Welcome To The Enchanted Spoon!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Hello everyone!

Just wanted to offer a quick thanks and welcome to my new followers! I hope you come visit and visit often, and tell your friends about The Enchanted Spoon too! Your fellowship means the world, as this blog is only as good as who reads it. It's about my perspective on food, and I try to take a different, more historical approach.

As the welcoming message states, for me, food is about the great circle of life. Honestly. The tradition of passing down recipes and making new traditions by incorporating new favorite ones is such an important part of our cultures around the world and about our own humanity. I truly believe in the different cuisines around the world, we can taste the heart, soul and driving force that makes that country or culture unique. And this blog tries to translate that for you and I hope inspires you as well to look at "food" as more than just something to snack on.

I've been working hard lately to beef up the blog (no pun intended) and so would like to introduce to you now some new features.

To the right of the main blogs, you'll find some new columns I'll be updating regularly:

Mission Possible: What Should I Attempt Next Poll is your chance to tell me what I should attempt next and write about. I'll offer a few choices so vote on what most interests you. I am ready and willing to be your culinary guinea pig so choose my next assignment!

Some of My Favorite Things is a section with links to websites that I love. They can include another chef or writer's site, a place to order specialty foods or seasonal items, or a website for particular cooking tools or equipment that I love.

My Cooking Bibles is a list of my favorite cookbooks. I didn't put a link because you can find them at any bookstore or online. These are books that have been most formative in my cooking abilities and philosophy and they are most certainly worth a read.

Restaurants Worth Your Time and Money is just that, a list with links to restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs that I have found to be consistently worth my time and money. Nothing irritates me more than spending a hundred dollars on a steak that wasn't even cooked right, when I could have spent $10 on the best pizza of my life. I'm always (ALWAYS) up to try new foods and great places, so if you have a recommendation then email me and you just might see a blog review and posting here! And you will get credit.

My Blog List is a quite literally a list of other food related blogs I read. If I post it then it's worth checking out.

In addition to these changes to the blog page itself, I'm also going to run a few recurring features I'd like to introduce now:

Week Night Yum Yum will be an easy, affordable, quick and straight forward recipe you can whip up on a busy week night. Most of us work and/or have little ones that prevent us (even me) from making Steak Diane or pasta from scratch every single night. Reality is we need to do things fast and healthy. This is real store-bought help that's not an MSG fest of Sandra Lee Horrors. This is 30 minute meals you'll actually be able to complete in 30 minutes, without odd combinations or a scratchy, never-ending irritating voice barking at you from the TV. This is real food MY way and you'll love it.

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved is a feature that will have a recipe that has been prepared especially with kids in mind. It will be healthy, uncomplicated, and completely consumable by your finicky toddler or kid in mind. I work with bold flavors, fun textures, and some tricks up the old sleeves that will get your kids to eat their proteins and (gasp!) even their veggies! And every single recipe I post you have my guarantee will be tested and approved by Miss Ecaterina (almost 3) and her partner in crime, Trajan (16 months).

____ Decoded: Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About ____ will be a feature on a particular food, ingredient, or spice that you've maybe heard of but have no idea what really is. MSG is a perfect example. We've all heard the name, but have no idea what it stands for or even what it looks like. I'll research these items and offer a candid explanation, and shall unveil the mystery behind strange foodstuffs.

And finally, I'll feature

Passport Travel as an occasional "exotic" recipe of a food we wouldn't commonly make at home. Through researching recipes myself, traveling there in person, or recreating as best as I can some of the global goodies the rest of the world has to offer us, my goal is to let your kitchen be the airplane. In these tough economic times it's hard for us to get away to someplace far and exotic. But taking advantage of our grocery stores, some research and guts in the kitchen (as in chutzpa, not literal innards of an animal...well, maybe if we do a Scottish recipe), we can travel there with our food. And learn a little more about a culture and its people.

I hope you'll all find the new and improved Enchanted Spoon a wonderful resource for your culinary adventures, and an amusing place to learn about different food stuffs that will inspire you to pick up a knife or buy that strange ingredient you can barely pronounce.

And if you have any suggestions or comments, I'm always reading and appreciating feedback. Every post has an "email me" option so you can reach my by clicking on the little white envelope (how cute) or of course, by posting comments (which I love to read!).

Thank you again for being a reader of The Enchanted Spoon!!!

Weeknight Yum Yum: Spring Roll Salad

Thursday, February 25, 2010

For dinner a few nights ago I was craving something lighter, something healthy, low carb and with bright but powerful flavors. That usually means I'm craving Asian so I went with it. One of my all-time favorite things to eat is a Vietnamese spring roll. They are light, healthy, and delightfully crunchy. So my inspiration came from that, and I give you a super easy weekday meal that will delight your family (even Trajan ate it) and won't break your budget.

And check out my notes at the end for some more time-saving tips!

Serves 2 large or 4 small portions

Spring Roll Salad with Asian Vinaigrette
1/2 pound cooked shrimp, tails removed
1/2 bag prewashed baby spinach
3/4 cup (a good handful) of snow peas
2 scallions, cut 1/2 inch thick on the diagonal
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1 cup bean sprouts
Asian vinaigrette (recommended: Ken's)
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp fresh mint, roughly chopped
1/3 cup dry-roasted peanuts (optional)
1 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Boil water in a small pot to cook the snow peas. When water comes to a boil, add a good pinch of salt (be careful - the salt will make the water bubble up violently for a second!). Add the snow peas all at once and cook until they turn bright green and puff up a little, about 5 minutes.

While the snow peas cook, assemble the rest of your salad.

Place the spinach in a large mixing bowl. Add the grated carrots, scallions, bean sprouts, shrimp, cilantro and mint. Once your snow peas are cooked, place them in a bowl of ice water to immediately stop the cooking process. This is called "shocking" the vegetables. This is done to stop them from continuing to cook while still retaining their bright green color. Once they're cooled off, drain them well add them to the salad.

Drizzle the salad with your favorite Asian vinaigrette to taste and toss. Sprinkle with the peanuts and sesame seeds if desired and serve.

My Notes:
You can certainly substitute leftover chicken if you like if you don't do shrimp.

For a hint of more sweet and bright flavor, add a can of drained mandarin oranges or a fresh orange segmented (that means peeled with a knife and then segments cut out).

If you don't do cilantro then double the mint.

If you have raw shrimp, then cook them in the water you've set for the snow peas before you put the snow peas in. Add the shrimp and cook for exactly 1-2 minutes depending on how large they are. Remove immediately to the ice bath. Then add your snow peas and cook them and you can add them to the same ice bath. Drain them together and add them both to the salad.

If you're planning to do this ahead, you can buy pre-cooked shrimp at the market. Just make sure you give it a rinse before eating!

To save time on carrots, you can buy a bag of pre-shredded carrots that can be found in the pre-packaged salad and salad kits area at your grocery store.

