Friday, December 13, 2013

Fluffy Sticky Marshmallow Pie!

I have a love/hate relationship with marshmallows.  While I adore marshmallow cream, Rice Krispie treats, and a good S'More, I can't just sit down and eat a marshmallow out of the bag.  Maybe it's the cornstarch they use to keep them all from sticking together, but my mouth just doesn't like them "naked" like that, so I've never put any thought into marshmallow dishes until recently.  My friend Cindy actually prefers naked marshmallows to almost any other treat!  So, when she successfully defended her dissertation recently and became "Dr. Cindy," I knew I'd have to jump into the kitchen with a bag (or two) of 'mallows in hand, to help her celebrate.

You will need:
  • A store bought graham cracker crust, or:
    • 10 Graham Crackers
    • 1/2 C. Shredded Coconut (lightly toasted) for sweetness (it's better than sugar)
    • 6 Tbsp Melted Butter
  • 1/2lb Large Marshmallows (That's 34 of them, by my scale)
  • 1/2 Cup Whole Milk
  • 1Tbsp Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • 1 1/2 Cups Whipping Cream
  • 1 oz. High Quality Dark Chocolate
  • Another 1 Cup Whipping Cream + 1/4 Cup sugar
  • Handful or two of mini-marshmallows
Optional "features:"
  • Colored mini-marshmallows
  • Rainbow Sprinkles
  • Mini chocolate chips
  • Toffee chips 
  • Oreo cookies instead of Graham Crackers
I'm more of a "Cast Iron and Meat" guy than I am a baker, so I generally use a store-bought pie crust whenever and wherever possible, however, I believe a homemade graham cracker crust is far superior to store bought crusts so... it's worth the effort to make your own.  Suck it up and get to it! 

Spread the coconut out in a non-stick pan and bring the heat up to medium.  Watch it carefully, and stir/toss it around the pan until the little coconut nibs start to turn a light brown.  Take them out of the heat immediately to cool.  Meanwhile, crush 10 whole graham crackers in a food processor (or put them in a stout plastic zip-top bag and have your kids crush them by hand; Kids have much more destructive power than a food processor).  Add the melted butter and your coconut to the cracker crumbs, in a bowl, and mix them together.  Spread it out in a pie pan and press it evenly around the bottom and sides.   Bake it for 10 minutes at 375, and set aside.

For the pie filling, put the whole milk, and the Eagle Brand SCM in a 4qt non-stick sauce pan and add the large marshmallows.  Stir continuously over Medium-high heat until it's all melted together.  Turn it out of the pan and into a bowl and set it aside to cool to room temperature (at least 30 minutes).

Fully Fluffed
Now, pour 1 and 1/2C of whipping cream into a bowl and beat the crap out of it with your stand mixer (or electric beaters).  Do NOT add any sugar or vanilla, this is not "Whipped cream" we're making, it's a base to fold the mallow-batter into!   Beat the cream into stiff peaks, being careful not to beat the cream until it turns into butter.  When you have good stiff peaks, gently fold the cream into the cooled mallow mixture.  Use a big spatula and carefully fold it together.  Don't beat it or stir too vigorously or you'll take the bubbles out and your pie won't be as "Fully Fluffed!"  Think light and airy thoughts while you fold, and don't allow your "inner mixer" to take over and start stirring!  The fluffier the better.

Once the two mixtures have been folded together, shred your 1oz of chocolate into fine shavings and gently mix it into the marshmallow cream.  Pour the mix into your pie shell!

Finally, pour your last 1c of whipping cream and sugar together into your mixing bowl and whip up a traditional batch of whipped cream.  Spread this whipped cream over the top of your pie, like frosting.  Let some peaks pop up here and there for appearances.  Finally, sprinkle the mini-marshmallows over the top of the pie, as abundantly or as sparsely as you feel is necessary.  Place the finished pie in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 hours to set.  You can leave it in your chill-box overnight if you like, with no loss of quality.  Embellish this pie with rainbow colored sprinkles if you like (I couldn't bring myself to look for sprinkles... having lost enough testosterone already, making this silly pie, I couldn't spare anymore to unicorns, sprinkles, or colored marshmallows), or with chocolate chips or anything you might like with marshmallows. 

It's not as sticky as you might think, and it's not too sweet, either.  It goes very well with a good Champagne, according to Dr. Cindy...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Beef Bourguignon... No More Excuses!!

Everyone talks about Beef Bourguignon like it's the "Holy Grail" of recipes.  Most folks take a glance at the recipe and declare it to be, "Not worth the trouble for a simple beef stew" but I assure you... it's well worth the trouble, and then some!  Beef Stew is similar to Beef Bourguignon in the same way that the banquet room at your local American Legion Hall is "similar to" the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria.

Note the Subtle Difference Between the Banquet Halls
To make the best "beef stew" that you, or anyone you've ever served have ever tasted, you'll need to crack your knuckles and jump into a deeply flavored, diversely textured, decadently seasoned Beef Bourguignon!

You will need:
  • 1 "Strong Blurp" of extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2lb of thickly sliced bacon, chopped into smaller chunks or bits
  • 3lbs of Chuck Roast, cut into 1" cubes
  • Salt/Pepper
  • 1+ pound of FRESH carrots (not the "carrot nibblers" that you put in your kid's lunch pack), washed, peeled, and thickly cut on a bias
  • 2 Small Red Onions, diced
  • 4 Cloves of Fresh Garlic, mashed and chopped
  • 1/2 cup Quality Bourbon
  • 1 Entire Bottle of excellent Pinot Noir
  • 1 or 2 cups of Beef Stock (or Consume')
  • 1/2 Small Can of Tomato Paste
  • 1/2 Stick of Butter
  • 3 Tbsp of Bread Flour
  • 1.5lbs of whole Pearl Onions (blanched and peeled)
  • 1lb of your favorite woodland mushrooms, thickly sliced
Before we get started, click the bowl of Beef Bourguignon shown here (from my kitchen) and look at the full sized image.  This dish is all about balance.  Trust me when I tell you that there is just the right amount of everything in this dish.  If  you start substituting, things can/will go downhill in a hurry and I think that's where people go wrong.  If you don't have a good Pinot, don't just toss in a bottle of Sutter Home White Zinfandel or (gag) a Rose'!  If you don't have the time to blanch and peel a bunch of pearl onions, then wait until you do.  I promise, you'll keep the first bite of this concoction in your mouth for a long time as your brain explodes trying to savor all of the different flavors here, and they work together like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so... to begin:

Preheat your oven to 250 degrees (yes, TWO hundred fifty).

For this recipe, it will be well worth your time to chop/dice/prep everything ahead of time and to keep it organized. In other words, put your best Mise en Place skills to work here!

Get your big Dutch Oven out and put it on the stove.  Crank the heat to Medium High and pour in a couple of Tbsp of good Olive Oil.  Enough to just cover the bottom... now add your bacon and cook/stir it for about 20-30 minutes to render some bacon fat.  MMmmmmm, bacon fat!  Now, carefully take out the bacon, leaving as much fat in the pan that you can.  Keep the bacon safe in a separate bowl (you honestly didn't think I'd have you toss it out, did you?).

Open the Pinot Noir, to let it breath, and pour yourself a small glass.  Savor this glass because the entire contents of the rest of the bottle will ultimately go into the dish (more on this, later).

Season your Beef Chuck cubes, and add just enough of them to cover the bottom of your hot dutch oven.  Roll them around in the bacon fat until they're brown on all sides, then carefully remove them to the same safe-house where you stashed your bacon.  Repeat this until all of the beef is browned on the outside.

