Thursday, July 30, 2009

Grilled Chicken, Sweet Corn and Barley Soup from Leftovers

Forgive me but I’m going to take some liberty in forming an opinion of you. You cook. You probably have a passion for it at times. You live a busy life. You have a fridge full of leftovers. If I am correct, let’s chat. It breaks my heart to go into the fridge and throw out something that just 2 nights ago was absolute heaven to eat. Unfortunately though, the flavors are never the same reheated or microwaved. I toss plenty. I hate it. Trying to create new recipes from those leftovers can be a challenge, to be sure, but there are a couple of simple tricks. One of my favorites is soup. Those victim meats that have completely lost their once brimming succulence can be revived with a simple slow simmer in a luscious broth. The Tupperware that contains 2 tablespoons of veggies because you just couldn’t bear to throw them away can also be put to use. Even though I’ll share a specific recipe with you below, that’s not what’s important here. It’s about using what you have, conserving on your grocery bill, and avoiding the lost-in-the-back-of-the-fridge syndrome. You certainly don’t want you refrigerator to double as a Petri dish.

It is not uncommon for me to make 2 completely different dishes; one for Lisa and one for me. I like experimenting with food and she is much less adventurous. So the other day, I had a few different items on the grill. At the end of dinner, I had a mountain of leftovers including 3 ears of grilled corn and several citrus marinated, grilled chicken breasts. These are prime items to morph into a fuzzy blue cocoon in a matter of weeks. Don’t lie. It’s happened to you too. Fast forward a couple of days and I’m doing my usual what-am-I gonna-make-next-? ice box inspection. I see these things and a few others and the lights go off. It’s time for a soup. This would be perfect for the rubbery raw carrots from last week and the last onion in the bag. Oh, and I have some homemade chicken and veggie broth in the freezer that should be good. A quick peek in the pantry produces some pearl barley. Great in soup. This plan is coming together nicely. I dice up the veggies and the chicken, thaw my broth, cut the corn from the cob and that’s pretty much it. Once combined and seasoned, I add a bit of barley and it’s simmer time. An hour later, I have a luscious, fresh tasting wonderful soup that even Lisa scarfed down. I topped it with some fresh basil from the garden, grated Parmesan cheese (because shoes taste good with Parmesan cheese) and a drizzle of olive oil. The basil helped enhance the fresh flavor from the very beginning and you’d never tell that one more day and the carrots might have been able to leave the fridge under their own power.

For me, this was leftover management at its finest. I still often fail and I’m constantly tossing things pretty much daily. In this case though, I was able to conserve just a bit and not only did it feed my family at home, I sent quite a bit over to my father. He loves my leftovers anyway. So if you too have some items wasting space in your fridge and they haven’t begun their smelly morphing phase, one idea would be a soup. Give it a shot. See what happens or try something completely different. Just think before you toss.

Grilled Chicken, Sweet Corn and Barley Soup

4 grilled chicken breasts, cubed into bite size pieces
10 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or a combo of both)
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
½ cup pearl barley
3 ears of sweet corn, grilled or roasted then cut from the cob (yes, you could certainly use a frozen)
Fresh basil for garnish
Parmesan cheese for grating atop
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

In a large pot, add the broth, chicken, onion, and carrots. Bring to a slight boil and add the barley. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 1 hour. Serve into individual bowls and top with a bit of basil, Parmesan and a slight drizzle of olive oil.

Serves 8

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Rum and OJ infused Skirt Steak with Pineapple and Serrano Salsa -Ya Mon!!!

I love a challenge. I think most of us do. I especially like them when they are related to food. That’s why I had so much fun with this one. I was recently asked to cater a party for about 100 people. OK, I can handle that. It’s in Canada. I can handle that too. The theme is Caribbean. So far so good. The idea of fresh, clean island flavors begin swirling in my mind: citrus, seafood, sweet, spicy. Of course there has to be a twist. I was told that the folks hosting the party and the guest of honor do not like cilantro. This is a constraint that is difficult to overcome. When I think of the Caribbean, I think of rum drinks and foods with heavy doses of cilantro. Now if you enjoy a good salsa, it almost always has cilantro. The flavor is unmistakably bright and unique and screams of steel drum bands and sand in your toes. Leaving it out seems wrong on many levels to me, but hey, it’s not my party. Also, she wanted everything to be finger foods. No fussing with forks and sit down place settings; just small plates that guests could walk around and mingle with was the mandate. It didn’t take me long to draw up a rudimentary plan. The proteins were easy enough. A shrimp dish, a scallop dish, chicken, vegetarian, beef. I could use skewers, lettuce cups and bread as the vessels for these. As I thought of lime and rum and seafood, I was feeling a bit better. Things were coming together. Still, the absence of cilantro seemed problematic. I made a trip to the grocery store for a few ingredients to see what I could come up with. 8 courses plus a dessert later and I was all set. 1000 individual pieces. I’m pretty sure this will be a hit but I won’t be able to report back until early September because the party is at the end of August.