I LOVE Ken's Restaurant Asian Vinaigrette. If you can find that, then use it. It's a perfect combination of sweet, sour, spicy and tangy. If you can't find it, then use your favorite one. If you still can't, then try this simple Asian vinaigrette:

Asian Vinaigrette
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp hot Chinese mustard (or Dijon)
2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar (or mirin)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
3 Tbsp canola or peanut oil (or other neutral oil)
1 tsp sesame oil

Combine all ingredients in a jar with closed lid and shake until combined. Or place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until combined. Can be stored in air-tight container for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Iraqi Wings

Monday, February 22, 2010

My good friend Rogers Brewer has been spending the last few years in Iraq, first as a marine nobly serving our country and for the last couple, as a contractor. In any event, like most of our troops overseas they crave some good ol' fashioned American cuisine, and that includes, of course, wings.

Rogers has earned the reputation among his friends out there to be the Go To Chef, and he's managed to recreate the flavorful and spicy goodness of the wing but doing it now Al Asad style, using what he has to work with out there. I thought that was such a great thing and wanted to share his recipe and some pictures with you.

Often as home cooks we get hung up on not having every exact ingredient to make what we were originally craving or planning. Sometimes you just can't get those things and have to make do with what you've got. But where there's a will, there's a way, and as Rogers proves, not even Iraq can stop you from having your wings!

I'm so loving everything about this.

So here's his recipe that I'm calling Iraqi Wings.

Iraqi Wings
chicken wings
canola or olive oil (canola preferred)
your favorite bbq sauce
Italian dressing
splash of vinegar
Dijon mustard
garlic powder
fajita seasoning packet
Texas Pete
1 jalapeno, roasted and peeled then pureed in the food processor* (optional)
1 stick butter

Coat the wings with some oil and season with salt and pepper. To make the sauce, combine the BBQ sauce, Italian dressing, a touch more vinegar, ketchup, mustard, garlic powder, fajita seasoning packet, honey, and then Texas Pete. The hotter you want the wings, the more Texas Pete you should add. After you achieve the desired balance between sweet, spicy and heat with the sauce, add some butter. Cook all of the ingredients in as saucepan until combined and heated through. Take out a small portion for extra dipping, and leave the majority of it for basting. Set aside.

Note: This recipe can easily be adjusted for amount of wings. More wings means more sauce, so play around with the ingredients. In terms of butter I think you'll probably need between 1/2 stick to a whole stick depending on how much sauce you want. The butter is going to help baste the wings and keep them nice and moist!

Heat your grill. Baste the wings with the sauce you reserved for basting and then toss on the grill. Grill the chicken until it's cooked all the way through, basting as you go. The sauce will caramelize on the grill, creating a sticky sweetness that will be incredible. When cooked through, remove and toss in the sauce again while still hot. Serve immediately with the side of extra sauce and lots and lots of napkins.

*To roast a jalapeno, wrap a whole jalapeno pepper in tin foil and roast in a 350 degree oven until very soft and tender, about 40 minutes. Remove tin foil, cut off the stem and gently peel off the skin (should come off quite easily). Puree the pepper in a food processor with seeds if you want it very spicy; remove the seeds if you want it milder.

Go for it!!

Classic Bolognese: A Celebration Of The Chuck

A classic Italian dish both here in America and in Italy is the Bolognese sauce. In America, it's often known as "meat sauce" because of its use of ground beef as the main, identifiable ingredient.

Bolognese sauce or "ragu" (pronounced "ragoo") is a very thick, very concentrated heavy sauce that is a beautiful thing on a cold winter night. The classic recipe from Bologna (northern Italy) where cured meats and fattier cuts are the main choices for dishes calls for ground chuck. Ground chuck is ground beef but with a higher fat content. Most often in American markets you will find ground sirloin or ground beef with 10% fat; these are considerably leaner cuts of beef that are ground up. They're great if you're watching your weight, but you must realize with certain dishes (like burgers or bolognese) you're going to sacrifice a lot of flavor and texture if you go with the leaner beef.

Ground chuck is usually 15% fat and comes from the neck and shoulder of the cow which are more flavorful parts. Hence, a considerably tastier product. If you can't find ground chuck at your market, you can do a combination of half ground beef and half ground pork whereas the beef will give you the flavor and the pork will provide you with the fat you need. Italians (especially in America) use that combination all the time.

The traditional Bolognese ragu also uses pancetta in the base, as well as cream as a finisher. Bologna is known for its intensely rich dishes (this is the land, afterall, of salami, pepperoni, and virtually all the cured meats we all know and love). My recipe below omits them because for me, using ground chuck is frankly flavor (and fat!) enough. But if you're up for a traditional ragu, then by all means add a slab of chopped pancetta with your olive oil before the onions, and finish off the ragu at the end with cream after you add your herbs. My recipe also adds a teaspoon of red pepper flakes because I love a little heat with that amount of flavorful beef. And on a cold night especially, it's a great warmer. But certainly you can use less or more, or omit it entirely.

The pasta of choice for the bolognese sauce is tagliatelle, which is a wide flat noodle. It's wider than a fettucine and therefore offers more surface area for the rich sauce to grab onto. If you can't find tagliatelle pasta, then you can use fettucine or even rigatoni. The idea is the same; you want pasta that can stand up to the thickness of the sauce and not wilt in its awesome power.

And always finish off a bolognese sauce with a grating of good quality, imported Parmesano-Reggiano or Pecorino-Romano. These saltier cheeses will offer a nice bite to stand up to the richness of the sauce.

Now on to the recipe!

Classic Bolognese
olive oil
1 small onion, chopped very small
1 carrot, peeled and diced very small
1 celery stalk, trimmed and chopped very small
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 lb ground chuck (or combo of 1/2 lb lean ground beef and 1/2 lb ground pork)
1 (28 ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
2 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

recommended pasta: tagliatele or fresh fettucine

Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan. Add the onion, carrots and celery and cook on medium heat until vegetables become soft, about 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute, until garlic is fragrant. Add the ground chuck and using a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the pieces of meat and incorporate into the vegetables. Season with salt, black pepper and red pepper flakes if using, to taste. Cook until the meat becomes browned, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and continue to cook until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. You want the water from the meat and tomatoes to be pretty much evaporated, leaving a very concentrated and thick meaty sauce.

Add the parsley and basil and taste, adjusting with salt and pepper if needed.

To serve, add the boiled pasta directly into the bolognese pan. Using tongs, gently toss the pasta in the sauce, coating it well. Portion out into serving bowls and top with a generous portion of grated Parmesan cheese or Pecorino-Romano.

Serve hot.


Use San Marzano canned tomatoes. If you are planning to use Heinz or any other canned tomato, then do not make this recipe. Or any Italian recipe for that matter. San Marzanos are the best tomato in the world to use for cooking, especially Italian cooking. They come from Sicily and are harvested, par-cooked and canned at their peak, perfectly preserving their sweet and delicious flavor. Use them. Often.

The onion-carrot-celery mixture is a classic base for this sauce but isn't entirely necessary. If you have all the ingredients but the carrots then don't sweat it; you don't need to drop everything and run to the market for a carrot. If you have them then use them. The main points you can't skip on are the chuck, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and cheese.