By now, there should be some smoky bits of bacon and beef stuck to the bottom of the pot; no problem!  Dump in your carrots and red onions and stir them together to cook and to add flavor to the fond ("Fond" means "bottom" in French, and refers to the sticky bits at the bottom of the pan).  Let them cook, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes or so.  Add the garlic and stir it in toward the end so it doesn't burn.  Now; take hold of your Bourbon Whiskey.  Take a sip of the Whiskey, to fortify yourself for two things:
  1. You're about to make fire.
  2. You're about to pour an entire bottle of Pinot Noir into what is essentially a "Beef Stew" and you don't want to be caught crying about it!
Pour the Bourbon into the pot and stir.  Be careful,  because the alcoholic vapor may catch fire!  No big deal, just douse the flames with the lid from your Dutch Oven.  Do not skip the alcohol because there are gobs of "alcohol soluble" flavors here (particularly in the onions) and you'll lose a lot of flavor depth if you do.  Stir the Bourbon around to de-glaze the pot, and let it bubble for awhile until the alcohol has done it's work and has mostly evaporated from the pot.

Dump all of the beef and bacon back into the pot and give it a good stir.  Gird your loins and pour the entire remaining contents of your Pinot Noir into the pot.  Do it.  Don't argue, don't whine, and don't make excuses, just do it.  Julia Child would be proud!  Take your beef stock and pour in just enough to barely almost cover the tip-tops of the beef cubes.  Stir in the tomato paste and bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Once you have it simmering, put the lid on and place the entire Dutch Oven into your bigger oven for at least 2.5 to 3 hours.  Great things will happen in there.

When you have about 20 minutes to go, melt 2 Tbsp of the butter in a saucepan and slowly saute the mushrooms over Medium to Medium High heat.  Let them cook down for 20 minutes or so.  With 5 minutes remaining, melt the last two Tbsp of butter stir it together with the flour in a separate pan or microwave safe bowl.  Heat and stir them together until they're fully combined into a roux.  A roux like this is, hands down, the best way to thicken a dish or gravy!

Pull the Bourgy out of the oven and remove the lid.  It will be hot and it will still be simmering!  Stir in your roux, then stir in the mushrooms.  Add your Pearl Onions (you thought I forgot about those, didn't you)!  Bring the entire stew to a boil (again), then reduce to simmer for another 30 minutes or so, and stir it occasionally.

Serve it up in a nice ceramic bowl with a hunk of sourdough bread and a glass of good red table wine.  Personally, I like to go off by myself somewhere to eat this, in front of the fireplace with my fuzzy slippers on, the lights low, and some Mozart playing subtly in the background.  Every bite of this dish is one to be savored, and when you try it, you'll know why you spent 5 hours dealing with it earlier in the day!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Time for Pie!!

Ahhh, pie.  Is there anything more amazing than your favorite pie?  Americans have gone absolutely crazy, inventing ridiculous designer pies for all sorts of occasions.  I tend to enjoy the classic pies, Apple, Blueberry, etc, but once in awhile, a modern designer pie grabs my attention and I think, "Now, THAT sounds delicious!"

With that being said, I'll offer two different Southern pies for your consideration.  They're both relatively simple to bake and I think you'll enjoy them.  The first is a classic, "Sweet Potato Pie," and the second is a more modern designer, "Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie."

Sweet Potato Pie
Bourbon Chocolate Pecan

A quick word about pie crust; While I believe that a properly homemade pie crust is superior in flakyness, tenderness, and appearance, I do not believe that it is superior enough to go through the tedious process of creating one from scratch.  In my own personal blind taste tests, I pick the homemade crust every time, but I'm simply not prepared to invest the time and effort to "cube cold butter" and to "rest the dough in the refrigerator," etc.  These two recipes call for "Frozen 9-inch deep dish pie crusts" and I believe the filling is so fantastic, that nobody (except for perhaps your Grandmother) will mention your lack of pie crust effort.

Let's start with the Sweet Potato Pie!

You will need:
  • 20 ounces (1.25lbs) of peeled sweet potatoes (cubed)
  • 1 1/4 cups vanilla yogurt (or plain yogurt, if you prefer a "tangy" pie)
  • 3/4 Cup packed, dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon of FRESH GROUND nutmeg
  • 5 egg yolks
  • Pinch Salt
  • 1 Cup chopped pecans
  • 1 tablespoon black strap molasses

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and get your frozen pie crust out of the freezer.  Let the pie crust thaw and rest on the counter for 30 minutes or so.  Place your sweet potato cubes into a steamer basket and steam them over boiling water for about 20 minutes or until they are fork tender.  I prefer this to boiling because I don't want the potatoes to pick up any extra water or moisture to bring to the pie.  Once they are nice and soft after a good steaming, mash them up with a potato masher.  They'll be super hot, so don't add the eggs yet!

Go ahead and add 1/4 cup of the pecans, the yogurt, dark brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt to the potatoes in a bowl, and turn on your stand mixer.  If your mixer has a paddle attachment, that's the one you want.  Beat it until it's nice and smooth and not emitting any steam any more.  Finally, add the yolks and beat them in, until the mixture is a beautiful orange batter (with a few pecan lumps).

Pour it into your crust, and place the pie onto a cookie sheet (in case it bubbles over).  Top the pie with the remaining pecans, and then drizzle the molasses over the top.  Bake the pie for at least 50 minutes, I let her go for about 55 and to an internal temperature of about 175 degrees.  Take it out and let it "set up" and cool for another hour or so.  I think this pie beats pumpkin pie, hands down, every time!

For the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan pie, you will need:
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 1 Cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 Cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 Cup dark corn syrup
  • 1/4 Cup bourbon
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoon bread flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 Cups Pecan Halves, divided
  • 3/4 Cup dark chocolate baking chips, divided

A word of caution about this particular recipe... Pecan pies are notorious for their ability to look perfectly set and awesome on the outside, while staying unset and gooey on the inside.  You'll notice the small amount of flour and the extra egg yolk to bring some protein to the mix that should help solve this problem.  In any case, you'll want to pay particularly close attention to the quantity of the ingredients here, do not use more or less than what is described, and be sure to bake it the full amount of time.

Preheat your oven to 350, and take the frozen pie crust out of the freezer to thaw.  Spray some "Pam" inside of your measuring cup, so the syrup will pour out quickly and easily.  Measure exactly 1/2 cup of dark syrup and 1/2 cup of light syrup into your mixing bowl.  Turn on your mixer and get the party started... While the mixer is turning and burning, add the bourbon, and the dark brown sugar.  Drink a shot of the Bourbon, you know, for... "fortification and courage."  Sprinkle in the flour.  Add the eggs and extra yolk.  Pour in the butter and a pinch of salt.  Turn off the mixer and use a silicon spatula to mix in 1/2 of the pecans and chocolate chips.

Pour the mix into the pie crust and then sprinkle or decorate the top with the remaining pecans and chocolate chips.  Place the pie onto a cookie sheet in case it boils over, and then pop it into the oven for 55 minutes to an hour.  Remove the pie and let it set up for another hour or so.  Here's my before and after pics of the Chocolate Bourbon Pecan pie:

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Grilled Pork Loin with Cranberry Chutney Stuffing

You've seen those giant Pork Loins in the grocery store, right?  They sure do make some awesome boneless pork chops if you take them home and cut them up, but have you ever considered roasting one, whole?  On the Grill??  Stuffed with a lovely cranberry chutney!?!?!  It's easier than you might think!  One word of note, it could take as much as three days to cook this, so read the recipe first and plan accordingly... Your patience will be well-rewarded!

