can or can and a half prepared pumpkin would be OK too.)
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 medium or large pears (seeded and chopped, peeled or unpeeled –doesn’t matter)
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
1 tsp Fresh grated nutmeg
Avocado slices and cilantro (or mint) for garnish
Drizzle of olive oil atop each serving.

In a large stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat then add the onion and garlic salt and pepper. Sauté until translucent but not brown. About 4-5 minutes. Add chili flakes and cumin and stir in. Cook just another minute. Next add pumpkin, broth and pears. Bring to a slight boil then reduce heat to cook down and reduce the liquid a bit; maybe 15-20 minutes. A bisque consistency is what we are looking for. Broth can be added if too think or longer cooking time if too thin. When just about right, add cream and nutmeg and cook another 5 minutes. Check foe seasoning here and add salt and pepper as needed. If you are one of those cool gadgety folks that have an immersion blender, I would use that here. I worked in batches in my food processor to get a nice creamy consistency. You could do the same in smaller batches in a regular blender too. Place back in pot.

To serve, place in a bowl and lay a few slices of avocado atop along with a sprig of cilantro or mint. A few drops of olive oil will look beautiful and enhance your flavor.

Serves 8.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why Can't They Make Burritos in the Carribean?

One amazing burrito

I hate the desert. I do. I keep trying to love it because it means so much to my family but GOD IT SUCKS!!!! I don’t even know where to begin complaining about it. Just the name desert make my lips begin to chap. Try as I might to change their minds, my completely urbanized and culturally eclectic mother and step dad are determined that Arizona is their retirement destination. Certainly, my brother, David, and his daughter living there are not helping keep the folks from this searing rattlesnake infested wasteland. It seems so unnatural that they love it, but they do.

Making this upcoming transition even more difficult for me is the fact that I LOVE where they live now. They are on Capitol Hill, just a few blocks from both Union Station and the Capitol Building. The gastronomic possibilities in Washington DC are endless and akin to New York City. Any time you have uppity yuk-yuks in the neighborhood, you have good restaurants and my folk’s neighborhood has just that. Well, I guess I can’t cry over spilled milk for too long but I am sad.
It doesn't even look inhabitable down there. Sorta Mars-like.

My brother David and I. I decided to copy his hairstyle.

OK, so what DOES the Phoenix scene have to offer? Is it on the culinary map? After a bit of Googling, turns out it is. It seems there are a lot of uppity yuk-yuks in Phoenix too. Names like Goldwater and McCain are on the list. A drive through Scottsdale or Paradise Valley proves that Phoenix does luxury right. Equally as pleasing in Phoenix are the little hole in the wall Mexican places that I’ve heard spoken of. Places where those yuk-yuks say they would never go but yet the parking lots are full of high end vehicles. One such place is Carolina’s.
Nothing exciting about the facade but wait till you taste the food.

To say that the neighborhood surrounding Carolina’s is financially challenged is an understatement. It is impossible to miss the bullet holes in the white washed concrete walls of the exterior or the bars on the doors and windows. Still, Carolina’s appears like a busy hub in this neighborhood and a crossing point for the many cultures of Phoenix. As plain as the exterior is, the interior is no better. There is no table service. Instead you place your order and wait for them to call your number. This day, it took about ten minutes. There is always a line. While waiting for your meal, you can read the numerous framed periodical reviews on the wall intermixed with all of the “Best of” plaques. It seems this place has some national as well as regional acclaim. I’m told that President Clinton’s limo pulled up once and his meal was brought to his car.
The Menu. Nothing is bad here.

Always a line.

Wobbly tables and ripped unmatching chairs are waiting for you after your number is called. Since we went at breakfast, I ordered a chorizo, egg and potato burrito that came wrapped in foil. I grabbed some hot sauce and dove in. Oh my!!!! Every morsel of this was perfect. The flour tortilla alone was spectacular. They are made from scratch every day all day and their demand is high. Inside was the most perfect combination of spices, meat and potato I have ever had. Now wait, I know I don’t eat breakfast burritos like this all the time but I have had my share and nothing comes close to this. My mom ordered the same but with Machaca instead of Chorizo. Machaca is a spiced beef and I found hers to be wonderful but the spice of the Mexican chorizo had me from the first bite. While my step dad graciously bought this breakfast, a quick canvassing of the menu told me that you could bring the family here (daylight only) for less than 20 bucks. I bought a dozen still warm tortillas to bring back to Florida.
Amazing and look at that bag of fresh tortillas.

Taking a bite.

OK, so maybe the desert isn’t so bad. They do have burritos there and don’t they make tequila from a desert plant? (I have at least a dozen potential tequila stories but don’t we all?) Well as long as my family is in Phoenix and as long as Carolina’s is still there, I will return. Leaving Carolina’s, we headed to the airport where I hopped a plane home.

By nightfall I was munching again on flour tortillas and missing the desert just a little bit.