If you don't like fettucine and can't find tagliatelle, then go for a larger and sturdier tube pasta like rigatoni. Try to look for the tube pasta that has ridges on them and avoid the ones that are smooth like penne. Using spaghetti or cappelini will make for a soggier dish in the end as they will literally melt under the weight of the thick bolognese. Especially the cappelini. That pasta is for olive oil and chopped tomatoes...only.

Ruminating The Roux: Everything You Wanted To Know (or Not) About Roux

Thursday, February 18, 2010

One of the more intimidating techniques to master in the kitchen is the roux. Pronounced "roo," it's a combination of equal parts of fat and flour that is cooked and used either as a starting base for sauces or added later to thicken soups or stews.

Roux is a wonderful technique to master in your cooking. It's the basis for a classic bechamel sauce (butter, flour, cream) that when you add garlic and parmesan cheese to, becomes the alfredo sauce for your fettuccine. Or add some canned San Marzano tomatoes to the alfredo and you have your sauce for a classic lasagna. The French add a combination of flour and butter mixed together with a fork to their stews and soups to thicken them.

You can use any fat and flour combination, really. The classic is white or wheat flour with butter. The classic French roux technically uses clarified butter, but you can get away with unclarified. Creole cuisine uses regular vegetable or canola oil instead of butter. You can even use lard, meat drippings or reserved bacon fat to achieve a super smoky flavor.

So why don't most people use this technique? Well, first of all it's honestly quite fatty. A basic roux recipe for a gumbo for example calls for 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of oil. A bechamel will be a cup of flour and two sticks of butter. If you're watching your weight you don't really want to be making these recipes all the time.

The other reason is it's really easy to screw up. I mean, easy. Flour burns very quickly. And so does butter for that matter. So when you're doing a roux you have to be totally committed, as in parking yourself in front of the pot for the foreseeable future. And if you burn it you can't fix it; you have to start from the beginning.

I had to practice making roux many, many times before I got comfortable with it. But once you "get it," it's a wonderful technique to have in your cooking artillery. You can make many beautiful sauces and dishes like lasagna, gumbo, and cream sauces for any pasta combination you can think of.

I recently made a pot of gumbo for our Mardi Gras themed Super Bowl party and took the opportunity to show you (via my handy dandy new Nikon 3000!) some pictures of the different stages of cooking a roux.

A basic roux starts off very light. This is called "blonde." Here's a picture of a roux cooking for about 10 minutes on a medium-low flame:

I used a vegetable oil-flour combination for this. Notice how light the color is. I like to start off the roux with a whisk and then as soon as the flour is incorporated and all lumps are gone, I switch to the wooden spoon.

A blonde roux actually has very little flavor. That's why most recipes will have you add garlic and cheeses. Those ingredients are the main flavor points and the roux actually becomes more of a texture than actual flavor ingredient.

However...if you continue to cook the roux, you can get some wonderful dark, smoky, nutty flavors that when combined with heavier flavors like onions, dark meats and smoked sausages, can make a wonderfully flavorful dish that's full of depth.

Here I continued cooking the roux for another 10 minutes. At this point it's been cooking about 20 minutes from start to this point:

See the color has already darkened? This is a great stage if you wanted to do a seafood stew or gumbo. With light colored proteins like white fish and shellfish that have their own distinct flavors, you don't want your roux to compete too much with them. So at this point I'd add my onions/celery/pepper mixture (aka Trinity), andouille sausage and proceed on with the seafood gumbo.

But let's keep going...

Another 15 minutes gets you to the "peanut butter" stage:

The color resembles peanut butter. At this point you could pull it for a chicken-based stew or gumbo. I'd like it made with the dark meat of turkey or chicken because that has more flavor than the white meat (breast), and so the flavor of the roux won't compete with the flavors of the chicken or turkey as much.

But we're not done...we just got started!

10 more minutes (total cooking time now is around 40 minutes from start to finish) will get you to the "caramel" color stage:

This is great for working with smoked meats and sausages.

But let's keep cooking...

Here's the roux at 50 minutes of constant cooking and stirring, or "dark caramel" stage:

And at one hour of cooking, we have the "milk chocolate" stage:

If you're doing a chicken-andouille gumbo then you might want to take it off starting around now. This is on the earlier end for a good gumbo but can certainly get the job done.

But let's push it even more...
1 hour and 15 minutes of cooking gets you to the "chocolate" stage:

This is a perfect roux for a gumbo. If you're working with duck, chicken, sausages or heavier meats this is the roux you want. It's dark, full of flavor and has a wonderful nutty bite and aroma to it.
You can go even darker than this and get to "dark chocolate" or "black" that you'd want if working with beef and heavier red meats. That stage is about an hour and half to two hours of cooking.
There are a few key tips to know about roux too:
1. The longer you cook the roux, the less thickening power you'll have. So if you're planning a huge pot of gumbo like I did, you'll have to triple your roux base to an obscene amount of flour and oil (think 4 cups of each) to get the thickness you need for a gumbo. I learned that the hard way as mine lost almost all of its thickness, but thank God the flavor remained!
2. You can never leave your roux!! Roux burns very, very easily so you need to have it at a medium-low temperature, adjusting the heat if the roux is getting too hot too fast, and be right next to it. Start your roux and you have exactly 10 minutes to go to the bathroom and crack open a bottle of beer or bottle of wine. After that 10 minutes, you're committed so don't even think about answering the phone or changing a diaper or taking a pee break. Your roux will burn and you will be screwed. And you must always stir the roux, even if you think it's not doing anything. By stirring it you're keeping the cooking even and moving around the flour so it doesn't settle in one spot and burns.
3. White roux use butter; dark roux use oil. Do not deviate from this rule. Ever. Oil has a much higher smoking point than butter, which means it won't burn. If you cook butter for over an hour you will burn it into oblivion. The milk solids in the butter will burn off and leave carbon. It's disgusting and not edible. If you're doing a white roux (i.e., cooking it for 10 minutes or less) then go ahead and use the butter. If you're doing a peanut butter or darker, use oil.
4. Roux cooks in stages, so don't panic. You'll start your roux and then yell at it because it's not changing color and it's been 20 minutes and it's still pretty light. Don't' dispare! You'll see roux cooks in stages. All of a sudden it'll get a good shade darker, and then you'll get excited. And then it'll seem to stop darkening again but keep the faith! It'll dip down another shade suddenly. Roux is about patience and love and encouragement, so stay with your roux and love it into goodness.
5. Just when you think it's dark enough...keep going! The best advice on cooking I think I ever got was when Emeril Lagasse told the Top Chef finalists "You gotta cook that roux until you're past the point of comfortability; when you're really uncomfortable, that's when you know you're getting close." In other words, cooking is mostly about feeling. It's about being connected to the food you're making and listening to the ingredients. That's honestly what makes the difference between a good cook and a great cook.
Well I hope this inspires you to try out some roux! Check back soon for a recipe on a simple gumbo (perfect for cold winter nights!) and a classic lasagna recipe using bechamel!