You will need:
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 thick slices bacon, cut into "tiny bit-sized" portions
  • 1 small red onion, finely diced
  • 2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and finely diced
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup Bourbon
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 1 (4 or 5-pound) boneless pork loin
  • Non-stick aluminum foil
Make the chutney first, because you're going to freeze it (I know, how exciting is that?).  Start by re-hydrating the cranberries in the Bourbon.  Mix them together and let them sit and "do their thing" for at least 4 hours (better, overnight). Then, coat a large saute pan with a bit of Olive Oil and dump in the bacon.  Bring the pan to Medium-High heat and render out the bacon fat while crisping up the bacon bits.  When the bacon is crispy, add the onions. Cook the onions until they are soft and translucent, then add the cranberries (Bourbon and all).  Be careful adding the berries,
the alcohol may flame up... just shout, "Flambe!" and let it burn out, or cover the pan with a lid.  Add the rosemary (things should start to smell really terrific right about now), stir it in and let it cook for a minute or two, then add the apples.  Cook the apples, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool.  Measure the length of your pork loin (mine was about 20").  Tear off a strip of non-stick aluminum foil that is at least as long as your pork.  Pour the cool chutney into the foil and roll it into a tight "log." My chutney log was about 22" long and about 1.5" in diameter.  Don't let your log get too thick.  It's better to have a thinner log and some leftover Chutney, then to try to cram it all into a pork loin that isn't long enough to accommodate the lot.  Tighten both ends of the log and put it into the freezer overnight, to freeze solid.  Trust me, this is going to make things much easier when it's time to stuff the pork loin.

On the blessed day of consumption, pull your pork loin out of its packaging and make a hole in the center, for the stuffing.  This is the trickiest part of the whole darned procedure.  The hole needs to be able to accommodate the frozen chutney stick, so be "generous" with the knife. If your frozen Chutney stick is "two fingers" thick, then jam to fingers into your pork hole and make sure there is plenty of room in there... You may need to cut a portion out of the middle.  Make sure you come in from both sides of the pork loin and that the hole goes all the way through.

I'm doing my level best not to sound "dirty," so get your mind out of the gutter, people!

Now, unwrap your Chutney stick and lube it up with some olive oil.  Gently, but forcefully, twist and push the chutney into the pork's new cavity.  Work quickly, as the Chutney won't stay frozen forever!  Don't be afraid to pull the stick out and work the hole some more with a bigger knife.  Eventually, it will go in, I promise!  If you get it about half-way in, you can use your palm to firmly pound it the rest of the way home.  When you're finished, the pork loin will sit up, more round and firm, and you'll have a lovely Chutney filled center in the pork.

Season the top of the pork loin with your favorite dry rub, then wrap it tightly in plastic cling-wrap.  Let it sit, quietly, in the corner for awhile; after all, it's been through quite an ordeal... The meat needs time to adjust to it's new filling, and the Chutney needs to thaw before the whole ensemble needs to be moved to the grill.

When it's time to grill, get your coals going in the back of the grill space.  You're going to grill the pork loin over indirect heat, using some foil as a "heat shield" until the internal temperature of the pork reaches 135 degrees.  Be sure the tip of your temperature probe is NOT resting in the Chutney!  With the lid to your grill covered, you're shooting for a temperature of 375 degrees or so.  Note, the picture shows the pork nestled in a heat shield to keep it from getting too brown on the charcoal side.  Watch the pork's temperature during the cook, it won't take long; maybe 30-45 minutes or so.

Slice thinly and serve with a side dish of your choosing.  This is such a "Fall" dish, I suggest butternut squash, or roasted sweet potatoes.  Please disregard the hotdogs in the picture, they were for some kids who were over for dinner with their parents that night!  No adult in their right mind would want hotdogs when there's freshly grilled Cranberry Chutney stuffed Pork loin on the table...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Of Mussels and Marinara...

"Comfort food."  Those two words illicit all sorts of marvelous images for different people.  Comfort food can be as complex as a casserole full of Lobster Mac-n-cheese, or as simple as a bowl of chicken soup.  For Italians, most comfort food starts with a good Marinara sauce.  One of my favorite Italian comfort foods is "Mussels Fra Diavolo," or Mussels in a spicy red sauce!  A good marinara sauce should balance the acidic tartness of tomatoes with the sweetness of diced carrots and onions.  Building on the sauce, any spicy heat that is added should help complement something subtle, like the lusty faint aroma of the ocean that you get from fresh Mussel liquor... :)

You will need:

The Best Red Sauce Ever:
  • 2 big cans (36oz) whole tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup good olive oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 entire head of garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 3/4lb of sweet onions (1 large onion) diced
  • 1/2lb carrots finely diced
  • 1.5 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 6oz can tomato paste
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
 Ingredients to Turn the Best Red Sauce into the Best Mussel Dish Ever:
  • 6 Cloves crushed garlic
  • 2-3 Teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 Dried Chipotle Peppers, cut in half or fourths
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 Cups of the Best Red Sauce Ever
  • 3lbs Medium Sized Mussels, scrubbed, and de-bearded 
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
This red sauce is a great building block to making all sorts of things. Personally, I think it's almost too good to just ladle over pasta, it should be sopped up and eaten with some great bread, and your plate should be shiny clean when you're done!  To get the most out of the sauce, make sure you extract as much sugar out of the onions and carrots as you can; don't be afraid to brown the heck out of them!  Break out your biggest pot or dutch-oven and be prepared to store the bulk of the sauce in stainless plastic-ware or mason jars.

Sauce first!  Keep the Mussels on ice.  Seriously, as soon as you buy your Mussels, get them into a crushed ice bath and store them in your refrigerator.  You want to make sure you discard any that are already open, as they're dead and they'll just stink up the works.  Look for Mussels that are heavy for their size and that are sealed as tightly as little black rocks. 

Now, cook the sauce!  Dump the cans of tomatoes into a clean bowl, wash your hands and crush the bowl of tomatoes into a bowl of tomato mush!  This is a great job for the kids, if you can convince them NOT to make a mess!  In your big pot, heat the oil over medium high heat until it's good and hot, then add the onions and carrots.  Stir them together, then add the garlic and bay leaves.  Cook and stir until they're well caramelized and nice and brown (15 minutes or so).  Add the tomatoes, their juice, 1.5 cups of hot water, the tomato paste, oregano, salt & pepper.  Stir some more and let it bubble and simmer until it reduces by a couple of inches.

Keep two cups of the sauce for your Mussels and store the rest in an airtight plastic container (or mason jars).

Let's cook the Mussels!  With 2 cups of your new sauce in your big pot, bring it to a nice simmering bubble and add the additional Garlic, White Wine, Chipotle Peppers, and Red Pepper Flakes.  Simmer this mixture, just below a boil, for about 20 minutes.  This will rehydrate the Chipotles and allow the Wine to break out some alcohol soluble flavors from the rest of the dish.

Moments before serving time, drain your Mussels and add them to the 2 cups of sauce you have in your pot!

Let them settle into the sauce with it boiling and bubbling around them.  Replace the lid and leave the Mussels alone for about 5 minutes.  Take the lid away and stir everything together for another 3 or 4 minutes.  The Mussels will be done when they're fully opened and a little bit firm.  This should take less than 10 minutes of total cooking time.

Remove from the heat, garnish with the Parsley, and serve!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Grilled Salmon, YUM!

Grilled Salmon is one of things that restaurants have figured out, but that most people fail miserably at when they try it at home.  This is completely understandable.  After all, raw Salmon is a fragile and delicate thing, and grills are hot and mean and when the two of them get together, the result is often a broken mushy mess of burnt salmon, stuck to the grill grates to be burned to a crisp as the charcoal eventually fades.  Nobody wants that...

To grill Salmon properly, keeping the delicate texture together while infusing some sweetness, some spicy heat, and some aromatic citrus, is way easier than you think!