In particular, I was especially proud of the skirt steak skewers. Marinated in rum and orange juice then grilled, they’ll be served in a Bibb lettuce cup with a pineapple Serrano salsa. I decided to make a version of this for Lisa. She’s by far the pickiest adult eater I know. Difficult to take out to most restaurants much less cook for, she is a terrific critic. When she likes something I make, I am beyond thrilled. I wasn’t holding my breath on this one but I felt she might enjoy it. I just thought the flavors were consistent with what she likes. First I made the salsa. For me the key to salsas (or relishes, if you prefer that term) is flavor combinations and texture. While there is often a star in the condiment, no one flavor should be too overpowering. The tastes should marry and, in fact, be allowed some time in the refrigerator to meld. Getting the right texture comes from the size of the ingredients. A small dice is best. A good dose of lime juice and a splash of dark rum rounds out the salsa. I almost forgot about the cilantro.

With the pineapple concoction doing its magic in the fridge, it was time to turn my attention to the steak. Now skirt steak is a very interesting cut of beef. When deciding on which cut to use, I tried four different varieties. Sirloin, filet, strip and skirt all went into the marinade. After an overnight bath, my beef and I went to the grill. The sirloin dried out. It was beefy tasting but too little fat made it dry. The filet felt out of place because while it still had that beautiful buttery flavor, the salsa on it seemed distracting. Same with the NY strip. The skirt steak, though, was magnificent. Perfectly seared and exquisitely moist, the sweetness of the salsa contributed to humble nirvana. Skirt steak comes from the belly of the cow. It’s often considered a tougher cut of meat but I find it very easy to get around this by marinating it. Because of its texture, it’s the cut of choice for fajitas. Personally, I think it stands up beautifully on its own with very little effort and it’s well suited for the grill. Skirt steak also has just the perfect amount of fat to it. Not at all gristly but instead wonderfully moist and tender at medium rare, this should do well. Experimenting over. Let’s eat. I forewent the skewers and lettuce cups for Lisa’s home rendition. Instead I just removed the meat from the marinade and went straight to the grill. A few minutes on each side over the hot coals and I had a perfect medium rare steak.

After an appropriate resting time of about 10 minutes, I sliced it (against the grain completely eliminates toughness) and plated it topping it with the pineapple salsa. On the side I put some potato rounds roasted with garlic and bacon drippings and a salad. The verdict? Lisa ate every bite. She loved it. The heat of the Serrano chilies with the sweetness of the pineapple that topped the citrus and rum infused beef was enough to transport me to a far off island where Jimmy Buffet was holding a personal concert for me. The only thing missing was a coconut with a straw hanging out of it.

I’m really excited about sharing this with you because, honestly, this is one of the best original recipes I’ve created in a while. Even though the marinade and salsa require some forethought, the entire kitchen time is less than 30 minutes, maybe 40 if you count clean up. Give this a try and feel free to report back any twists of your own.

Island skirt steak with pineapple and Serrano chili salsa

1 cup orange juice
1 cup Meyer’s (or other dark) rum
2 tsp grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, chopped or grated
Salt and pepper to taste

2 lb skirt steak

1 cup diced fresh pineapple, ¼ inch cubes
½ cup diced red bell pepper
1 Serrano chili, very thinly sliced
2 large green onions, very thinly sliced
Juice of 2 limes
Dash Orange juice
Dash of Meyer’s (or other dark) rum
Salt and pepper to taste

Lay the skirt steak on a cutting board and pierce throughout meat with a fork. This allows the marinade deeper penetration. Combine all of the marinade ingredients and place in a reseal able plastic bag along with the steak. Take as much air out of the bag as possible and place in the refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours.

For the salsa, combine all of the ingredients and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

Grill the steak over high grill heat (depending on your grill) for 4-6 minutes per side for medium rare. Remove from grill and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Slice the meat against the grain and plate topping with the pineapple salsa.
Serves 4

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Fun Cooking at Diner 437

I asked for it. I guess I’d been asking for it all along. I’ve accomplished so many food milestones in my life that this was something I needed to do. So I just laced up my boots and crawled into the trenches. It was hot in there. I was sweating. I was weary. My back ached. My 48 hour old tattoo was stinging. Yet, when the day ended, I raised a cocktail with folks who I admire for their precision, skill and dedication. I’m speaking of my first experience in a restaurant kitchen. If you’re like me, you have taken for granted what it takes to put out consistently good food, plate after plate, with such attention to detail. I was about to learn. Trial by fire. It all started a few weeks ago after a lunch trip to Diner 437 in St. Petersburg. I wrote about that experience a few posts ago. There I met a dynamic and colorful chef named Domenica Macchia. We struck up a conversation and I think we’re now officially friends. She made some great food, candidly told her story and ultimately invited me back to cook with her behind the counter. Now that was an invitation I had to accept.