Do's & Don'ts: Kitchen Basics Edition

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

I asked and you answered. Some quick notes on basics of the kitchen in terms of what TO do and what NOT to do.

Fortunately, there are a few "rules" in the kitchen that will always hold true. These are based on both techniques learned in culinary schools, ideas often reinforced in cookbooks, and quite often knowledge acquired by the regular house chef like myself. I thought I'd share some of my top tips on what works and what you should never do in the kitchen. I hope this helps clarify some things and gets you cracking on some wonderful foods!

DO let your meat rest at room temperature before grilling.

This is probably one of the best pieces of advice I ever learned, courtesy of Mr. Bobby Flay. Removing the meat out from the fridge and letting it stand out at room temperature for about 15 minutes will ensure you get even cooking and those fabulous grill marks we all aspire to have. The problem is when you go straight from fridge to grill is that the steak or pattie is very cold, and when applied to the grill, only the outsides will get cooked (the part that has direct contact with the heat) while the inside will stay pretty raw since it's still very cold in there. Then you cut into it and see the middle is still quite bloody rare, so you go back to the grill and then end up burning the whole thing.

By taking it out to room temperature first, you raise the temperature of the whole meat, thus enabling you to better manipulate doneness. And the grill marks are pretty cool too.

Same principle applies when you're roasting a large piece of meat like prime rib roast or turkey. By bringing it to room temperature first, you're going to ensure the whole thing cooks properly. And that's really important when you're working with poultry.

DON'T put too much stuff in your guacamole!! Please, stop the insanity!

One thing I can't stand is when people add other ingredients to guacamole. It's a popular thing to do in America, but people never stopped to think about why. Guacamole, no matter what vegetables or seasonings you put into it (tomatoes, onions, garlic or none of the above), should get its creamy texture from the damn avocado. Not sour cream or mayo (gasp!). I know many people do this and it's wrong, so stop doing it. The only reason why you've tasted recipes in restaurants that have both of those things is because they're trying to stretch the expensive avocado. By adding sour cream or mayo to it you're adding volume to the dish, and thus need less avocado to get a larger amount.

But this does a few things: (1) it's not guacamole anymore; (2) it's watering down the flavor of the avocados; (3) it's going to give a peculiar taste to it.

So stop doing it. Now.

DO keep your knives as sharp as possible!

This may sound insane, but the sharper the knife the less likely you'll cut yourself. I'll repeat that: the sharper the knife, the less likely you'll cut yourself. Why?

Because when the knife is sharp the blade will do the work for you. That's how a knife works. All you're doing is holding the handle and guiding the knife in the direction you want while the blade does the cutting. The more pressure you find yourself having to put down on the blade, the duller your blade is. And then you're doing the work instead of the knife. When your blade is dull its more likely to slip: instead of going right into the onion for example, it'll skip off the surface and onto your finger. And when you're adding all that pressure then that's all it takes to get a nice cut into your index finger. When the knife is sharp it'll grip immediately on contact with the vegetable or whatever and then all you'll have to do is guide it up and down to cut through.

Everyone should have a sharpener for their knives. Most knife sets come with one. If you don't have one, go buy one. If you have a specialty knife like a Santoku (like me), then you can get a special sharpener just for that. I'll write a more detailed blog about knives soon.

And Jacques Pepin recommends we get our knives professionally sharpened once a year, assuming we use them on average 5 days per week every week. Do this and you'll keep your knives (and fingers) longer!

DON'T overcook your meats and seafood! It's already dead, you don't need to kill it again!

Oye one of my biggest pet peeves. At home and restaurants. Especially at restaurants.

This happens most often when grilling. When grilling, you have to make sure you're in control of the flame. This is most easily done by using a gas grill where you can control the temperature like you can on a stove top range. If you're doing charcoal, then it gets tougher.

Related to grilling, another big mistake people make especially when dealing with burger patties, chicken or fish, is they move the pieces around too much. A grill is not a pan; it's not designed to be an even surface area condusive to consant stirring or sauteing. If you want to saute chicken, then do it in a pan, not on the grill. Often I've seen (and used to do myself) people compulsively move meat or fish around while grilling. All this does is screw up the cooking process and in the case of fish, break it.

There is a very simple rule that Bobby Flay taught the rest of us to totally eliminate this issue: The meat (or fish) will tell you when it's ready to be flipped.

How many times have you placed a chicken breast or burger or even worse, a piece of fish like halibut on the grill and then found yourself scraping it up until it falls into pieces? Uh huh...it's ok. I used to do that too. Hell, Andrew still does that sometimes. This is a perfect example of us not listening, not paying attention to our food when cooking.

When the meat or fish is grilling (or even in the pan for that matter), the heat is going to create a crust on the side that is directly in contact with the heat. By laws of physics, this crust is going to (a) protect the interior of the food, creating a moist and wonderful center and (b) magically pull away from the grill. It's magical. When the crust has formed on the bottom, it'll pull away very easily. That's when you know you can flip it over. It doesn't have to be black...you'll just have to give it a nudge with your tongs and see if you can move it easily. If any part of it sticks, then give it more time. And guess what? By not disturbing it and moving it around a hundred times you'll get amazing grill marks too!

Everybody wins.

DO pay attention to your heat level.

I get this question all the time: "...and then everything was in the pan like you said and then I put the stock in to make the sauce and it all burned!!" My automatic response: "Did you forget to reduce the heat to medium?" To which comes a sheepish "Oh."

Many home cooks think there are two levels of heat: none and nuclear.


Go to your stove right now and look at the range. Even if you have an electric one (for some God awful reason), check out the little dials on the bottom. Chances are they have words something like "low...medium...high" of if you're really lucky like I am you'll have numbers "1, 2, 3, 4, 5..." That's there to help you! I want you to stare at that for a second. Then turn your range on and play with the knob and see how the flame gets bigger when you push it up and then very low when you pull it back down. That's called controlling your temperature.

Just because you have a pan or pot on there and you can't see the pretty blue flame anymore doesn't mean it's not there. If you're cooking on high flame the entire time you're going to burn your food; if you're on low from the beginning you'll never caramelize. When you read recipes that say "reduce heat to low" or "simmer on medium" that's referencing the heat level. You need to pay attention to that. Frankly, those directions are more important than the actual ingredients! You can have French Laundry quality onions and mushrooms in the pan but if you're on level 13 with your heat, they're going to burn and taste like shit.

I'm serious here: go to the stove and really play around with it. Get to know the machinery you're working with and memorize how high or low the flames work on your stove top. You'll see this alone will gradually improve your cooking.

DON'T overdose your food with seasonings.

Yes, food can OD too.

I'm a big fan of letting the ingredients do the talking. If I have a beautiful aged filet mignon I paid $40 at the butcher's for and cooked it perfectly, but ended up crusting it with Lawry's seasoning. I killed it. Again. Morte.