You will need:
  • 1 or 2 full SKIN-ON whole filets of Salmon
  • Non-Stick Aluminum Foil
  • 1 Lime
  • Olive Oil
  • Salmon Rub, Equal amounts of the following:
    • Fresh Chili Powder
    • Dark Brown Sugar
    • Fresh Ground Pepper
    • Kosher Salt
    • Garlic Powder
  • Chopped Cilantro 

First, some questions.  Question 1, "Is it that important to buy skin-on Salmon for grilling?"  Yes.  The skin is added protection against moisture loss and heat reflection.  You won't eat the skin, but it will serve an important purpose.  Question 2, "Non-stick foil?  Are you kidding me with this?"  No.  Non-stick aluminum foil is a marvelous invention, especially for grilling.  Always have some on hand, but know that it's more expensive than regular foil so you probably won't want to use it to replace all of your aluminum foil needs.

Roll out some non-stick foil onto a cutting board.  Lay your Salmon filets, skin side down, onto the non-stick foil.  Drizzle some Olive oil all over the top of the fish and spread it evenly around with your fingers.  Squeeze the juice from 1/2 of your lime onto the fish also, worth this around as evenly as you can.  Now, generously shake your new Salmon rub all over the fish.  Don't get too crazy, but don't be shy either.  Shake it on like you would shake on a liberal application of Parmesan cheese to a big plate of spaghetti.  Now, leave the fish alone on the counter to rest, while you get the fire ready.

Start a bunch of charcoal, then spread them in a big oval around the edges of your grill.  You'll be placing the fish on the grates over the middle, the idea being to make sure the Salmon isn't sitting directly over some super hot charcoal.  The foil and the skin will deflect most direct heat, but you don't want some of your fish to be over-cooked while the rest is perfectly done, so try to spread the charcoal to the back, or the front and/or sides of the grill.  Close the lid and let the grill pre-heat a bit.

The fun part begins...

You need to slide the foil off of your cutting board, and onto your grill (with the Salmon still on, of course).  The interesting part of this exercise is, the Salmon is slippery, and so is the non-stick foil, and you've added olive oil to the equation so... don't let it all slide onto the grill or it will all stick and gum together and you'll go hungry.  Your grill will be hot, but you should be able to slide the foil onto the surface, and then quickly slide it to position it so the fish is in the "middle" of the fire ring below.  Now, close the lid and let it "cook" in your new charcoal oven for ten or fifteen minutes before taking it's temperature.

A Word about Temperature and Doneness...

Our Food and Drug Administration says that Salmon is "Safe" at 145 degrees.  I agree, it's certainly safe at that temperature, but it's also dry, rubbery, and not something I'd be proud to serve.  If you purchase quality salmon from a reputable source, and you are grilling it within 24 hours of it's purchase, having kept it at a safe cold temperature prior to the cooking process, then 130-135 degrees is the perfect temperature for serving grilled Salmon.  Use a probe and take it's temperature in the thickest part of the filet.  If you want to use the whole filet for presentation, it should slide right off the non-stick foil and onto a platter.  When you cut the Salmon into portions, the portions of fish should slide right off the skin and onto your serving utensil!

Slice the other 1/2 of the lime for individual serving, and garnish the top of the Salmon with fresh chopped Cilantro and serve!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Hanger" Steak? YES! Hanger Steak!!

It is my opinion that the humble Hanger Steak is probably the most flavorful piece of beef that you can get out of a heifer, steer, or cow.  The problem is, you can rarely find them. There are good reasons for this, and once you understand the secrets of a good Hanger Steak, you'll want to find one.  Now!  Start asking your butcher, your grocer, your internet meat provider, etc, it may take some time, but your efforts will be very well rewarded!

Facts about Hangers:
  1. It is also called, "The Butcher's Cut" because traditionally, butchers would keep this tender and flavorful prize for themselves, rather than offer it for sale.
  2. There is only one "V-Shaped" twin-muscled Hanger Steak per cow.
  3. It is a twin set of muscles, connected in the middle by a thick and inedible membrane.
  4. Each half of a good Hanger weighs between 1.0 and 1.5lbs.
  5. Hanger steaks are "fragile" and must be cooked very quickly over high heat to an internal temperature of 125 degrees (Medium Rare).  If you cook them any longer, they'll become extremely tough.
  6. Hanger steaks lend themselves very well to a good marinade.
  7. Anatomically, this muscle "hangs" from the diaphragm of the cow, and helps with expansion/contraction as the animal breathes.
  8. Other names for Hanger Steaks include:  Bistro Steak, Arrachera, Fajitas Arracheras, French Skirt, Onglet, Lombatello, and Solomillo de Pulmon!
With a little extra prep time, you can cook up some beef medallions that rival the taste of a hearty Ribey or New York Strip, and that rival the cost of ordinary hamburger.  Scour your local meat providers for a Hanger Steak (or two) and grab a sharp trim or boning knife.  Your guests will have no idea how spoiled they're about to become!

You Will Need:

  • Two full Hanger Steaks (5-7lbs total weight)
  • Kosher Salt

For the Marinade:
  • 2 Tbsp Yellow Mustard
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • 3 Tbsp Fresh Garlic (peeled, smashed, and minced)
  • Juice of 1 Lemon
  • Juice of 1 Lime
  • 1 Tsp of Chili Powder
  • 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
Whisk the marinade briskly in a small glass bowl until it all comes together.  Set it aside in the refrigerator.  Now, it's time to trim your Hangers.

Hanger steaks are cheap and there's a very good reason for this.  A lot of trimming and preparation is required for this cut of meat and most shops will leave that up to you.  No problem, it's easy!  Start with the first cut, right down the middle of the Hanger Steak, to separate the twins.  Follow the white line of a tough rubbery membrane.  It's easy to find because the grain of the muscle runs to the middle along this line (see the picture here on the left).  If you bought two Hangers, you'll end up with four long tubular steaks.

Now that you have your four steaks, you'll want to trim any excess silver-skin, membrane or fat away from the muscle.  Simply slide your knife under the layer of unwanted tissue, and "shave" it off of the meat.  You may need to hold one end tight, while you slide your knife to the other end to shave off the silver-skin while keeping as much red meat in tact as possible.  Keep your knife hand clean and dry, and use your other hand to handle and position the meat.  Greasy hands and sharp knifes do NOT a marriage make!

When you're finished, you should have four nice long portions of Hanger Steak!  Notice that they're extremely well marbled, and they're quite a bit darker in color than most cuts of red meat.  This will all translate into an impressive richness of flavor!  You may also notice that there is quite a bit of elasticity in these cuts.  Do what you can to keep them squished together, don't stretch them out!  They'll swell up a bit when they're on the grill and you want to retain those juices (and flavor)!  Season these beauties with a generous sprinkle of Kosher salt on both sides, then grab your marinade.

Let's talk about the marinade for a second.  Your brain might be thinking, "Ken is crazy, there is no way that mustard and red meat will go well together!"  Trust me.  Remember the Rib Recipe?  Remember how the heat from the grill transformed the mustard into an amazing crusty and sweet "bark" on the outside of the ribs?  The same thing will happen here, you will not taste any mustardy flavors... only a garlic citrus flavor with a sweet finish.  It's amazing!  Smear all sides of each Hanger loin with the marinade and park them, uncovered, in the refrigerator for a minimum of 4 hours.  Overnight is better.  Take them out and let them come up to room temperature while you get your grill ready.

Light up your charcoal (or pre-heat your propane... Honestly, have you not at least purchased a small, cheap, charcoal kettle grill yet?) and get the grill HOT HOT HOT!  Burn off any gunk from your last foray onto the grill and while it's hot, scrape it well and then brush it with canola oil.  Lay your Hangers across the hot part of the grill and watch for flare ups.  If a flame up occurs, roll the meat out of the way or immediately close the lid to snuff out the flame.  Continue to roll and cook these marvels until your reliable "Instant Read" thermometer says, "125 degrees F."

