Local + Organic = Delicious

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)

In some form or another you’ve heard of it. This is a food co-op where farmers from around a specified region bring their wares, divvy them up and people from around that county pick up a varied box of fresh, local organic produce. Perceived value is the issue here.

It costs a little more than your local grocery but, you get what you pay for. Our particular CSA is Garden of Eden Organics. They had the nearest location drop off for us and had room on the list for us to join. Many CSA’s are booked up or too far away…or too pricey.

We paid $420 for 12 weeks, ($35 a week). What’s your weekly produce budget?

A better question might be; what is your weekly local organic produce budget. Until the general population demands healthier eating lifestyles, veggies will always be more expensive then things out of a box. Inexpensive organic veggies ARE a viable option for our future, but things will need to change.

Our government funding was set up to subsidize certain agricultural and farming industries that focus on one item; and to produce as much of that one item as possible. Things like wheat, corn, soybeans…you know, the “filler”. That made it nearly impossible for small farmers across the country to turn a profit. We as a culture began producing mass quantities of cheap food available anytime, anywhere, which definitely has it’s addictive delicious ups…but the downs of cheap food, big business and a lack of nutritional IQ have proven quite detrimental to our societies physical and mental health. Not to be all hippie-dippie but; the farther away we go from fresh food, the farther away we go from each other. /rant

Back to the badass deliciousness of fresh local vegetation. The veggies we get from our weekly box are varied and wonderful with varieties I’ve never seen or heard of. Everything tastes as it should, carrots deep with flavor, cucumbers that are sweet, perfect melons(gigitty), fresh herbs, crisp sweet lettuce and the list goes on.

Another thing I love is what the veggies force you into with your diet. Creativity abounds because you have to make a meal with something you might have never cooked before. If you feel lost or confused about what to do, just use teh interwebz to look up a quick and easy recipe. Many CSA’s will post recipes on their web-sites or blogs. My wife was recently perplexed about mustard greens which are a spicy bitter green not unlike kale. She did a fine job sauteing them up with a little garlic and olive oil but was only really stoked about their uber-nutritive value. So yes, sometimes you receive something that isn’t your favoritest ever, but it’s usually highly nutritious and maybe you have a friend who’s a chef and can point you in the right preparational direction ;-)

Watermelon martini’s and a fresh crunchy chicken salad were my inspiration this particular week.

Destroyer of fresh blackberries

Wine Pairing Badassery

If you didn’t already know, I’m a personal chef. My job as a personal chef consists of cooking for private dinner parties, teaching cooking classes and meal services.

I enjoy most aspects of my job for different reasons but my super-duper most favoritest ever, is wine or beer food pairings. I enjoy the direction and focus I’m forced into with the flavor profiles wine and beer provide.
My recent wine dinner was very involved and allowed me the pleasure of using a few expensive items that aren’t usually in the budget.

I usually don’t take pictures of my food during parties…I’m too focused on getting the food out perfect and hot…or cold; and of course making sure people are enjoying themselves.

This time I was lucky enough to snap a few off before they went out. Not all of them…and I failed with pics of the wine as well, but like I said, it’s not my focus.

If you’ve ever been to a wine pairing dinner then you know how much fun it is…when it’s done right. If you haven’t, then I highly recommend it as a way to enjoy wine like never before. The wine will heighten the food and the food will heighten the wine…hopefully…and hopefully you don’t end up with a lame bottle. Not that that would be your fault, it just happens. But that mystery is a fun aspect to wine.

Ideally, it accentuates what that grape is capable of with its given environment…easier said then done that’s for sure.

Some wine pairings will focus more on wine, giving small portions of something simple–like a piece of chocolate, or some good parmesano drizzled with aged balsamic and fresh cracked pepper. Those simple ingredients can completely change the way your palate registers that wine. Since I’m a chef and tend to be more food focused, I prepare mini entrees for each wine. How I go about each entree is determined by what the wine has to offer.

I ended up getting some great wine from John Alonge; the friendly and knowledgeable owner of the San Diego Wine and Culinary Center or, The Wine Heratic.

He introduced me to some wonderful California wines (2 from Ramona) and the prices were totally reasonable.

I did this about a month ago so I forget some of the details, but here’s what I did:

Hors D’oeuvres:

Spanish salmagundi stuffed peeled loquat with coconut cheese

Foi gras stuffed roasted carrot with crispy apple-mint.

Not pictured is Buffalo mozzarella and marcona almond stuffed prosciutto wrapped date, grilled and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil

1st course (not pictured)–Ramona Valley-Kohill Winery, 2008 Estate Sauvignon Blanc.

Seared scallops with Fresh English peas, pea pod herb nage, citrus segments, and king crab croquettes…Picture fail, but it was beautiful.