Be judicious with your seasonings. Don't overdo it. Seasonings are meant to enhance the natural tastes and flavors of food, not overpower it. Now I'm sure you'll argue with me about cuisines that seem to do just opposite. Look at Indian food for example, or a classic Mexican mole that has a hundred ingredients in it. Yes, but that's something totally different. That's called "building flavors" and creating "complex sauces." And yes, they do completely overpower the chicken in the tikka masala. But for those dishes you are eating it for the masala or the mole; you're not eating it for the taste of chicken.

People tend to make this mistake most often when grilling. Notice I said grilling and not "bbq." Bbq is all about complex flavored rubs and sauces and wood chips where again the point is to focus on that rather than the meat; the meat becomes more of vehicle of texture rather than flavor. But when you grill or even bake or roast, you can't kill the natural flavors.

The worst is with roasted chicken. A beautifully moist, soft, heavenly roasted chicken that's been killed with Montreal steak seasoning. Yes, I said steak seasoning. All I can say is WTF. How about instead you sprinkle it with some good sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, stuff it with fresh herbs and some halved oranges and lemons and let it go. You'll be shocked how beautiful it will be.

And get in the habit of sprinkling with your fingers rather than dumping out of a container -- you'll have much better control.

DO marinate your food longer than 20 minutes. Why not try 2 days?!

Yes, that would be a full 48 hours.

Tired of that dry, flavorless chicken breast? Problem solved: try marinating it.

When we think of marinade we often think of a concoction of herbs and oil that often resembles a salad vinaigrette. Hell, I've seen people even use bottled dressing to marinate their food (!). I think the problem with that is that it's often missing one key ingredient: acid.

Acid is a culinary term that references anything with natural acid in it! Citric foods have it (heard the term "citric acid"?) like oranges, lemons, limes, even grapefruits. Or wine! One of my all-time favorite marinades is a classic Arentinian one using a bottle of red wine, garlic, spices and skirt steaks. Even buttermilk has acid in it. Yes, buttermilk. And yogurt!

The point is that the acid is going to break down the tough meat and tenderize it, so when you cook it you'll get a beautifully moist and tender outcome. It also adds great flavor.

Marinades don't need to be terribly fancy either. For a simple lemon one, try: lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary leaves and thyme, and garlic. Or for a southwestern one try: lime juice, canola oil, frehs onion and garlic, oregano, cumin, and chile powder. For a great and insanely flavorful Greek inspiration try plain yogurt, lots of garlic, a touch of olive oil, lemon juice and fresh oregano and thyme.

DO play around with different salts.

I'm really excited about how much more we have at our fingertips now than we did even five years ago. If you're like me, you probably grew up with that navy blue paper canister of iodonized salt with the girl in the raincoat walking in the rain on the front. That was when the government felt we needed more iodine in our diet.

We've come a long way. Kosher salt is my go-to daily salt. It's lighter, flavorful, and blessed by a Rabbi. I'm also in love with fleur de sel. It's a sea salt off the coast of France that's a beautiful thing. It's real salt (like from the sea, not a mine) and I love it because it melts almost immediately. For that reason I love it on fresh produce, especially fresh summer tomatoes. There is truly nothing better. Then there's black salt from Hawaii, red salt, a combo of black and white salt, sea salts of various kinds, crystal sizes and national origins.

My advice is to get some and start experimenting. I'll write a more detailed blog about different salts soon too.

DON'T buy shrimp from Thailand -- they suck.

In Jasper Whit'es Summer Shack Cookbook, or what I affectionately refer to as The Seafood Bible, Chef Jasper White says to never buy shrimp from Thailand especially those "tiger shrimp." They're a trap - bigger is not better. They are indeed flavorless. They don't even taste like anything. He says (and I agree) to stick with shrimp from the U.S. and Mexico. And if you can get your hands on some Louisianna shrimp then go for it!!! They are truly the best shrimp I've ever had.

And a couple of things you really should not do...

NEVER use bottled lemon or lime juice. Ever.

It just sounds like something Sandra Lee would do. And that in and of itself is your answer.

But in all seriousness, I've found bottle juice to taste flat. And frankly fresh lemons and limes are so easy to come by, why wouldn't you just get the fresh ones? Plus, you can't zest a bottle. And zest is invaluable.

NEVER use pre-chopped garlic in a jar. If you do that, please never speak to me again. And yes, I'm serious.

Never in the world of cooking is there a starker difference between fresh and pre-packaged crap. Seriously, it is not hard to peel and chop garlic. Please don't EVER buy chopped garlic in a jar. It's not garlic anymore - it's gross yuckiness. It doesn't even taste like garlic anymore. It's watered down, mushy crap that will ruin your food. Please, please, please just buy the fresh garlic and if you have to, use one of those mincer devices if you can't chop it up yourself.

Please? For me?

Mardi Gras Must-Haves: Pralines & King Cake

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pralines and King Cake. Two of my top ten foods ever. They are both perfection in their own right.

King Cake isn't easy to make, and frankly given its history and ease of internet, I prefer to just order mine straight from the French Quarter. I used an amazing bakery called King King Cakes. Yes, that's two "kings" because they are that good. A wonderful online resource, they are super professional, put out an amazing product and will make any Mardi Gras celebration (or king cake fix) special and authentic. They have an assortment of king cakes that you can order, in addition to Cafe du Monde coffee, beignet mix, and even masks and beads for your Mardi Gras celebration. Definitely tab this website on your favorites and order today! They'll ship directly to your door in special packaging. Our cakes (ordered 2) came perfectly fresh and with the appropriate decorations (icing and sugars).

The pralines, however, I made myself.

Pralines (pronounced "praw-lins") is actually a very old French confection dating back to 17th century France! Yes, despite their snobbery, we can credit The Frogs for yet another culinary masterpiece. Praline references anything with caramel: nuts, dried fruits, candies. But the most commonly used ingredient is the nut. In America, it's the pecan. When French settlers moved into Louisiana they found both sugar cane and pecan trees aplenty, so the pecan praline was born.

The praline is named after the French confectionist Marshal du Plessis-Praslin. Praslin (pronounced in French "praw-lan") is where our American confection gets its pronunciation. Stories vary, but the most commonly held one is that Praslin asked his personal chef to come up with an irresistible treat for him to give to the women he was courting. So these treats, originally made with almonds, were wrapped in a parcel with his initial on it, hence naming it after Praslin.

Whatever the genesis, they're amazing and you'll be hooked too. My favorite recipe for pralines is Emeril Lagasse's. It's easy, authentic, and all you need is a candy thermometer to make the magic happen. Make a few batches today!

Creamy Pecan Pralines

1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
4 Tbsp unsalted butter (that's 1/2 a stick)
2 Tbsp water
1/4 tsp salt
1.5 cups chopped pecans

Mix light brown sugar, granulated sugar, heavy cream, butter, water and salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until sugar dissolves. Stir in pecans and cook over medium heat until mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 238 to 240 degrees F on a candy thermometer. If you spoon a drop of boiling syrup into a cup of ice water, it will form a soft ball that flattens easily between your fingers.

