Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day

My husband and I are hitting the road this morning en route to Virginia.  I'll be taking a week off the blog, but I stopped over at Lick the Bowl Good and saw Monica's lovely tribute to Memorial Day.  Sometimes we forget the meaning of this holiday, so today I'm dedicating my blog post to the true reason for this "day off work".

See you next week!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Playing With Fire

Memorial Day Weekend is upon us, so grilling season is in full swing!

My husband and I love to grill and we do it all year, although most frequently during the warm months.  I prefer cooking outdoors because the kitchen stays cool and clean, you get to enjoy the great outdoors, and your food gets that smoky flavor that can't be duplicated on a gas grill.

That's right, we don't own or use a gas grill.  I know they're convenient and clean, but they don't give that authentic smoky barbecue flavor.  Plus, we don't have room for one on our small deck.  Maybe in a future home we'll get one, but for now, it's all about the charcoal.

A Weber One-Touch Silver grill, to be exact.  I recommend a Weber grill because they are affordable (less than $75) and replacement parts and accessories can be purchased at any home improvement store. Make sure you buy a cover for your grill. You don't want it to get rusted out.
Ours is quite dirty well-loved:

Actually, it just needs to be cleaned.  Usually we just let the coals burn out, cover it, and clean it before the next use.  It's a simple process.  Just dump the ashes and old coals into a garbage bag and make sure you scrub the grates on the grill.  Grease + open flames = fire and we don't need to see the fire department at our barbecue.

Check out that charred-on mess from our last barbecue.  Not pretty.  Fortunately it can be removed with a grill brush.  You can pick one up at a hardware store for less than five bucks.  You don't have to get it perfectly clean, but you want to apply a little elbow grease and scrub off the big chunks of yucky stuff...

Don't go do something silly like covering your grates with foil.  You want to grill your food, not steam it.  Grills get dirty.  Grilled food gets charred.  That's what makes it good. 

Now, it's time to make a fire.  Remove the top (larger grate) and then get our favorite tool, the charcoal chimney.  You'll find you'll use less charcoal when you start using a chimney.  You can pick one up for less than $15 at a home improvement store.   

Stuff the bottom (small compartment) of the chimney with crumpled up newspaper.  Flip it over and fill the top (larger compartment) with charcoal. Do not add lighter fluid!  You don't need lighter fluid with this method, plus lighter fluid makes your food taste... different.

Simply sit the charcoal chimney (charcoal side up) on the smaller, bottom grate and carefully light the newspaper on fire and burn baby burn!

Now is the time to go do something else for about 30 minutes.  Drink a beer or cocktail.  Take your marinated meat out of the fridge to get it closer to room temperature before grilling.  Water the garden.  Just keep an eye on the chimney because in about a half hour the coals will smoke, then turn white, which means it's time to cook. 

When your coals look like this (above), it's time to dump them out onto the lower (smaller) grate.


At this point you can decide how you need to arrange your heat.  You could position the coals in a pile in the center for a combination of direct and indirect cooking, you could push all the coals to one side... there are several possibilities.  (Hmm... and possibilities for future grilling blog posts.)

We opted to place our coals in the middle this time.  This allowed us to sear our steaks, then move them to indirect heat until they reached the desired doneness.  Meats like hot dogs and burgers cook quickly.  Chicken may take a bit longer. 

So, that's the basics on building a fire.  I'm planning to share some of our favorite grilling recipes and tips throughout the summer, so stay tuned. 

Special thanks to my husband for serving as the model for this grilling demo.  Okay, actually, he pretty much did everything while I just held the camera. 

P.S. Even Milo and Zelda love barbecue.  It seems these dogs are quite fond of the aroma of grilled meats.  We can't enjoy a barbecued meal without looking at these adorable faces and listening to their wimpers.  We may have given them a hot dog.  Maybe.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pan Seared Sea Scallops

My mom prefers a nice dinner at home to a crowded restaurant on Mother's Day.  The crowds, the limited menus, the stress, and the high prices are enough to keep anyone out of a restaurant on any holiday. 

For the past few years I've opted to cook for my mom at her home on Mother's Day.  I haven't always been a confident cook and there were years when my attempts were less than stellar (including one year when I had a disaster with a turkey meatloaf and my mom ordered fried chicken).  Over the years my cooking has improved and this year I decided to make pan seared scallops.  I was inspired to make this dish after enjoying sea scallops at my anniversary dinner with my husband back in March. 