2nd course- Russian River Chardonnay of some kind. Had nice citrus tropical notes with a hint of butter, French oak and crisp acidity. If I remember correctly it was mostly steel aged with only a month in French oak.

Achiote and coconut water braised pork belly with banana roasted mashed potatoes and citrus macerated cucumber and mango.

3rd course-2009 Clifford Bay Pinot Noir. Earthy, hint of truffle, supple tanins, fruit forward with cherry and plum. Also a nice crisp finish.

Ahi sashimi and roasted golden beet napoleon with butter lifted porcini broth, white cherry and blanched celery garnish tossed with red wine vinegar and white truffle oil.

4th course-Petite Syrah Edwards Vineyards…I think. Black cherry, bold and earthy, mellow tannins, soft structure with a small amount of oak.

Roasted lamb loin and smokey roasted riblets with dried black cherry lamb reduction and shitake, parsnip chips

5th course-Cabernet Sauvignon, jeez I’m feeling buzzed just writing this. Classic wonderfully structured cab. Cabernet braised beef short ribs with rib jus reduction and handmade black truffle gnocchi, no picture :-(

6th course- Sparkling cuvee from somewhere in Santa Barbara I think. Had some dry fruit rolling through with some yeast on the finish.

Loukamades with almond covered chocolate truffle (the truffle wasn’t really planned but I figured I’d throw the chocolate lovers a bone).  Lame pic :-|

So that was it. I left 6 people happy, full and drunk…sounds like great Saturday night to me:-)

Exibition In Mediocrity

Canned beer. “As American as apple pie”– at least since the early seventies.

Amurican Beer

I love American spirit and ingenuity; we’re the best in the world at working hard to be lazy. I say lazy, but I just mean we have a drive for convenience other countries don’t seem to prioritize like we do. Our ideas, wants, and needs(?) have driven the world economy since there’s been a world economy. Capitalism is great and everything but sometimes there’s a fizzy, flavorless price to pay.

Back in the sixties we started thinking; ‘Screw flavor, I want my beer to come in something I can crush on my head.’ (No, I cannot crush a can on my head, but I think it’s cool when people do). Obviously that’s not the reason, but interestingly enough, canning was cheaper than bottling and it afforded more real estate for labels and slogans. As far as quality goes and the taste difference between cans and bottles, it just depends on how old the beer is. Most breweries that can their beer don’t produce a delicious product anyways, so being in a can doesn’t matter a whole lot, especially if it’s only been on the shelf for a short time. Canned beer has given us a uniquely American product that made beer cheaper, safer, more convenient and more marketable. Granted, taste is diminished and can be straight up funky, but we’ll gladly make a small sacrifice for taste if it means we can consume it with ease anywhere we want to take it, and for less moolah.

I wonder if the big American beer companies of today, tasted better 50-60 years ago? Because it really is a testament to our love of drinking that we have such popular mediocre beer. And before any beer enthusiasts get their panties in a bunch I realize America is now the world leader in award winning high quality craft brews. In fact, my home town of sunny San Diego is quickly making a name for itself within the industry. With more then 20 craft breweries around the county there’s a multiplicity of options for enjoying good beer.
But enjoying a beer is different then beer drinking. Although there are some impressive beer drinking cultures, non have done so much, with so little, as us. You know what the difference is?

Independence.

We don’t relegate ourselves to a bar or our living room…we like our beer outside or wherever we friggin’ feel like it. A cooler full of beer is an iconic American site to behold. Not because of our love for a high quality product, but for our desire to catch a buzz and relax wherever we damn well please. Sure bottles are portable, but drinking can also cause carelessness.  A broken bottle in a natural surrounding or a place where children might play is just really disappointing. Sure people leave trash in nature regardless of what they’re drinking, but picking up a can is alot easier then a thousand shards of glass.

Myself being a lover of quality beer, I feel the need to further justify my stance on an important distinction.

The notes of righteousness

There’s a difference between enjoying a beer, and beer drinking. Beer drinking requires affordability and drinkability with an emphasis on beer temperature. American light lagers are meant to be drank cold, no matter the season. Americans get alot of flack for cold beer, but what old world enthusiasts aren’t grasping is…we’ve perfected the art of drinking 30 beers…without being of direct German decent!

Coors Light is (to me), the undisputed king of canned light beer. Many factors are measured when determining this lofty title but I’ll break it down into the big two. First, why bother with canned beer instead of bottled?