Remove pan from heat and stir rapidly until mixture thickens. Drop pralines by the spoonfuls, 1-inch apart onto parchment paper-lined baking sheets. Let cool completely until firm. Store in an airtight container.

Here are some pictures I took while making my pralines to help you if you've never made candy before.

Here the mixture is bubbling and getting to "soft ball" stage. This is right before I pulled the mixture from the heat. Notice the gorgeous deep caramel color:

You'll be tempted to stir with a spoon and even take a taste. DON'T DO IT! On both accounts! First, by stirring you'll actually disrupt the cooking process and then you'll ruin your pralines. Second, boiling sugar is actually hotter than boiling water, so if you want to permanently scald your tongue and mouth, then go ahead and take that taste. I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait until they're all set and cooled. If I can do it, you can do it.

When I first started making candy (not that I do it all the time, but occasionally I'll do a praline or caramel or whatever), I was completely confused about the whole candy thermometer. So I thought I'd share my thoughts quickly on that here.

Here's a picture of my fancy one from Williams-Sonoma:

I like it because it clips very easily to the side of the pan and easily adjusts with height, even while you're cooking. Mine is digital and can be programmed. So since I knew I needed this to be at "soft ball" stage, I programmed it to beep when it gets to that point, and that way I could go ahead and do other things while it cooked and not have to worry about constantly watching it.

You don't need anything this fancy; a regular candy thermometer will certainly get the job done. But keep in mind that one you'll need to watch like a hawk because when working with candy, once it gets past its desired temperature, it's going to permanently change into something else and you'll need to start from scratch.

My thermometer cost $25 at Williams-Sonoma. And like all candy thermometers, they can be used for stove-top deep frying as well.

Here's a picture of the mixture after I beat it for 3 minutes. Notice how the caramel has thickened. The purpose of beating the mixture after you take it off the heat is twofold: (1) you're beating air into it so the air is going to cool the mixture down immediately and (2) the air actually has mass, so it's going to add volume to your mixture and thus make it thicker. Didn't think I knew about science too, did ya? ;)

I've seen recipes that say you could use a handheld mixer fitted with the beater attachments to achieve this same result, and that's fine. For me, I don't like to get dishes dirty unnecessarily, and I prefer to use my favorite machines -- my arms and hands -- to get the job done.

Once you've beaten your mixture, then go ahead and spoon it out. You must use parchment or wax paper! Do NOT place these on a plate or on a baking sheet or worse, a cutting board. They will stick to it immediately and break when you try to remove them.

You can certainly use a baking sheet or cutting board underneath the paper (as I did above), but you must have that paper down so they can set nicely and be easily removed.

Once you've made your pralines, you can make them as little or large as you like. Don't worry about gooey caramel oozing out the sides of the pecans - the pecans will likely cluster in the middle of each scoop as they set up. That's fine. If it really bugs you, gently use a fork to move out your pecans to the sides. Depending on how large you make them, this recipe will give you around 12 pralines. But my advice is to make another batch because these go so fast at parties. I count 2 per person for a portion! And you'll want some leftovers.

Pralines can be made up to 3 days in advance. More than that and they start to get a little soft. You want them to have that fresh, delicate crisp when you bite into them and the pecans. You can use different nuts if you like, but note that it won't be a traditional New Orleans style praline.

Muffa-what? You Gotta Try This Sandwich...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It's February which means it's almost time for my second favorite holiday (Halloween being the first, of course). No, it's not the one Hallmark made up to eek out more cash out of us on red and pink colored valentines and boxes of horrible chocolates. I'm talking about Mardi Gras.

With the New Orleans Saints making it to the Super Bowl this past weekend, we threw a Mardi Gras themed party in their honor to help cheer them on to victory (Go Saints!). The food was a huge hit and everyone begged me to share the recipes, so here goes!

We'll start with the Muffuletta sandwiches. Muffuletta (also spelled/pronounced "muffoletta") is as much a traditional New Orleans food as a gumbo or praline. I love it because it's a sandwich that's easy to make and just packed with flavor and colors, just like the rest of the Mardi Gras celebration. It was invented in the early 1900's in New Orleans French Quarter by a Sicilian immigrant who owned and operated a store called Central Grocery. The sandwich itself gets its name from the muffuletta bread -- a round, spongy loaf similar to a French boule bread -- but that is rather difficult to find outside of a strong Italian community. The heart of the sandwich is the olive "salad" which is a combination of virtually every pickled vegetable known to man, olive oil, vinegar and spices that is left to marinate at least a week for flavors to meld together. The rest of the sandwich has a selection of deli meats and cheeses (the original has salami, capicola, mortadella, provelone and emmentaler) that are compressed with the olive salad inside so the spongy bread can soak up all the flavors and juices.

Here's my recipe for Muffuletta sandwiches, adapted to use more readily available ingredients.

First off, the famed Olive Salad:

2 cups green olives with pimentos, drained
2 cup pitted kalamata olives, drained
2 cups mixed pickled vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, pearl onions, etc.), drained
1 cup roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, drained
1 cup pepperoncinis, drained and stems removed (seeds are ok)
1/3 cup capers, drained
2-3 fresh celery, chopped
8 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp fresh oregano, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp fresh thyme, leaves pulled from stems
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, roughly chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and cover tightly. Refrigerate at least 3 days or up to 2 weeks, tossing the salad once a day.

Can be used for sandwiches, salads or garnish to meats and fish.

To prepare the muffuletta sandwich I made for the party:

1 muffuletta loaf of bread (or boule, or French miche (pictured below) or equivalent)
1/2 lb Canadian ham, thinly sliced
1/2 lb Genoa salami, thinly sliced
1/2 lb soppressata, thinly sliced
1/2 lb aged provelone cheese, thinly sliced
1/2 lb mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
3 cups of the olive salad (recipe above), pulsed in a food processor
extra virgin olive oil

To begin, cut your sandwich. This will depend on what bread you're using. If you can find a traditional muffuletta, then go ahead and just slice it through in half. If using a French boule or miche (as I did), then do something different. Cut out the top of the bread. leaving the sides intact. You're creating a basket for the olive salad, meats and cheeses. Take out some of the spongy bread inside but make sure to leave a bit in there to soak up the olive salad juices.

Spoon in half of the olive mixture into the bottom of the bread "basket" in one even layer, then drizzle it with the olive oil.