Sea scallops aren't cheap, but they are much more impressive on a plate than their tinier cousins, bay scallops.  I picked up a 2.5 pound bag of sea scallops at Costco for $23.  Our Costco sells fresh seafood every weekend and I've found they have the best prices on most items.  If you're buying scallops, I'd budget 1/2 pound for each person.  Also, they need to be very fresh, so make sure you purchase them the same day you cook them.

I did some research on recipes and finally decided to adapt this recipe from use real butter.

I was nervous, but it went well.  The only downside was that I was cooking for four and the scallops cooled off before I could serve them.  I think this meal is best served hot from the pan as a meal for two, or you could cover the scallops with foil to keep them warm prior to serving. 

I started by seasoning my scallops with kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper.  I dropped the scallops into a heated pan with some olive oil.  Use a stainless steel pan, if possible.  You won't get that delicious brown crust with Teflon coating.

The scallops don't need to cook more than 2-3 minutes on the first side.  You'll know they are ready when it's easy for you to flip them over with tongs.  You don't want to rip that delicious flesh apart, but you don't want them to turn rubbery...

I'll admit that my first batch didn't brown as much as I would have liked, but I made them again the following weekend (smaller batch) and they were perfect.

I cooked them about 1-2 minutes on the second side and immediately removed them from the heat and onto a plate.  It's so easy to overcook scallops and they aren't delightful when they are rubbery.  I like mine soft and meaty and just past translucent in the middle.
After I sat the scallops off to the side, I worked on a quick pan sauce.  I melted butter in the pan, tossed in some minced garlic, and then deglazed the pan with sauvignon blanc...

I used a whisk to scrape all the tasty bits off the bottom of the pan and then let the sauce reduce for about three minutes.  Then I poured some of the sauce over the scallops, topped the whole thing with fresh chives, and brought the meal to the table...


I served the sea scallops with roasted asparagus and rice pilaf.  I made sure the rice was cooked and on standby and I roasted the asparagus in the oven while I cooked the scallops.  Total cooking time was less than 20 minutes.  This meal is more about skill than endurance.

It went over really well.  I felt like a restaurant chef and mom had a very special Mother's Day.  I think this would be a great menu for a date night or any other intimate occasion at home.

Here's the recipe (well, it's more of a method than a recipe...):

Pan Seared Sea Scallops
serves 2-3

1 pound fresh sea scallops (patted dry)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup dry white wine (I used sauvignon blanc.  Don't use anything you wouldn't drink.)
2 cloves garlic, minced 
salt and pepper
fresh chives or parsley for garnish

Season the scallops with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.  Preheat the olive oil in a wide, stainless steel skillet to medium-high.

Carefully place the scallops in the hot skillet.  Do not crowd the pan.  Don't place them closer than 1" apart.  We're searing, not steaming.

Let the scallops cook for 2-3 minutes on the first side.  They are ready to flip when you can easily work them away from the pan.  You don't want to tear them to shreds when you flip them.

Cook the scallops for 1 minute on the second side.  Remove from heat immediately and place scallops on a plate.

Drop the butter into the hot pan.  Reduce heat to medium and melt butter.  Add garlic to the pan and saute for 30 seconds.  Deglaze the pan with the wine.  Use a whisk to scrape off bits at the bottom of the pan.  Cook sauce for 3 minutes, then pour over scallops, garnish with herbs, and serve immediately.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ode to Chipotle

Chipotle is my all-time favorite, quick casual restaurant.  I fell in love with it back in 2002 when I was a graduate student in the Washington, DC area.  I'm from South Jersey by way of Delaware (a.k.a. the sticks, the boondocks, the country) and we didn't have anything like this when I was growing up...

Fresh meats, tortillas, veggies, and salsas wrapped in a thin, warm tortilla.  Or, in a bowl as a salad.  Or, in a shell as a taco.  Fresh grilled chicken, seasoned chunks of beef, shredded tasty pork, crisp veggies that are never overcooked, the most delicious fresh salsas not from a jar, yummy rice flavored with cilantro and lime...

All served in a pseudo-contemporary, stainless steel meets Mexican art-styled storefront.  

The best part?  I get to walk down the assembly line and watch (through the glass) as my burrito is made.  I can say "just a little cheese" or "a bit more salsa".  As someone who is a foodie and who prefers to make her own meal, this is heaven.

When you get to the end of the line and your burrito (or taco or salad) is stuffed to your liking, you choose a drink (I'm partial to Nantucket Nectars Apple Juice), pay the cashier and find your seat.  It's a grab and go kinda place.  They pack up your burrito like a cute little present...