There are only two answers. Affordability and packaging convenience. Canned beer is always cheaper unless you come across a super schweet deal, which’ll only occur when the store is trying to sell their old beer. So price…check.
Convenience comes down to a few things as well. Cans are more durable, cans stack better(more in a cooler), they get colder, and get colder faster.
Coors Light has unparalleled drinkability. Everyone has different tastes and I’m not gonna argue with someone that it’s the best tasting, however.  I will vehemently stand by the notion that it is; THE MOST REFRESHING, INEXPENSIVE, CANNED ADULT BEVERAGE anywhere west of the rockies.  To prove this, me and my buddies did a taste test of all the “big” canned beers.                                                                                                                                                                                             

Baby finds a chewy

We had lofty intentions of finding a king amongst peasants, but unfortunately… everything became a blur of mediocrity. We tried to be official about it with rankings, comment sheets and guesses as to what it might be, but we fell short because of time constraints and straight up forgetting to actually rank our favorites, doh!

Dinner and prizes

It was alot of fun and I totally recommend it as a fun activity with friends,

but I really wish we had picked a winner. There were some that tasted pleasant at first sip, but immediately went downhill on the second taste. About halfway through, everything was tasting horrible and I was getting uncomfortably full. Note to self…wait a minimum of one hour after dinner to start a beer tasting.

Once again, it’s not that Coors Light tasted the best. But in a blind taste test, it was by far the most refreshing. None of my friends or I are very familiar with the other beers we tested. However, by the end we all realized why this was the case. When Coors Light popped up at the end there was a resounding “AHHHHHH, thats the stuff right there, that’s natures sweet nectar…that comes in a can for $.50.”

There was no winner at this, so the person with the least correct picks had to drink the dump cup.

Dump cup gets pounded. It’s ok…she’s german

ehhhhhh…Chowdah

I friggin’ love clam chowder. I love most soups, but this one tends to be my first soup of the new football–I mean, fall season.

Check out this rad poem In the Boston Evening Post from September 23,1751. This was the first printed recipe for a chowder. Makes me want to rhyme everything I say…well I just may…which makes me gay, but not like you think, I mean in a happy way…gigitty-ay.

Old Times

Firsay some Onions to keep the Pork from burning
Because in Chouder there can be not turning;
Then lay some Pork in slices very thin,
Thus you in Chouder always must begin.
Next lay some Fish cut crossways very nice
Then season well with Pepper, Salt, and Spice;
Parsley, Sweet-Marjoram, Savory, and Thyme,
Then Biscuit next which must be soak’d some Time.
Thus your Foundation laid, you will be able,
To raise a Chouder, high as Tower of Babel;
For by repeating o’er the Same again,
You make a Chouder for a thousand men.
Last a Bottle of Claret, with Water eno; to smother ’em,
You’ll have a Mess which some call Omnium gather ’em.

This is about New England—clam—chowder, not the “soup” labeled from Manhattan that is nowhere near a chowder. Food nerd trivia–In the clip/link at the top, Ace is asked, “the red or the white?” Unbeknownst to him…there is no red New England Clam Chowder.  I know, I know–my observational skills are staggering aren’t they?

I love the dish for many epicureal reasons, but I swear, sometimes I think it’s all in a name. How awesome is the word chowder.  Say it.  Now say it with a North Eastern accent.  Hee heeee (I’m gonna name my next dog Chowdah.)                                                                     Feelings of comfort and happiness are conjured with this word, but probably only if you’ve had a good bowl of it.  I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for several years; while I was there I spent a little time in the city looking for “The Best Clam Chowder.” Alas, my search was shortened by the disappointment of three consecutive LAME-O chowders. So, as the adage goes; “If you want something done right…better do it yourself.”

Choices for the direction you want to steer your chowder are innumerable. Canned or fresh? Brothy or thick? Bacon or salt pork? Conformity to “tradition” or breaking the mold? Fatty Mcfat-fat cream or milk? The list goes on…

Here are two recipes; one with fresh clams, a few extra ingredients and a couple extra steps. The second is made with canned clams, one pot and less time. If cooking is not your thing, so what...do it…do it.

E-Z Clam Chowder

2 slices bacon, hacked up
1T butter (optional)
1/4c flour
1 medium onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
3 potatoes, peeled and diced small
1/2tsp dried thyme
4 6.5oz cans chopped clams in juice
1 bay leaf
2c heavy whipping  cream
1/2 tsp dried dill
2tsp fresh chopped parsley *optional

Heat a pot over medium heat, add the bacon to render some fat and brown. Add the next five ingredients along with a pinch of salt and rind of fresh pepper. Saute until the onion is wilted, then stir in the flour and cook for a minute. Whisk in the chopped clams with juice being sure to smooth out any lumps of flour. Whisk in 2 cups of water and the cream, adding more of either as needed to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, stir the bottom, then turn down to a simmer for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked. Stir in the remaining ingredients to heat through; taste for seasoning and serve.  Mash up some of the potato if you want it a bit thicker.