Next, layer in your ham (it's ok if you overlap), and then repeat with the salami next, as pictured here:

Repeat the process with the soppressata, and then with the mozarella cheese:

Repeat again and end with the provelone:

Top again with the remaining olive mixture and another good drizzle of olive oil. Stuff the top layer of bread you cut out back on top and press it back in with a good amount of pressure until the bread retains its original shape. Cover very tightly with plastic wrap (it helps if you have someone hold the bread while the other person wraps it), making sure to cover it over and over and over again tightly. This will not only ensure freshness but will also help the sandwich stay very compact, which will help the olive salad penetrate the bread more effectively.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. This can be done a whole day in advance.
Cut the sandwich with a sharp knife into desired portions like this:

And here's a cross-section of the different layers:

My version obviously isn't a perfectly traditional muffuletta, as I didn't have all the traditional ingredients readily available. But I think I did hit the flavor marks and spirit of the sandwich. Some people like keeping the olive salad whole (un-processed in the food processor), which is fine too. I wanted it pulsed to make it a little easier to eat for everyone.
Enjoy it!

Wings! Wings! Wings! Part 2: The Classic Buffalo Wing

Friday, February 5, 2010

With Super Bowl coming up in just a couple of days, I thought I'd post another quick recipe on wings because let's face it, wings equal football games. The last recipe I posted for Terriyaki Wings is great and baked with a sweet sauce (and awesome), but I thought I'd post a classic buffalo-style wing as well.

You need to know a couple of things about wings.

1. The "wing" is actually made up of three pieces: the thicker boned part called the "drummette" and the two-boned part, aptly called the "double-bone," and the pointed edge called the "tip." Most people cut off the tip as it has no meat on it (but is very tasty to flavor stocks and soups!) and then separate the drummette and double-bone to give the standard wing appearance we all know today. Separating the wing also makes it easier to cook and eat. You can find wings already cut up this way at the market, but if you can't then it's easy to just cut the pieces at the joint using a sharp knife. A cleaver honestly works best.

2. Sauce is actually optional. Although buffalo style is the most well-known (and my personal favorite), sauces can range anywhere from naked (no sauce) to jerk, asian, hawaiian, and even bbq flavors. You can literally use any sauce you can think of. I've even seen wings with a white alfredo-type sauce. They looked gross, but the possibilities are endless.

3. The dipping sauce debate. The reason why you have a bleu cheese sauce is to combat the heat in the buffalo sauce. The bleu cheese is made with sour cream which is a natural neutralizer to the cayenne pepper base in the hot sauce. One can use ranch sauce also but personally I find ranch to be both disgusting and offensive. It belongs on a salad and only on a salad. I've seen bbq sauced wings served with honey-mustard dipping sauce that worked out really wonderfully. What you want is a balance of flavors. If the sauce on your wings is already sweet/sour/spicy then you don't really need a dipping sauce. If it's straight forward hot sauce then offer the classic bleu and celery.

4. Wings can be fried or baked. Either is ok. Just make sure the wing is cooked all the way through and has a nice crisp to it. If frying then use a good oil like peanut or canola oil (not olive! never olive!) and if baking then use a high temperature (400 or above please!). And to ensure a crispy wing, they must be DRY when you fry or bake them! To do this just pat the ever-loving-shit out of them with enough paper towels to carpet your living room. I'm serious...it makes all the difference.

5. Wings are meant to be messy so napkins or wet naps are a must! That's when swiping those extra packaged wetnaps from KFC will come in handy!

Now that we've dispensed with some basics, let's get on with the wings!

Here's a great recipe from Paula Deen that illustrates a good fried wing with a simple buffalo sauce. Your heat is going to come from the hot sauce you choose. I like Frank's Red Hot myself. But you can do Tabasco as well or any hot sauce you love. If you want even more heat you can add some extra cayenne pepper when you make the sauce.

Hot Buffalo Wings by Paula Deen
1/2 cup Roquefort cheese, crumbled
1 (3 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup mayo
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp wine vinegar
1/2 cup sour cream
12 chicken wings, disjointed
oil for frying
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup hot sauce
Cream the Roquefort and cream cheese in a bowl. Add the mayo, lemon juice, vinegar and sour cream and blend well. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
To make the wings, heat the oil to 350 degrees and deep fry the wings until golden brown and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
In a saucepan, melt the butter and add the hot sauce. Toss the wings in the sauce immediately and serve hot with the side of bleu cheese dip and celery stalks.
My Notes: You can also garnish with carrot sticks as well (or in place of the celery).
I find the easiest way to toss the wings is to fry them in batches (always in batches so you don't overcrowd the pot and bring the temperature down!) and then place them all in a very large mixing bowl. Then I pour the sauce over them all at once and give them all a big toss. Don't worry if some get cold - the buffalo sauce will warm them up again.
If you can't find the pre-cut wings you can always ask your butcher to prep them for you.

Oooo La La...French Onion Soup Please!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Quite possibly the best soup ever invented. I still marvel at how much depth in flavor an onion can create. Raw, they can be piquant and harsh (and if you're me, you love that). But when sauteed slowly in a little butter, they become a soft, caramel-colored goodness that is sweet, rich, and endless in flavor. Add melted cheese on top of that and we're in business.

In winter when most fruits and vegetables were still dormant and scarce, onions proved to be a wonderful go-to ingredient to flavor stews, roasts, and virtually any dish. But perhaps it shines most in this classic French soup.

My recipe here is for two people. My husband Andrew and I love it on a cold winter's night with a glass of red, watching a movie or talking in front of a roaring fire when we're having an in-home date night. You can easily expand the recipe. It will warm your home and your heart. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Date Night French Onion Soup serves 2

2 Tbsp good butter (recommend Land O' Lakes)
1 very large brown onion, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 very large yellow onion (can use Vidallia or Maui), sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 cloves of garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1.5 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 small bay leaf (or a large one torn in half)
4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
4 cups good beef broth (recommend Swanson's)
2 day-old slices French baguette, cut 1 inch thick
gruyere cheese (shreddd or sliced)

Special Equipment: oven-proof soup bowls or large ramekins

Melt the butter in a pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and season with salt and pepper to taste. The salt is going to help draw out the juices from the onions so they caramelize well. Cook onions, stirring occasionally, until very soft and caramelized, about 20 minutes. You want to make sure to scrape the bottom of the pot occasionally with your wooden spoon to release the "brown bits" before they burn. By doing this, you'll also help the onions achieve that overall caramel brown color which is the base of flavor for the entire soup.

While the onions cook, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Once the onions are nice and caramelized, add the garlic and cook another minute or so until garlic is fragrant. Add the flour all at once and stir in well, making sure all the onions and garlic get coated with it. The flour is going to help thicken the soup once the liquids are added. Stirring constantly, cook for 2 minutes in order to draw out the raw flour flavor. If you don't stir it constantly, the flour may burn or clump and then it won't dissolve properly. Add the brandy very carefully to the pot and you'll see the mixture will get thickened almost instantly. Incorporate the brandy into the onion mixture and use it to help loosen the brown bits on the bottom and sides of the pot.

Toss in the bay leaf and thyme sprigs (you can add them whole and remove them later or take the leaves off of the stems if you like now). Then slowly add the beef broth, stopping a couple of times to stir in the onion mixture. You'll find the soup will thicken then release as you add the broth at first.

Increase the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat back down so that the soup is allowed to simmer for 20 minutes.