Remove them from the grill and cover them with foil, and let them rest for 10 minutes.  Slice them into medallions for serving.  Take a good look at the picture on the right.  Do you see any yellow mustard?  No!  Do you see all of that juicy goodness?  That was AFTER a 15 minute rest!  These are so good, they're a bit like Filet Mignon medallions but with a little more "bite" to them, a lot more juice, and a ton more flavor. 

I promise you, once you've had a good Hanger Steak, you'll keep looking for them and you'll want to keep them all for yourself!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Prepping and Smoking "Melt in Your Mouth" Chicken

Some people are squeamish about butchering chicken.  Well, it's time to "Man-Up" and get your hands dirty because we're going to be butchering some chicken in this article.  Why?  Several reasons:
  1. It saves you money
  2. It gives you flexibility, do you need quarters?  halves? all 8 pieces?
  3. You'll have leftover parts to make Chicken Stock
  4. It gives you a sense of pride
  5. You'll learn something
  6. You'll have an excellent excuse to go out and spend some money on a good boning knife or two!
Honestly, wouldn't you want to be able to look at these two chickens on sale for $7 in the meat case at the grocery, and know that you have all the skills necessary to take them apart and smoke them into a deliciously moist meal for 8-10 people??

You Will Need:
  • At least one 4-5lb whole chicken
  • A good quality, sharp filet knife
  • Olive oil
  • Cutting board, paper towels, anti-bacterial soap, large mixing bowl
Dry Rub for the Chicken (enough for this recipe and to have some left over, because you can never have enough dry rub for chicken):
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup smoked paprika
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 4 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 4 tablespoons Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

To begin... Extract the birds from their packaging and rinse them in cold water, then pat them dry.  Place one of the birds onto your cutting board, belly down, and then wash your hands.  With your clean right hand (unless you're left handed, then you'll need to do everything backwards, like you usually do), pick up a pair of kitchen shears and tell yourself, "This is my scissor/knife hand.  It will not touch raw poultry or get wet or slimy.  It's sole duty for the next 15 minutes is to cut and handle knives and tools while the left hand does the messy work."

Using a strong pair of shears, snip out the backbone as shown here and save it for your Chicken Stock.  Things get a bit tough around the back of the rib cage, but you can do it!  Take heart, squeeze a bit harder, and carry on... past the crunching noises you'll hear.  With the backbone out, you can spread the bird open, exposing the keel bone.  Do not be "mousy" or tentative with this procedure!  Grab, pull, spank, spread, or manhandle that bird!

Your knife hand is still clean and dry, right?  Good!  Put the scissors in the sink and pick up a sharp boning knife.  The waxy looking bone in the middle is called the Keel bone.  It has to go.  Trouble is, it sticks to meat and it's a stubborn thing to remove so, start by using your knife to get some separation between it and the meat, then use the fingers of your left hand to "squinch" the meat away from it.
Once you've cleared the meat from the keel bone, you can use the knife to filet the ribs away from the breast meat easily. Pictured here to the left is the keel bone and other rib bones removed from the breast meat.  Keep it for stock, and take joy in the fact that you've now de-boned most of your bird!  If this approach is a bit too "hands on" for your taste, there is another method...
Method 2?  Simply take a cleaver or heavy chef's knife and whack a clean cut, straight through the middle of the keel bone.  This picture shows a clean cut, down the middle of the keel and breast plate.  The cleaver also cut the wish-bone cleanly in two.  This is a fast and easy way to halve the chicken, but your guests will have to deal with a few more bones.  You decide what's best.  Knife hand still clean and dry?  Excellent!
When I smoke chicken, I like to smoke quarters.  There are several reasons for this; a quarter of a large chicken is a great portion size, and you'll have an equal number of white meat portions (breast/wing) and dark meat portions (leg/thigh).  You can always easily cut these portions apart after the smoke if you want to.  Also, the larger portions seem to smoke better and cook more evenly than say, a large breast next to a small leg, etc.  There are no bones or connective tissue of any kind between the leg quarter and the breast quarter, so your knife should sing straight between them without issue.  Toss your portions into a large mixing bowl.

When you're finished butchering, it's important to stop and consider just where all of the germs from your raw poultry might be hiding.  If you've kept your knife hand clean, that's the one you'll want to use to turn on the water, grab some paper towels, etc.  Minimize the use of your "chicken hand" in order to curtail the further spread of what could be salmonella, etc.  Take this moment to wash everything with anti-bacterial soap, your knives, board, counter top, and finally, both of your hands.

FINALLY, it's time to consider cooking!  While your chicken is in the bowl, drizzle on about 1/4 cup of good olive oil and use your "chicken-hand" to turn the pieces over for even coating.  With your dry hand, grab the shaker of your dry rub and shake-shake-shake on a liberal coating of spice to the mix.  Continue to mix/turn the pieces over with your chicken-hand until everything has a good coat of oil and spices, then place them back onto your clean cutting board or pan so you can carry them to the grill.  Put the bowl into the sink with your dry hand so you can wash it later.

Start your fire, bring the cooking chamber up to 225 degrees.  I prefer a smoker or offset charcoal grill for this, but you could use an oven.  You could also use a propane grill (if you're too stubborn and/or cheap to spring for a real cooker) and just light one of the burners while keeping the chicken on the other side.  Watch the thermometer like a hawk and keep things just under 250.  Now, go back inside and wash your cutting board, the bowl, your sink, and your hands! 

When things get hot, lay your chicken out onto the grill.  Obviously the chicken you see here on the left has been on the smoker for awhile already!  Open a beer and hang out for a few hours, after all, you're busy right now, you're the grill master!

My smoker and I seem to have come to the agreement that it will take somewhere between 3.5 and 4 hours to finish the chicken.  Using a thermometer is absolutely essential here!  Breast meat is done at 160, and dark meat is done at 175.  As soon as your chicken arrives at this temperature, take it off of the grill and cover it with foil to rest!  Chicken does not get "safer" or "more done" if you leave it there, it only dries out and gets rubbery, so pull it when it's done!  If it's done right, it will look like this (well, it will look like this after you've taken a bite out of it):

The skin will be nice and crispy, with caramelized sugary bits of spicy heat.  the meat will be smoky, soft, tender, and super moist.  One final note, I usually pack the smoker with as much chicken as I can when I run a batch.  Chicken is cheap, and leftover smoked chicken is super tasty in chicken salad, breakfast burritos, smoked chicken pizza, or simply reheated in a microwave!  You get the idea!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Best Cornbread Ever

Let's get something straight right off the bat, what follows is an absolutely amazing recipe for cornbread.  It is "way good!"  It is not "good for you," necessarily, unless you are looking for some added motivation to get to the gym.  So don't email me with hatred in your heart, trust me, I'm fully aware of how much butter, eggs, and other goodies abound in this recipe.  If you want cornbread that you can slather a pat of butter on and take with you to a guilty corner of your basement to enjoy, privately, with a cold glass of whole milk, then you're "home."  Read on!

You will need:
  • 1.5 cups stone ground yellow cornmeal
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons baking powder
  • 8 eggs
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 14 ounces creamed corn (1 can)
  • 4 ounces diced green chilies, drained well (1 can)
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks, softened)
  • 1 cup shredded Monterrey jack and cheddar cheese blend
  • 4 Fresh Jalapenos, chopped whole (optional)
This recipe is enough to fill two 9" cast iron skillets, enough for 12 people, or enough for 6 people and 6 "hidden sessions with your own private slice."  If you are crazy enough to make a 1/2 batch, fine.  Don't say I didn't warn you when you run out.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Get a bowl and add all of the dry ingredients together, including the cornmeal, flour, salt, and baking powder.  Mix it together and set the bowl aside.  Now, turn on the mixer (low setting) and begin to add the wet ingredients.  Start with the eggs and butter, then sugar.  Cream it together well, then move on to the creamed corn. While the mixer is turning, slowly add the dry ingredients.  Once everything is mixed in to a lovely batter, slowly fold in the green chilis, cheese, and jalapenos with a spatula (you don't want to bruise the chilis).