Fresh Clam Chowder

4 slices bacon, chopped
2T butter
1 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
20-30 little neck clams, washed
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1c white wine
8oz bottled clam juice
3c water
2c heavy cream
2-3 medium russet or yukon potatoes, peeled and diced
Salt and fresh pepper
1 tsp dried dill
1-2 T chopped Italian parsley

Heat a large pot over medium heat and add the bacon. Cook until the bacon renders most of its fat and strain off all but 2 tablespoons. Add the butter, onion, garlic, bay and thyme; cook until the vegetables are wilted and soft, 8 minutes.                                            Meanwhile; in a large pan, bring the wine to a boil. Add the clams, cover, and steam for 3-4 minutes. Strain off the juice and reserve, then remove the clam meat and throw away the shells(optional).                                                                                                                             Dust the sautéed vegetables with flour and stir to coat everything well. Whisk in the bottled clam juice until the flour is incorporated and smooth. Add the reserved clam broth, water, cream and the potato. Bring to a boil, cover, and boil hard for about 7 minutes or until the potatoes break down. Add in the chopped clams, parsley, dill and season with salt and pepper.

Really though, if you don’t think you want to make one of the recipes, buy your favorite canned variety, add some dried dill and/or a little dried or fresh chopped parsley. Shake a little southern style hot sauce over the top and it’ll be great, well…it might cure a craving at least. Canned clam chowders always leave alot to be desired and there are definitely some quirky differences between them. I recently did a little taste test comparison between four brands I picked up from a local grocer.

The Contestants

Progresso

Thick, creamy, good amount of clam flavor, lotsa potatoes, no herbs, not off-putting. No MSG added is on the label but… it has yeast extract and hydrolized corn protien which are both msg. 1,780mg sodium, 18g fat and 360 calories.

Campbell’s Chunky-
Thick and creamy with a decent amount of clam flavor, but it was also quite metallic. Lotsa potatoes, no herbs and except for the tinny flavor, there was nothing off putting. Has 2 forms of MSG but at least the label doesn’t lie about it. 1,780mg sodium, 26g fat and 460 calories.

Campbell’s Select Harvest
Label looks healthy and reads: “With natural sea salt, Tender surf clams and no MSG added.” Lol…it has 2 kinds of MSG and is reeeealy clamy (in a bad way).  Lotsa potato, crazy amount of chewy (not tender) clams, visible parsley that was light and pleasant but had several bites with grit/sand. 960mg sodium, 20g fat and 360 calories

Chef Design (generic)-
So processed and fake tasting. Had the same texture and flavor of every horrible, overly processed creamy canned product ever. Had all the bad attributes with non of the good–except that it doesn’t outwardly lie on the label like Harvest and Progresso.
1,700mg sodium, 22g fat and 420 calories

Overall, the first three will be edible with the addition of herbs and hot sauce but no kid would ever like the Harvest Select. 4th one was pretty much canned cancer.

Classic usually works

The potatoes are great, but don’t forget the mandatory second carb to finish off your chowdah!  Oyster crackers or saltines are great, but I would much rather have toasted, crusty sourdough bread as a dipper/soaker.

I don’t know if the east coast uses bread or crackers…hopefully they’ve gotten out of the 1700’s–taken note from San Francisco and tossed the crackers in place of crusty, warm, chewy sourdough. Mmmmm, double carbs.

Teh Figzzz

Family, friends, food, fun and…figs? I missed a few important F’s but I think you get where I’m going here. All these F’s are important to me, and since it is late summer…figs make the list.

Surprisingly, figs are an actual fruit that grow from a tree and don’t just magically find their way in between a pastry.
Seriously though, I’ve finished a whole sleeve more times then I care to admit. Damn little things are so easy to eat; before I know it I have an empty plastic wrapper, a crumb covered couch, and a life or death need for a cold glass of milk.
For some people, the word fig is always and forever attached to Newton. That’s cool…maybe a little sad but whatever. As kids, we never really questioned what the filling was. I’m sure we deduced from the label that it was indeed a fig construct of some kind, but not really anything tangible. After all, what is a fig? I don’t remember ever being given a raw fig. Maybe someone did? But it was probably under ripe; which to a kid means he/she is now holding a scary looking, mushy, bitter, nasty “thing.” Fo reelz…under ripe figs suuuuuuuck. Don’t ever give a child a less then perfect fig.

They can be eaten raw and whole, but are always sweeter with a little heat put to em. Figs looooove heat, especially direct dry heat, like a grill or broiler. I tend not to just munch on raw figs, (although we have a tree now, so maybe I should start?), but they are a versatile way to add sweetness to a plethora of dishes.