I arrived at 4 PM for the dinner service on a Saturday night. Things were just getting set up. Domenica met me with a hug and we toured the operation. Prep work in the back. Walk in cooler. Specials. The line. Stoves. Oven. The menu. How orders come in. Staff introductions. What plate to use for what dish. So much to process. Luckily, there was no time to get overwhelmed with information because the first few orders trickled in soon after. Gorgonzola bread was up first. On the stove a bit of sherry, garlic, shallot, parsley, parmesan and cream are simmered. A handful of gorgonzola is added to the pan and the sauce is reduced till thick. Meanwhile, some toast points go into the oven. The bread is plated and the gorgonzola sauce is poured over the top. Cooking time for this fan favorite is about 3 minutes from beginning to end. It’s all about speed and flow.

Marinated shirt steak with warm spinach and mashed potatoes

Domenica’s kitchen is small. There’s just enough room in the narrow space for one person to squeeze past another. “Behind you”, is heard over and over and you better listen or you will get burned. Literally. There needs to coordination for things to work right. Normally there are three people there and they each have a station to manage. Domenica works the stove and grill, while Matt assembles sandwiches and does some sides and Christina does the salads. There are some cross responsibilities, but that’s the general flow. Domenica is most certainly in command of this ship. While it’s all smiles and small talk initially, those tickets start printing with the orders and things snap into place pretty quickly. Domenica immediately begins calling out the items for Matt and Christina while attending her grill. I stand in anticipation for Domenica’s guidance which comes quickly, decisively and briefly. She doesn’t give me much time. She shows me once and that’s it. Do or die. Meanwhile, I’m sure I’m sharing space that Matt normally occupies and I can’t help feel that he already hates me. Another gorgonzola bread order comes in and I think I can now handle it. My first dish for a customer. I’m thrilled. I’m feeding someone and they are paying for it.
“Too much gorgonzola,” says Domenica. “Next time use less.”
Well she told me use a handful so I did. She pointed out that my hands were larger than hers. Fair enough.

That was not my first scolding of the night but I learned 4 or 5 of the menu items pretty quickly and as the pace picked up, Domenica had me working these pretty consistently. In no time I was making shaved filet mignon and passing it off to Matt for the sandwich with garlic dressing (unbelievably good). The caramelized bananas were simple enough. Add a bit of butter and brown sugar to a pan with some dark rum and sliced bananas. I felt like a real chef as the blue flame from the dark rum rose while I flipped the bananas like they do on TV. I’m ready for Iron Chef.

“C’mon, we gotta be able to do two things at once in here!” Domenica shouts.
I tumbled back to Earth with a sweaty thud as I put some butter, lemon juice and oil in a pan to begin some spinach. Shallots and garlic in next.
“Take some of that garlic out. I don’t want a big garlic bite in my spinach.”
I comply. In goes the spinach and the flame goes off. Her recipe has the spinach just tossed in the hot butter/oil to slightly wilt and warm through. It is a guest favorite.

And on and on it went for my 6 hour shift. It was hectic at times, calm a few others. As the tickets lined up, Domenica assigned each duty with careful attention to timing the orders so that hot meals were served to each table at the right time. This is a learned skill, I’m sure, but she was flawless. From the back room, clean dishes are supplied in a steady stream as are menu items as they are depleted. I felt a touch uncomfortable walking into the back, handing a stranger an empty bin and asking him to refill it or handing the dishwasher a bowl and telling him to please wash it and bring it out. Who am I to be barking orders at these hard working folks? But that’s the way it’s done.
Garlic Parmesan wings

Then suddenly, just as I feel my back is going to snap in two, it’s over. The last order is out and we’re finished. I feel like I just won the Super Bowl. “That was awesome!” I shouted in my head but uttered with more restraint. I wanted to bring my kid on the field. I wanted the streamers to fly. I was looking for the camera so I could face it and say, “We’re going to Disney World!” Then I looked around and saw that no one really cared. There was degreasing to do and they were still working. I popped the top from the beer I had been offered earlier and watched. Not that I’m above helping clean but my back was really about finished. Clean up was only about 30 minutes. Afterwards, Domenica and I went out to toss a few back with her friends at a local watering hole. If I portrayed her as a hard ass, let me assure you she is anything but. While she knows how to command a kitchen flow during a busy dinner crowd, she is affable, outgoing and fun to be with. Her friends were a joy to be around too.