Now, get a couple of 9" cast iron skillets (or cake pans if you don't have the iron) and liberally lubricate the bottom and sides with vegetable oil or butter-flavored Crisco.  Pour your batter equally among the two.

Once your oven beeps and says that its at 400 degrees, wait another ten minutes to make sure things settle up to 400 in there.  Ovens are never, ever at the temperature they say they are!  To maintain 400, an oven will swing up to 415 and down to 375 so that an average temperature of 400 is maintained.  If you wait for a couple of these cycles to run, you'll be sure that "most" of your oven is truly 400.

Slide the pans into the oven and set a reliable timer for 35 minutes.  Check the middle with a toothpick every 5 minutes after that to ensure doneness.

What you'll see (if you used cast iron) is a lovely dark brown moist crust on the bottom, and an airy, "moist to the point of being juicy" cheesy middle, cornbread.  I slice it "wagon-wheel" style into 6 wedges for each pan.  Enjoy! 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Taking Stock of your Chicken

"Save that for stock!"  How often have you heard this from your grandmother, your mother, your favorite cooking show, or from a "helpful" neighbor?  Let's be honest, normal people throw the bones, backs, gizzards, wing tips, and other less appetizing parts of their chicken and turkey into the trash, right?  Well, I don't... but I'm not normal.

Chicken stock is often misunderstood.  First and foremost, it is NOT "Chicken Broth."  Chicken "broth" is made when you boil a chicken to flavor the water, or when you add chicken bouillon to water to make a chicken flavored soup or broth.  Now, if you were to toss the bones and other chicken bits that are packed full of connective tissue, marrow, etc, and if you were to literally boil the essence out of it for hours and hours, you'd end up with an amazing and versatile jiggly, gelatin based chickeny goo that is packed with all the flavor elements you need to make hundreds of recipes that start with "Grandma's homemade...."  That is "Chicken Stock!"  It's super easy to make, it's cheap, and it will be your secret weapon for killer chicken soup, chicken and dumplings, gumbo, casseroles, and a host of other favorites.

You will need:
  • 4 pounds of "Scrap Chicken" (or turkey).  I use backs, giblets, bones, etc.
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 4 carrots, peeled and roughly cut
  • 4 ribs of celery, broken in half
  • A few fresh sprigs of Thyme and Parsley
  • Small handful of peppercorns
  • A few crushed garlic cloves
  • 2 gallons of water
Why, "no salt?" Because you'll be adding this stock as a flavoring agent to other dishes that already have salt in them.  Good stock is, by nature, "Low Sodium." Stay away from store-bought broths or stocks that have salt added to them.  Ick.  

Ok, throw everything into a giant stock pot, jack the heat to "HIGH," and bring it to a boil.  Watch it carefully.  I know, you're literally watching water boil right now, but you don't want to be involved with what happens when you don't.  If you don't watch the pot, a lot of "scum" will develop moments after the boiling starts.  Quickly, it will foam up upon itself and it will climb out of the pot and spread itself out, in a bacterial ridden ooze of jubilant freedom, all over your stove-top.  So... Totally... Gross!  Therefore, it would behoove you to be a diligent watcher of the pot until the first boil!
As soon as it boils, scoot the heat down to MEDIUM-LOW and skim the scum off the top with a large spoon.  Keep your scum cup handy because you'll need to skim every 15 minutes for the first hour or so of cooking.  The "Scum Scooper" job is a great one for a family member who typically "wants to help," but who brings no other culinary skills to the table.  After an hour or so, the scum will settle down and the stock will start to find it's rhythm.  

Give the pot a look every couple of hours, and add more water as necessary to keep everything submerged and roiling around in there.  Plan on keeping things at a good boiling simmer for 8 hours.  As a test, you can pull out a wing bone or rib bone, and snap it in half.  If it breaks easily and seems "dry," then you can be sure that its essence is in the water, where it belongs.

When it's done, the fun begins!  Use a kitchen spider, strainer, or a set of tongs to remove the solids.  Note that if you'd had a giant steamer bucket that fits into your stock pot, that you should have used it so this step would have been super easy... the liquid that remains is pure gold.  Literally, it should be a beautiful gold color.  Let it cool a bit (30 minutes or so) and then pour it through a cheese-cloth or a fine mesh strainer.  I find that it's easiest to do this by ladling it through a strong paper towel, directly into mason jars, or into small Tupperware containers.  Put your stock into the fridge, and in the morning each jar will have a thin white disk of pure fat on top.  Pluck this off and discard at will (or spread it onto a Pig's Ear sandwich, like my grandfather Arles used to do).
The gooey stuff left in the jar is invaluable!  Keep them in the freezer until ready to use.  Some people pour it into ice-cube trays and freeze them, so they can easily pop out a few when they make soup or whatever.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Cast Iron Cookware Conundrum

This article is packed full of culinary secrets.  They will seem "boring" to most, but trust me; I bring naturally formed, large diameter, deeply lustrous pearls of wisdom to you today!  Well, maybe not "pearl" per se, but Iron, "Cast Iron" to be precise.  Four or five generations ago, we figured it out.  We started cooking everything in vessels made from cast iron.  Dutch ovens, cornbread pans, pie pans, chicken friers, and everyone's favorite, the ubiquitous cast iron skillet.  A quick look around a modern kitchen supply store will show you that cast iron cookware is back "in."  Your great-grandmother will be the first to tell you, however, cast iron never really went "out."

A stroll through a trendy kitchen store will reveal an amazing array of modern cookware to you.  You almost need a degree in metallurgy to know what to buy!  Copper, copper bottom, non-stick, Teflon, hard-anodized aluminum, polished stainless steel, and even titanium cookware is available these days, and it ain't cheap.  You can even buy "Enameled" iron cookware (should regular cast iron not appeal to you).

If you're less concerned about how your kitchen looks with your fancy pans hanging from your pot rack than you are with the quality of your food, you should take a step back from shelf and ask:  Cast Iron.  Why?

Here's Why:
  •  Natural non-stick properties
  •  Indestructible
  •  The more you use it, the better it gets
  •  Fast, even heat distribution
  •  Holds heat forever
  •  Cooks over a range of temperatures, up to 2,000 degrees F
  •  Requires only "water" (no soap) for cleaning
  •  Can be passed along to your children as an heirloom
  •  How can you make a good Cast-Iron Cowboy Steak without a cast iron skillet?  You can't, that's how!

If you insist on having expensive cookware, consider that some rare antique cast iron skillets sell for more than $300 each.  Buy yourself one of those and display it proudly in your kitchen!  Personally, I bought all of my cast iron cookware from antique stores, and I rarely spend more than $30.  Brand new cast iron pans are often more expensive and they don't have that well seasoned, non-stick surface that's as smooth as a baby's butt.  My favorite skillet is this Griswold #8 skillet that I bought from a local junk store.  I paid $18 for it:

Cooking Surface

Now, the pan wasn't quite this "cook ready" when I bought it, as it is today.  I spent a few hours getting her ready... I used some oven cleaner to get some light crud off of the sides, and I re-seasoned it a few times.  She shined up prettier than a brand new penny, and that's another great thing about cast iron, you never have to throw it away!  To test this theory, I recently underwent an attempt to restore the worst, most dilapidated and neglected pan I could find.