Recently I procured an obscene amount of figs via my favorite method. Pretty sure they’re Mission figs, but since there are over 700 varieties of fig…Mission is close enough.

I’ve done figs six ways from Sunday but most often I use them as an hor d’oeuvre. Maybe something like…

ripe figs
olive oil
salt and pepper
good ricotta
toasted almonds (Marconas are great but pricey)
honey
lemon juice

Preheat broiler on high. Cut figs in half and lay on and oiled sheet pan. Drizzle with a bit of oil and season with salt. Broil on top rack until just barely browned but totally heated through. Too much cooking will leave you with a puddle of fig. If that happens you can puree and use as a fig filling or topping.
Plate the warm figs and top with a bit of everything. A little pepper, a nubbin’ of ricotta, an almond, and a drizzle of honey and lemon juice…dee-lish.
Also feel free to wrap up all this goodness into a slice cured meat, like prosciutto.

Here is what I played around with at my buddies house the other night.  These pics show some lack of refinement, but I had a few handicaps I was dealing with…

lil monster

My goal was to make a savory fig lollipop. I succeeded in all aspects of the dish except I didn’t quite have the appropriate cut of lamb I was envisioning.

But, jeebus was it delicious.

Grilled fig and lamb “lollipop” with almonds and red wine/lamb reduction. 
The last pic also shows a caramelized fig topped shark fillet with potato pave and the same sauce; ridiculously good as well. Both plates also had grilled cauliflower. FYI…grilled or broiled cauliflower IZ THA BOMB! I knew this dish was gonna be good…but not THAT good. Did I mention it was good?

Of all the “common” fruits, figs are the highest in overall mineral content and are an excellent source of fiber. Raw figs also contain a bunch of phenols, which are powerful cancer fighting antioxidants.

Figs have a ton of other health benefits, and if they were imported from South America or the Himalayas, they would be marketed as a “super food.” But they aren’t…which is good for our pocket book as they can already be a little pricey.
You can buy dried figs at most places but Mediterranean markets will have the best price.

If you live in a climate that doesn’t get too cold, you might have a friend or neighbor that has a tree. If you do; then I’m sure they would be more then happy to have you pick some. Fig trees can get messy since birds and bugs love ’em; I mean, why wouldn’t they? Along with it’s nutrient density comes a ton of fructose. Natural sugar is a good thing; it gives you energy with no insulin spike.

A ripe fig is soft and squishy; if it’s cracked, no worries, that just means it needs to be eaten.

So this season; have some fun cooking figgy foods with family, and friends.

Lemon Vodka Update

Day 1

Our plan was to let the peels sit for several days, but after 24 hours it tasted delicious. Nice refreshing lemon flavor and a nice yellow color to boot.
But…since we had a plan, we pushed on for another 24 hours and let it sit.
What we ended up with was an awesome all purpose cleaner, degreaser, lemon oil solvent. Oh bugger.
It was really bright yellow and you could see the oil separate from the vodka.
So, like the genius I am, we combined the beautiful product that sat for one day with the pledge smelling solvent of the second day and made a whole gallon of mediocre/ohmygodthatsnasty lemon vodka.
We’ve had an interesting time making it into cocktails; it’s like back room prohibition era swill.  It did leave the counters clean when I wiped it up after a spill; plus it smelled like pledge so everything smelled clean and free of dust. It did however taste pretty good in a Bloody Mary and yes, we will be doing this again, now that we know the proper timeline.
Happy Summer

Life Gave Us Lemons

We have lots of lemons as you can see…they come from our lemon tree.
The harvest becomes especially large when my wife gets jiggy with the tree trimmer. We’re left with a big ol’ pile, more than we’ll use for simple cooking and cleaning needs. Also, we don’t love the constant sugar influx that all the lemonade brings. Well, back to all those lemons…what to do, what to do?

We thought it’d be fun to make limonocello, like the kind my mom brought back from Italy. But, we don’t love our liquor sugary, so we went with a simple answer…lemon vodka.

Our method was highly scientific, involving the strenuous task of peeling 10 lemons and adding it to vodka…hope you were able to follow all of that. After we added the rinds we let it soak for a day. Plenty of lemon flavor after one day, but we’ll let the other handle go a couple more. My guess is it’ll get more lemony…gigitty.
 
If it’s too lemony, I’ll take it upon myself to finish the handle alone; thereby saving those I know and love from unnecessary pucker.
 