To prepare the servings, ladle equal amount of soup into two oven-safe soup bowls or large ramekins. No need to butter them first. Top each bowl with a slice of French baguette, and using a spoon or utensil, gently push the slice into the soup so it can absorb the liquid. Top the slice with a generous portion of gruyere cheese. If using sliced cheese, don't worry if the cheese overlaps onto the lips of the bowl.

Place bowls on a baking sheet (in case the cheese bubbles over you want it to catch on the baking sheet and not on the bottom of your oven!) and bake in oven until the cheese melts and is bubbly, 10-15 minutes. Remove and serve immediately.

Classic Game Day Dippers

Monday, February 1, 2010

Whether you're hosting a party yourself or going over to your friend or family's house, dips are a perfect food for Super Bowl. Most are pretty simple using a few ingredients, are super easy to prepare and best of all, can be done in advance. Also important to keep in mind is if you're traveling to a party and want to bring a treat, dips travel very easily too.

I've listed here my five favorite dips for game day. You can make them as fancy or casual as you like. And for sure, they will please. Enjoy.

Mishy's 7 Layer Dip serves 8-10

2 cans refried beans
2 Tbsp prepared salsa (recommended Pace)
1 recipe easy guacamole or your favorite store-bought guacamole
sour cream
1.5 cup freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese (recommended Cracker Barrel)
4-5 scallions, chopped small
4-5 Roma tomatoes, chopped small
1/4 cup sliced black Spanish olives (drained if using canned)

Place the refried beans in a nonstick pan. Add the salsa and mix in. Cook the beans until warmed through and salsa is incorporated. Spread the beans in one even layer in a clear baking dish. Let to cool a few minutes. Once cool to the touch, spread the guacamole in an even layer on top of the beans. Spread an even layer of sour cream on top of the guacamole. Top the sour cream with an even layer of the cheddar cheese. Make sure to really layer it on thickly, covering as much of the white sour cream as possible. Top the cheese with the scallions in one layer, then repeat with the tomatoes and finally ending with the olives.

Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with sturdy tortilla chips and bring to room temperature about 10 minutes before serving.

Tips: You can certainly use pre-grated cheese but I like Cracker Barrel for this so I have to grate my own. You can also use any cheese blend you like (Monteray, Pepper Jack, Mexican blend) but I like the contrast between the white sour cream and the yellow cheddar. Feel free to make your own combination!

Sometimes I add an extra layer of seasoned ground beef to this dip. If I do that I place it between the refried beans and the guacamole. If serving for a large party I like to do this exact recipe as vegetarians can also enjoy it.

You can also use chopped white onion instead of scallion or omit the onions all together. For some green if onion isn't your thing, try some fresh cilantro or even finely shredded lettuce for color and crunch.

Dip can be made a few hours in advance. More than that and the guacamole will start to turn brown around the edges.

I like using a clear lasagna dish for this dip so you can see all the colorful layers. If you don't have one, then just go ahead and use whatever you've got!

Onion Dip From Scratch by Alton Brown

2 Tbsp olive oil
2.5 cups diced onion
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1.5 cups sour cream
3/4 cup mayo
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp kosher salt

In a saute pan over medium heat add oil, heat and add onions and salt. Cook the onions until they are caramelized, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Mix the rest of the ingredients, and then add the cooled onions. Refrigerate then stir again before serving.

My Notes: I like serving onion dip with a veggie platter but you can also do a good potato chip. I like Kettle brand Salt & Freshly Ground Black Pepper for this dip.

Don't be tempted to cook the onions on a high heat to get them done faster; they will burn. It's necessary to slowly caramelize the onions to achieve maximum flavor.

Salsa Fresca with Fried Plantains (aka Tostones)
8 ripe Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped very small
1 small sweet onion (Vidallia) finely chopped
4 scallions, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, minced
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
juice of 2 limes
1 Tbsp olive or canola oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
3 green plantains
canola or peanut oil for frying
Make the salsa first. Combine the tomatoes, onions, scallions, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice, and oil in a bowl. Season to taste with kosher salt and black pepper. Give a good toss, cover and let stand in refrigerator at least 2 hours so flavors can meld together. Before serving, check for seasoning and adjust with salt and pepper as needed.
To prepare the plantains, heat about 4 tablespoons in a large frying pan until very hot. Meanwhile, peel the plantains and cut into 1.5 inch thick slices. Place the slices in the pan, cut side up, careful not to crowd the pan, and fry until golden brown on one side. Flip and fry the other side. Remove to a cutting board. Add another batch. While those cook, take one browned piece and using the flat part of your chef's knife or a heavy pan, smash the plantain with one strong smack creating a flat disk. Repeat this process with all the pieces. Return these flat disks back to the oil to finish browning. You're looking for an overall golden brown color.
Remove from heat and drain on a paper towel. Season liberally with salt immediately while still hot. Serve with salsa fresca.
Tip: you can also serve these tostones with guacamole.
Salsa can be made up to 3 days in advance and kept in an air-tight container. Just give it a stir before serving. Tostones can be made in advance and heated in a 250 degree oven for 10 minutes. But they are best served freshly fried. And of course you can just use tortilla chips.
Party Guacamole serves 16
8-10 ripe Haas avocados
4 limes
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
4-5 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped small
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp Mexican organo (or 1/2 tsp dried)
3 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
grated queso fresco (optional)
Cut the avocados in half and spoon out the flesh into a large bowl. Reserve two pits to the side. Add the juice of the limes immediately on the avocado to prevent oxidation. Taking a fork, gently mash the avocado against the sides of the bowl. Add the onion, jalapeno, tomatoes, garlic, cumin, oregano and cilantro. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and place in serving bowl with the two reserved pits (they will help the guacamole not brown). Top with grated queso fresco and serve with tortilla chips.
Notes: Obviously you can adjust this recipe to your tastes. If you like more tomatoes then go ahead and add them. If you want to control the spice then maybe omit the jalapeno pepper. Dont' like onions? Leave them out!
Guacamole must be made right before serving as the avocados will eventually turn brown.
And remember, when working with peppers, the heat lives in the seeds and ribs of the pepper -- if you want it spicier then go ahead and leave the seeds intact. And taste the pepper before using it. Depending on the season, they will be extremely hot or acutally quite mild .
Hot Crab Dip by Paula Deen
1 pound jumbo lump crabmeat picked over for shells
1 cup grated pepper jack cheese
3/4 cup mayo
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup green onions, minced (optional)
5-6 roasted garlic cloves or 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
3 Tbsp Worcesteshire sauce
2 Tbsp fresh lemon or lime juice
1 tsp hot pepper sauce
1/2 tsp dry mustard
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Combine all ingredients in a casserole and gently stir until thoroughly mixed. Baked in oven for 40 minutes. Serve hot with crackers or toast points.
My Notes: This is a really simple and tasty hot crab dip that is obviously all about the crab. It's so simple so I like to serve it with simple crackers like basic saltines.
You can combine the ingredients and prepare in a casserole dish ahead of time (a full day), then just bake off before guests arrive.