Observe, the "Woodland Camping Pan:"

How nasty is this thing?  This pan was found in the woods, near the old logging township of Gheen, MN (now a ghost town, but formerly a railroad depot for local logging interests).  I'm sure it was forgotten or abandoned when a logging camp moved from one location to another.  Some research later revealed to me that this pan was cast in 1960.  It has endured decades of nature's full seasoned bombardment.  It has collected countless inches of rain in hot Summers, and been buried in mountains of snow in sub-zero Winters.  Ladies, Gentlemen; I submit to you that this, THIS, is a skillet who's greatest hope was a quick death by way of a recycling center, rather than a lingering demise, rusting into oblivion over the coming centuries.  I decided to save it.

Step 1:  Remove the loose chunks of "crud" and surface rust.  This was easy, I used an old chisel and some elbow grease to scrape away the loose stuff.

Step 2: Oil it up, and rub it down with steel wool.  When I say "oil," I'm talking about a light greasy household lubricating oil... not cooking oil.  I needed something that would lubricate the surface and allow my ball of steel wool to slide around and do its magic.  I sprayed the whole pan down with Linseed Oil (it was handy) and I literally rubbed 4 separate balls of industrial steel wool (not S.O.S. pads, but pure steel wool) down to the nub.

Step 3: Check progress.  A quick look at myself revealed that I had so much iron dust caked into my arms and shirt, that had a U.F.O. with a tractor beam magnet been within 5 miles of me, I'd have been abducted for sure.  I gave the pan a final scrub with a scouring pad and a generous amount of Dawn (to cut the oil) and I rinsed the pan several times with excess water from our rain barrel (I knew that was good for something) and went inside to wash myself. 

Step 4: "Fine Crud" removal.  To eliminate the last remnants of rust and other nature-born impurities (I was certain that at least one weasel had pooped in this pan), I added a few Tbsp of CLR (Calcium, Lime and Rust remover) to the pan, and I attached a wire brush wheel to my electric drill (I used my industrial speed drill with the plug on it, a cordless drill won't be up to the task).  Then, I dipped the brush into the CLR, donned a pair of safety goggles, and an apron (hastily made from a trash bag), to guard against U.F.O.s and I hit the switch!  I spent over an hour, wire-brushing the sins out of this pan, baptizing it back into it's former glory!

Step 5: Final Soak.  To make sure every last remnant of rust was gone, I gave the pan a final scrub with hot soap and water, and then submerged it completely in CLR overnight.  The next day, I pulled the pan from it's liquid soak and it smiled at me for the first time!  It's shiny gray eyes let me know, it was ready to cook.

Step 6: Seasoning.  Many methods abound for seasoning cast iron.  They all advise a food-grade oil bath and some heat.  I subscribe to this method, and I apply a finishing coat of linseed oil for the last oven cycle.  If you can't find linseed oil, use peanut oil.  They both have an astonishingly high smoke point.

Here's the "After" pics:

Surface (I have no idea how my shoes found their way to my island counter-top)


Step 7: Identification.  A bit of research has revealed that this pan was made by the Birmingham Stove & Range Co. It is part of their Century Series, made in 1960. I also learned that lots of similar "unmarked" cookware was cast in those days.  According to The Cast Iron Collector: "In addition to store brands, like those made for companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, several major foundries produced unmarked versions of their goods for sale in hardware, department, and building supply stores. As such, these no-name pieces could be sold at a lower price without sacrificing the brand image and value of their main product lines. Product differentiation in the various channels was achieved by the use of paper labels affixed to the unmarked iron. A couple of manufacturers actually made the decision at some point to cast all of their pieces without trademarks, instead relying totally on the adhesive labels."

What did I learn?  Would I do it again?  Well, in my case, I didn't have a skillet this big in my collection.  A #12 pan cooks a LOT of bacon, a whole chicken, huge slices of ham, a garden of green beans, etc.  New ones cost at least $60 and that's only if you can find them.  Buying them online makes them more dear, as the shipping costs almost as much as the pan.  So, if I were to find the lid to this bad boy, or another piece that I've not encountered before, "YES," I would do it again!  I learned that the more care and love that you put into a cast iron piece of cookware, the harder and longer it will perform for you!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Best Grilled Chicken Wings EVER!

Last year, a week before the Superbowl, I went to my usual supply depot to get a big mess of chicken wings.  I was met with disaster:  "What do you mean you're OUT of wings?  but... I... You can't... shut UP... What about..."  It was true.  Due to a sharp increase of "Buffalo Wing" restaurants in the country snapping up millions of wings across the nation, local stores were unable to supply local consumers with any wings at all.  This was the first time in history that this happened and it affected me in several ways:

  1. I was suddenly struck by just how many people in the world are stricken by famine, and it made me sad for awhile.
  2. I wondered what made the wings at Buffalo Tap, Buffalo Wild Wings, and other places just "that good."
  3. I visited these places over the next couple of days to learn that, while they have great TVs and cold beer, their wings are truly, truly, awful!
Seriously, the wings in these joints are little more than tiny portioned, over-cooked, dried up salt-licks with a variety of well-marketed sauces to hide their horrible texture and flavor profile.  I can make better wings.  YOU can make better wings!!

You Will Need:
  • A bunch of chicken wings
  • Olive oil
  • Dry Rub
  • Hot charcoal fire OR a fire grate over your bonfire pit
If you insist on sauce, you will need:
  • 1/2 Cup of Cayenne Pepper hot sauce
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter  (yes, I'm serious about the "unsalted" part)
Wing Anatomy

Have a look at your basic chicken wing.  There are three parts, everyone's favorite, the "Drummy," the low profile, two boned "Flapper," and the useless "Giblet" that gets thrown away. You don't need Popeye's arms and a huge set of kitchen shears to cut this thing apart.  A sharp filet knife will do the trick, if you follow the cut lines here.  There are ligaments that join these parts together and you can easily slice right through them without having to cut any bone!  Practice makes perfect and for goodness sakes, don't cut your own fingers in the process.

Good wings start with an ample supply of over-sized drummies and flappers.  I start with a 24-pack of wings, if I can find them.  If you buy a pack of wings already prepped, you'll pay almost double the price, so it's worth it for you to cut them yourself.


Get a dozen wings or more and put them into the fridge as soon as you get home.  It's ok if they're partially frozen.  On "Wing Day," take them out of the fridge and cut them apart (throw away the giblets, or make stock with them, if you have 50 or more of them on hand).  Place them in a big stainless steel bowl in layers.  Lay down a layer of wing parts, then a healthy drizzle of olive oil, then a generous shake of your best Dry Rub.  Repeat until you're out of wing parts.

Now, shake the bowl or stir it up until everything has a complete coating of oil and some dry rub.  Add more dry rub at this stage, until the oil is a light shade of orange and a generous amount of the rub is sticking to the wings.  Now, set the bowl down on the counter, cover with plastic wrap, and let the wings come up to room temperature.

NOTE: For those of you who are freaking out right now that I'm leaving chicken out on my counter at room temperature, please consider the fact that at some time in this chicken's cooking history, it WILL HAVE TO pass from its refrigeration temperature, up through 50, 60, 70, and 80 degrees on it's way to 160, eventually, where it will be plucked from the grill and consumed.  I don't plan to leave it on the counter, in the "bacterial zone" long enough to pose a bacterial problem.  If leaving cold chicken on your counter for an hour or two freaks you right out, then go straight from the fridge to your grill.  Just don't get mad at ME when your chicken is burnt on the outside and the inside still hasn't come up to temperature.