Very Complicated Recipe
  • Wash some lemons.
  • Peel the rind off, avoiding getting any white pith.
zest, rind or peel
  • Take out some vodka from the bottles and drink that vodka so you have room for the lemon peels. Add lemon peels. Refrigerate for a day, then drink some more vodka.
Soon to be lemon vodka

Sangria Is Refreshing

Sangria is dangerous…sneaky.
Tastes like juice but is mostly wine with a bit of brandy. I personally love sneaky drinks. I don’t always love to drink them (usually too sweet), but I love serving them. People who are not as likely to imbibe are much more apt to have a glass of fruit ladened Sangria then a cocktail or beer. This means your buzz to guest ratio increases; which means more smiles and laughter, which is usually the point of most gatherings.Spanish in origin and translated to “The Color of Blood”, its typical components are red wine, fruit, and brandy; with many recipes adding fruit juice, soda or soda water.However, white wine can also be used as the base and results are just as refreshing and delicious; with a lighter, brighter, summerier feel. Yes summerier…I looked it up. A couple months ago while teaching a cooking class a nice young lady forwarded me this white Sangria recipe. I still haven’t made it but a friend of mine did, and luckily she gave us a bunch. We drank the crap out of it and fought over the last glass…I won. It was summer in a glass and didn’t get old. I even added some of my lemon vodka to give it…more.
Lemongrass Pineapple Sangria
Serves 1-8-

4 bottles of white wine
-1 C of sugar
-4 stalks of lemongrass
-3 oz of ginger
-10 each kaffir lime leaves (if you can’t find these, just use lime peel)
-2 pineapples (cut off the skin)
-2 cara cara oranges cut in half (you can use regular oranges if you can’t locate these)
-2 sticks of cinnamon
-10 each cloves
Pour the wine in a large container that will fit in your refrigerator. Whisk in the sugar and place all of the aromatics in the container as well. Slice the ginger lengthwise and pound the lemongrass in order to release the natural oils. Let sit in the refrigerator for 2 days, strain off the aromatics, serve over ice with a splash of 7up. Recipe Courtesy of Chef Jonathan Bautista
The earthy flavors of the clove and cinnamon add a softness to the crisp asian quality of the orange, lemongrass, and ginger. If you can’t find the lime leaves at your local Asian grocer, use lime peel.We just went to a 30th birthday where there was a ginormous bowl of tasty sangria keepin’ tha ladiez happy.Although I was experimenting with every other drink that night, I did get to taste the Sangria… and it was great. The only difference is, it wasn’t really Sangria, or was it?Big Kahuna and Sierra mist at a 2 to 1 ratio was all that was needed to please the crowd. Sure there was some fruit mixed in, but that was just for show. For the un-initiated, Big Kahuna is Fresh and Easy’s Charles Shaw, and Sierra mist is their Sprite.So, it’s up to you. You can create smiles with Sprite and cheap wine, or go all out with a bunch of ingredients. Just put it over ice and turn the music up.Now get off the computer and go get your summer drank on.

Steak Is Good

To those of you that think cooking a juicy, flavorful, well seasoned, highly delicious steak is easy…you’re right.

Time and time again I get asked; “what do you put on your steak?” The answer is always the same…kosher salt and fresh, coarsely ground pepper. That doesn’t mean that other seasonings are bad or that you can’t use sea salt. I find salt and pepper to be the most complimentary additives to a good quality steak.

I don’t cook a steak at home often enough to need added interest from spice rubs and marinades. I just want all my taste buds focused on the gloriousness that is high quality beef fat.

Since the fat is what turns on the drool faucet, my favorite cuts are ribeye (when price is no option), and skirt. Skirt has so much marbling that when cooked to well done, it’s still moist and Mcfatty delicious.

I’m also not a fan of rare steaks. With my love of fat being the focus, I need the fat to heat and render through the steak, which takes more time then rare will allow.

First, some basic guidelines:

  • Heavily marbled steaks or steaks where fat is coveted, should be cooked to the medium side of medium rare or the rare side of medium, (as explained earlier).
  • If you are cooking a lean steak like flank, top round, filet and flat iron; ensure that it’s not cooked past medium.
  • Cooking surface should be hot. Hotter then most of you might be used to, or comfortable with.
  • Dense and/or heavy cooking surfaces are best.
  • If you want to season ahead of time, make sure its a couple hours ahead or right before.
  • Cooking steak is better if one hand is occupied by a glass of wine or a good beer.
  • If cooking indoors, a decent vent hood is a must, or, get ready to fan your fire alarm.
  • Flipping a steak prematurely is immature
  • Flipping and rotating are not the same thing
  • Gray is not the same as browned, and cooked is not the same as browned
  • Browned means caramelized, caramelized means ohm, nom, nom.
  • Gray = steamed. Steamed steak = :-(
  • If major flare ups occur, a spray bottle is nice to have on hand…in a pinch (serious emergency), you can thumb spray a shaken beer.