It wasn’t long before I was headed home to pass out. 1:30 AM is not a time of day I am generally familiar with but I had such a tremendous evening. I learned more this night than I have in a while. I can definitely check this off my “bucket list”. What makes me feel better is that Domenica invited me back. I’m ready.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mise en Place -Tampa

In my time writing this blog, I’ve tried to write about meals that we all could enjoy. Mostly, I’ve stuck to recipes with ingredients that can easily be bought at any old grocery store and eateries where the whole family can gather for a delicious and reasonable meal. I am ever irritated when I read recipes in Bon Appétit or Gourmet and at the bottom (in fine italic print) there is a statement about an ingredient that says something like “Hikko whale eggs can be bought at some Asian markets or ordered from http://superf**” (OK, so there is no Hikko whale and if there was, it would not lay eggs –but you get my point). In numerous recent posts though, I’ve written about some high end restaurants in Washington DC, Tampa, New Orleans and Philadelphia that are really not for the every day dinner experience. They are haughty, expensive and really special fine dining meals. I’m not sure the everyday food blog reader gets a kick out of hearing how good the rabbit roulades were or how buttery the 1 pound filet of beef was. It doesn’t take a creative mind to write about food so decadent that the words flow easily. Still, I must be fair. If I happen to go to an outstanding restaurant either on business or personally, I feel very compelled to share that experience. Therefore, if you tire of hearing about unbelievably unusual and higher priced outings, please read no further. I promise to return to normalcy and make a great burger or something equally as enjoyable in the coming weeks but today I must speak about Mise en Place in Tampa.

Back in 1986, a couple of Motor City transplants named Maryann Frenec and Marty Blitz started a small catering business in Tampa. Marty had worked his way up through the culinary community in other cities and it was time to set out with his own venture. What started as a little business has blossomed into one of the most successful and stalwart restaurant operations in Tampa Bay. As the proprietors of multiple restaurants and gathering numerous local and national accolades along the way, their reputation in Tampa is second to none. Taylor Eason, wine editor for Creative Loafing, commented to me recently that Maryann is “The food god of Tampa Bay.” The menu is creative, playful and quite adventurous. The food is so perfectly prepared that as each bite passes my palate, I can’t think of a way to improve anything. Brittany, my daughter, and I arrived early on an absolutely miserable Wednesday afternoon. It had been raining for days. The streets were flooded and I was sure there would be no one dining but us. While it was a bit slow at 6:30, I was surprised to see how many people were gathered in the bar area and by the time I left there were many others enjoying meals at the tables around the restaurant. That is true testament to any establishment.

Our server went over the menu in detail and answered all our questions. He made some recommendations and we set out to order. My first course was Pacu ribs with a plum barbeque sauce (Photo at the top). This was one of the most creative dishes I have ever had and I don’t say that lightly. Pacu is a large South American fresh water fish that can grow up to 60 lbs. I’ve heard of it but never eaten it before and I’ve certainly never heard of anyone using the ribs of a fish as a menu item. I had to try it. The preparation was Asian. Lightly battered and drizzled with the plum sauce, I was immediately reminded of flavors that I have only experienced in China. The Pacu was beyond exquisite and I could have had several plates of this and called it a night. It was suggested by Taylor, who I mentioned above, that we try the wild mushroom salad as a second course. Again superb, the Earthy natural flavors of the mushrooms were married with a vinaigrette. How simple. How elegant. How delicious.

My entrée was a pecan and mustard crusted rack of lamb served atop tarragon and cheddar grits. Ordering rare lamb takes a brave soul because it is so hard to make lamb perfectly rare. While medium rare is the most common way to enjoy this meat, a rare order is often cold and just raw. This, however, was just right. Straddling that line between slightly cool to just warm, the inner chops were exactly what I was hoping for. The twist on the grits was an unexpected and pleasant experience. Leave it to a southern chef to take a plain and boring staple and do something extraordinary with it. You can bet I will try to create something like this in my own kitchen.

Brittany ordered the Scottish Salmon that came over some grilled vegetables (eggplant, roasted pepper, squash) with a cardamom and saffron vinaigrette. Most notably, pairing a bite of salmon with the grilled eggplant in the vegetables was a bit of heaven that is difficult to describe. I can’t think of an eggplant or salmon dish that I haven’t enjoyed but together they rocked.

As a blogger it is my prerogative to write about experiences that have already been overwritten. Mise en Place is not a secret to the South Tampa dinner crowd but it bears mentioning that if you are passing through the area to attend any downtown event, a dinner here could only put an exclamation point on any special evening. With a view of the signature minarets of the University of Tampa directly across the street, your experience will be memorable. Bon Appétit.

Mise en Place is located at 442 West Kennedy Blvd in Downtown.

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