Now, go outside and make fire.  Make a big old hot flame ridden fire under HALF of your iron grate with wood, charcoal, or (sigh) propane.  Get the grill hot hot hot, and let it preheat the grate for 15 minutes.  Pour your big bowl of winged goodness right onto the grate!  Flames will rise!  Using a long pair of tongs, stir them around in the flames for a few minutes (be careful) and let the heat sear the rub and the skin a little bit.  Close the lid quickly to douse the flames to a more reasonable level.  Once the excess olive oil and chicken grease burns out (a minute or two) the flames will subside to a manageable level. 

Open the lid, and stir the wings around.  Get them all separated and move them off to one side, away from the heat (see the "Wing Man" video, below).  Make sure your grill is cooking around 400 degrees with the lid closed and the smoke is imparting its goodness into the wings for around 20 minutes.  You may want to turn the wing pile over once, halfway through cooking to make sure they're all browning evenly.

Using an instant-read thermometer check a few random drummies and flappers to make sure everyone is 160 degrees (or a little warmer), then pull them off the grill into a clean serving bowl.  Cover with foil and let them rest while you make the sauce.


Melt a stick of butter with your favorite cayenne pepper hot sauce, stirring constantly (it will want to separate).  Add a sprinkle of flour to bind the two together, if you want to.


Take 1/2 of your wings and put them into a different bowl, then stir the sauce all over them to coat.  Now, you have a bowl of "Grilled Wings" and another bowl of "Hot Wings" for everyone to share!  Both bowls will feature smoky, juicy, full flavored wings, with plenty of meat on the bone!  The cold beer and big TV are up to you to provide...

Monday, August 26, 2013

Smoked Pork Spare Ribs

There are hundreds of recipes out there for spare ribs.  If you have one that you like, you're probably not here reading this.  If you have one that's "OK" but you're ready to take it up a notch or two, Welcome!  I didn't realize just how far off the beaten BBQ path that ribs had fallen until I moved from Texas to Minnesota.  Here, I found that people like to boil their ribs in a pot of boiling water, before drowning them in a sauce filled crock-pot "swimming pool" for several hours.... I know, "wow!"  So wrong.

What follows here is my take on the standard "3-2-1" method of slow-smoking a rack (or two, maybe three) of pork spare ribs.

You will need:
  • Spare Ribs.  I like the 3-rack pack of "St. Louis Style" spare ribs from Sam's Club.
  • 1/2 Cup Yellow Mustard
  • 1/2 Cup Honey
  • 1/2 Cup Apple Cider
  • 1/2 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Dry Rub (equal amounts of):
    • Smoked Paprika
    • Brown Sugar
    • Granulated Garlic
    • Kosher Salt
    • Ground Pepper
    • Chili Powder
  • BBQ Sauce (Optional.  I like my ribs "Naked.")


Take one of the racks of ribs out of the pack and have a closer look:

Only about half of this is what will go onto the smoker.  The rest is tips and skirt.  Rib tips are pure gold and they're perfect for a pot of beans or to make Red Beans and Rice!  Keep them once you cut them loose.  The skirt is very lean and shouldn't be thrown away.  Typically, I'll put the skirts onto the smoker alongside the ribs, and pull it off at the halfway point to have a snack or an awesome sandwich (with sliced onions and BBQ sauce on a toasted hunk of TX toast).

Flip the rack over and run your fingers up and down one or two of the ribs.  You'll feel where where the main rib is separated from a smaller tip of the rib bone.  Only a layer of cartilage holds this joint together.  You'll need to cut or trim the main rib rack away from their tips by running a sharp knife along this line of joints:

Once you separate the main rack, set it aside and spend a minute or two cutting your rib tips apart and cutting your skirt into smaller portions.  Freeze them in a zip-top bag for your batch of Red Beans and Rice with Rib Tips later.  

Now, back to the rack... place the rack back onto your cutting board and have a closer look at the back side.  If you look carefully, you'll find a thin membrane of tissue that covers the back-side of the ribs.  You can slow cook this particular hunk of connective tissue but you'll never ever break it down.  It just turns into burnt paper and it prohibits any penetration of dry-rub or sauce into your ribs from the back side, so it has to GO!  Simply use your knife to bring up an edge of this membrane, grab it with a paper towel, and peel it away:

Repeat this process with all the racks you intend to cook and get ready to apply the rub!  Aren't they cute?

To get the rub to stick, I like to use honey-mustard as a base.  People who buy honey-mustard from the salad dressing aisle at the store baffle me, just mix equal amounts of simple yellow mustard with your favorite honey and stir, stir, stir.  You'll have a simple and delicious honey-mustard for 1/2 the cost of that bottle of salad dressing.

Mix the honey-mustard well and apply it liberally to both sides of the ribs.  Get your hands dirty and really press it in and smear it around:

Side Note: If you haven't done this already, you should make and store a generous amount of your dry rub.  It comes in handy whenever you're making chicken wings, brisket, ribs, etc.  You can use my dry-rub recipe if you want, but you might want to "put your own stank" on it too, by trying various other dry spices like cumin, onion powder, or whatever you might like.  I took a mason jar and drilled a few dozen 1/8" holes in the lid (large enough to let out small clumps of brown sugar).  This is where my dry rub resides.  I have a "bulk supply" in a one-gallon container hidden in the dark recess of my pantry so that my neighbor Craig will have some to borrow.  I really should start charging him for that....

Shake on a generous amount of the dry rub, to both sides of the rack(s):

Time to cook!  Bring your grill, smoker, or oven to 225 degrees.  You'll place the ribs over indirect heat so the fire doesn't burn them.  I use big chunks of apple wood in my smoker for this, it adds a sweet flavor and aroma to the smoke.

3-2-1 Go!  The 3-2-1 method of cooking ribs means:
  1. Cook the ribs, uncovered and naked, over low heat (225) for 3 hours.
  2. Cook the ribs, covered and basted, over low heat (225) for 2 hours.
  3. Finish the ribs, uncovered and mopped, over low heat (200) for one more hour.

I subscribe to this method, it has not let me down and it works for beef or pork ribs.  So, close the lid and leave the ribs to cook/smoke for three hours.  Then, open the lid, take the ribs out and place them in a vessel that you can cover with a lid or foil.  For this, I love those disposable foil pans (with lids)!  You can put them in your oven, back onto your smoker, or wherever, and they will hold heat, fat, sauce, or whatever.  Put your ribs into the pan and pour over the mix of vinegar and cider.  I use a ladle to further baste the ribs with the vinegar mixture to make sure they are nice and saturated:

Yes, I know the left edge of my ribs is a little "crusty."  This is Cindy's fault.  She likes the "extra crispy" darker edges of the rib rack so I leave the edge a bit closer to the heat for this reason.  Normally, I'd flip the racks around about half way through the first 3-hour cycle.  Anyway, baste your ribs and cover them, then put them back on the heat for two hours.

After two hours, take them out of the foil pan and place them, naked, back on the grill (or your oven, in a cookie sheet).  Mop on a light sauce if you want to, every ten minutes or so.  I find that they'll be plenty juicy on their own and I love the flavor of the dry rub so I fore-go the mop.

After the last hour, pull the ribs off the heat and cover them (back into the foil pan) to let them rest for at least ten minutes.  Then, all you need to do is slice the ribs off the rack.  Note, I slice from the back side, so I can easily see where the ribs are.

The meat will not fall off the bone!!  There will be just enough "pull" so that you can sink your teeth into the meat and then pull the meat off of the bone with your teeth.  This is called "bite" and you want your ribs to have it.  If you cook them until the meat falls off, they'll just be dry and you won't be having "ribs," you'll be having "hunks" and they really aren't that good, even if you drown your hunks in a crock-pot full of BBQ sauce for 6 hours!

Present your ribs however you like.  I usually just leave them on the cutting board and when the line comes through the kitchen, people just grab some and go!  Ain't no need to put them on a fancy platter or nuthin......