I’ll discuss two preparations for cooking steak. Using an outdoor grill and using a saute pan. The pan method is faster and easier, but dirtier and void of charcoal or fire “flavor”.

GRILL:

For charcoal it’s really nice to have a chimney starter, Kingsford Original or Competition briquettes and “Weber paraffin wax fire starters” which can be found at home depot. Notice the specificity on the charcoal and the fire starters. Kingsford cooks and starts more evenly, while the the wax starters make lighting absolutely stupid simple. Sure you can use rolled up newspaper; but you usually need to do it twice and it creates alot of unneeded ash.

If a charcoal chimney is new to you, here are the steps–

Add charcoal to chimney, place and light a starter underneath. In about 15 minutes the billowing smoke will have dissipated and fire will be seen out the top of the chimney. Pour charcoal into grill, spread them out and cover with the grill grate to heat up. Once the grate is on, you’re at the same point as 7-10 minutes into preheating a gas grill.

Once grill grates are hot, brush with a wire brush, then oil the grates, brush again and oil again. The second time is to ensure a clean, oiled surface if you started with a gnarled grate. I use spay oil but if I’m out, I’ll oil a paper towel.

Blot the steaks with a paper towel to remove excess moisture, then season liberally with pepper and season heavily with enough salt so you’re questioning and remembering your last blood pressure reading. Alot of it gets lost in the process and animal fat loves salt,

so hook it up. Lightly oiling a steak before seasoning is necessary for lean cuts but not advised for fatty ones.

Place your seasoned steak on the hot grill surface. Depending on the power of your gas grill or the amount of charcoal used is what dictates cooking time, flare ups and how much you’ll have to mess with it. Cooking on the grill is fun and sometimes exciting, but like anything else, benefits from practice and familiarity. Remember to use your eyes and nose; your goal is to only think about one side of the steak at a time.

If your heat dictates you leave your steak alone and don’t “play” with it, (which cools down the grates and the steak), then don’t touch it. If you have good heat, the actual cooking process takes about 10 minutes.

The importance of high heat is so your steak browns before it cooks.  Meat is wet and dense, and if you don’t get a good early sear or crust on the steak, it will likely bleed out its moisture, then steam and seize. Seized, overcooked, gray meat ensures no friends coming over for future BBQ’s.

So, your steak is on the grill and it shouldn’t stick, if it is sticking, it’s not ready to touch and/or your surface is not hot enough…(another reason a hot surface is required).

Once the steak is easily lifted from the grill feel free to rotate it two or three times ovfer the next several minutes to achieve more even browning on the surface. After the steak looks browned and totally delicious, flip it.

At this point is where flare ups can really start occurring so have a spray bottle at the ready.

Continue cooking for the same amount of time as the first side or a few minutes less; always less with thinner cuts. Checking for doneness is something you’ll have to learn and doneness has to do with quite a few variables. Thickness, temperature of raw steak, temperature of fire, density of cooking surface, manipulation during cooking, blah blah blah.

Resting IS important and should not be overlooked. Place the steak on a plate (hot side up) and either lightly tent with foil or place in a warm area; I put mine in the microwave. Resting allows the hot moisture to settle down and find a home. Cutting too early lets the hot running moisture escape.

Gas or charcoal doesn’t really matter other then the differences in preparation of your grill.

PAN: When using a saute pan you need something heavy that can retain heat, not warp under extreme heat and have an oven proof handle.

I use cast iron, but most tri-ply pans will work. Just beware that grease spatter can be hard to clean on a nice pan.

Heat oven to 500 degrees and place your pan on high heat. Blot the steak dry of any excess moisture and season liberally with salt and pepper. Turn on your vent hood and wait for your pan to get raging hot. A little water flicked into the pan should show beads of water dancing around and not evaporating very quickly. The pan should be hot enough that the water beads are hovering, not rolling. After the water is gone, swirl a tablespoon of oil into the pan and add your steaks, only one or two.

Now don’t touch ’em. Let the steaks cook until a clear and distinct crust is achieved. Your allowed to peek so you can gauge the crusts development. Once it looks evenly browned and delicious, flip and throw the whole pan in the oven. Cook for another 5-10 minutes depending on your thickness, then remove from the oven and place on a plate with the side that was on the pan, now facing up.

Slicing:  Always cut against the grain. More important for some cuts then others but pay attention to the direction of the muscle fibers. Very easy to see on a flank steak, the idea is to shorten those long strands. If you see the fibers running up and down, cut side to side. If the fibers are running side to side, cut up or down. And remember that thin is always better and a sharp knife makes thin easy.

One last thing. I like to slice my guests steak for them for a few reasons.  I can cut it thinner and more efficiently on a cutting board with a big knife.  Also, I can toss the slices in any accumulated juices and, I don’t like people to fumble around their plate improperly cutting their meat.

Paella Is A Good Good Time

It’s not the saffron.

It’s not the succulent meat.

It’s not the fresh seafood.

It’s not the socarrat.

It’s the…

Paella is and can be alot of things, but much of it has nothing to do with how good it tastes.  The communality it demands between guests provides this surrendering force that relaxes everyone, and excites them at the same time.

I don’t mean to be so dramatic about it but with most great and memorable gatherings there is always a certain je ne say quoi.

Cooking a whole pig or goat can have a similar feeling; or a labor party when all your friends come over for a big yard project and afterwards you party into the night and revel in your accomplishment.

Effort I think is the key here, (I know I’ve gone down this path before).

Paella has this kind of magic; where everyone gets to tangibly feel a part of  an effort and a transformation.

There are three things involved that make a paella party fun and cool.  One is the pan, called a paellera; it’s what gives paella it’s name, which is a Spanish root word for pan.  Now I’ve made great paella on the stove top many times without this special pan, but if you want to have the experience I’m talking about, you’ve gotta get one.

Next is an outdoor fire.  Both words are important; outdoor, and fire.  Gatherings outdoors are great, but if everyone is communed around a fire pit, then the intrigue and anticipation for the dinner rises even higher.

Last is not the ingredients like you might think; but the common thread of all relaxing, fun social gatherings…booze.  I know, I know; I beat this horse to death sometimes, but it’s true!  Add a couple drinks to room full of silent people and BOOM!  Conversation.  As an added bonus–the combination of an outdoor fire and booze gets you a nice little peanut gallery that helps out with labor, un-needed tips and critiques.

Critics

Piled on top of all that, we’re finally to the pièce de résistance.  The ingredients are not the “third reason” because we are not in Spain and therefore have no traditional binding that limits us to which ingredients we use.  If anyone ever tells you your paella is not authentic because you didn’t have (insert unattainable ingredient here), tell them you canceled the party and there’s no reason to come over on Saturday.

Rice, saffron, a few veggies and meat are all you really need.  I like the complexity of using Spanish chorizo, chicken thighs and seafood.  Chorizo is spicy, earthy and full of wonderful fat and flavor, although probably the hardest ingredient to find.  If you can’t find the cured Spanish variety, don’t substitute with the soft Mexican chorizo.  Good butcher shops will usually carry it and I know Whole foods has it.  I like chicken for the fatty skin and it’s always my first step–browning and rendering the chicken skin provides your cooking fat for the rest of the dish.  Rabbit, and duck can also be used but it’s up to you.

After I remove the chicken I add the chorizo and veggies (sofrito).  Traditionally the sofrito cooks up to a paste but I tend stop before the veg looses it’s shape. Next is the rice–once again, tradition states not to use long grain rice, but if that’s what you decide to go with, no one will be the wiser unless they “know” paella.  I always use a medium or short grain rice, usually arborio.  It’s readily available at all supermarkets and has the physical make up we need.

Arborio and other short grain rices have an outer layer that melts its starch.  That starch (which so famously gives risotto its creaminess) is what helps form the socarrat.

The socarrat is the beautiful crust that forms on the bottom, adding textural variance and supreme richness.  When the rice toasts on the bottom of the pan the moisture inside the rice is replaced with the fats and spices– then fries crisp.  Ohm nom nom.

A Paella Recipe

1tsp saffron threads, dried or lightly toasted
7-8c water
2T olive oil
2lb chicken thighs with bone and skin
kosher salt and fresh pepper
2c sliced or diced Spanish chorizo
2c finely diced onions
1c finely diced bell peppers
1c diced tomato
3c arborio rice
2-3lb assorted seafood
1c blanched peas or green beans
3T minced parsley
1tsp minced lemon zest

Heat the water and saffron in a pot to steep; set aside.
Prepare your fire and set the pan. Once hot; season the chicken, swirl in the oil and place the chicken skin side down. Render the skin until browned and crisp, then flip. Move the chicken to the edge of the pan and add the chorizo and veggies. Stir and saute until soft or mushy. Add the rice and saute a bit to toast. Add the saffron water with a couple teaspoons of salt. Nestle the chicken into the rice and adjust the fire so it’s not at a raging boil. Cook for 10 minutes and start layering on the seafood with the slowest cooking fish on the bottom. Cook another 5 minutes and flip any fish on the top that is’nt getting hit with heat. If your rice is starting to finish but the fish still needs a little time, lightly tent with foil or parchment to help steam. When everything looks cooked, wait for a crackling sound on the bottom which means the rice is frying. Garnish with peas, parsley and lemon zest.

Fireside Cookery

Onions and peppers in chicken fat and olive oil.

Time to Eat!