Now, I'm partial to the chicken fajita burrito.  I order it 99 percent of the time.  Just looking at this picture makes me smile.  Then, you peel back the foil and take a huge bite...

I like mine with chicken, rice, green peppers, red onions, pico de gallo, a bit of cheese, and lettuce.  No sour cream for me, thank you very much.  I don't like my burritos too wet.  It's just a bit spicy and warm and cool at the same time.  Perfection.

The only thing that isn't perfect is that we live 40 minutes from the nearest Chipotle.  There are no Chipotle locations in Delaware, so we have to drive up to Pennsylvania.  It's not a long ride, but with traffic it's a hassle.  When I lived in the DC area I was able to enjoy one of these babies every week since there was a location near campus.  I moved back to Delaware in 2004 and spent five years dreaming about Chipotle (and writing to the company begging for a Delaware location) until they finally opened a store in West Chester, PA in 2009.  Not exactly Delaware, but beggars can't be choosers.

Now, my husband thinks there are other burrito spots that are just as good.  He enjoys Moe's, Baja Fresh, California Tortilla, and a few other spots.  I'm sorry, but nothing compares to Chipotle.  Period.  Chipotle, if you are reading this, please open a location in Delaware.  Please.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Chocolate Pecan Pie

Ever since I've returned from my trip to Kentucky I've had Kentucky Derby Pie on my mind.  Between that trip and the Kentucky Derby earlier this month I decided that I should make an attempt at my own chocolate nut pie.  Apparently Kentucky Derby Pie is trademarked (plus this pie wasn't exactly the same in texture and taste), so I'm re-naming this one Chocolate Pecan Pie.

I did some research online, found this recipe and I am pleased with the results.  I simplified it by using a frozen deep dish crust (I nearly had too much filling, though, so be careful).  One major note of caution:  this pie will be extremely soft, even after it cools.  If you want it to cut neatly, bake it a day in advance and refrigerate it prior to cutting and serving. 

This pie is very, very easy to make, especially if you cheat and use a pre-made crust.  I don't normally have bourbon in the house, so I went to the liquor store and paid $2.50 for one of these (which is exactly 1/4 cup, perfect for this recipe):

Yes, I know Jack Daniels is from Tennessee.  The dude at the liquor store said it would work for bourbon even though it is whiskey.  What do I know?  The pie tasted good.

You just mix up all the wet stuff, then stir in the chocolate chunks and pecans...

Pour it into a prepared pie crust (cover the edges before baking!)...

Bake it for about an hour and 15 minutes...

Oh yes... another dessert worthy of its own dinner party.  Serve it with good vanilla ice cream and/or fresh whipped cream.  Oooh... and coffee... or an ice cold glass of milk.

Just make sure you cool and refrigerate it before you attempt to cut it!  (You can always microwave individual sections after you cut them.)

Chocolate Pecan Pie (a.k.a. Kentucky Derby Pie, but not really...)
from Providence Food Examiner

1/2 cup butter (1 stick), melted
1/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup Karo light corn syrup
4 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 cup bourbon
3/4 cup gourmet chocolate chips
1 1/4 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, shelled and chopped in half if desired

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Roll crust according to my directions in the Best Ever Pie Crust Recipe, or use a store bought pre-baked pie crust, line a 10-inch deep dish pie pan with the dough, and flute the edges as desired. 

In a large mixing bowl, on medium speed with whisk attachment, whip butter, sugars, corn syrup, eggs, vanilla and bourbon together until frothy.

Remove bowl from mixer, and fold in chocolate chips and pecans or walnuts. Blend well.

Pour into prepared pie crust and bake at 350 for 50-60 minutes or until set.

Serve warm, or cool completely before serving with whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Yields 8-10 slices.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sweet Potato Biscuits

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and we love enjoying a big breakfast on the weekend, even during the warmer months.  Although we've finally got out of that long, cold winter we experienced earlier this year, one of the best things about all of those snow days was being able to enjoy a nice hot breakfast on a weekday.  

It's no longer cold in Delaware (thank God for the change of seasons), but I still like to experiment with fresh breads at breakfast time.  These sweet potato biscuits turned out pretty well.  Soft, but not too flaky.  Sweet, but not like dessert.  I love putting butter on breads, and I know these would be even better with cinnamon honey butter.  We served these for breakfast with Neese's sausage (imported from the great state of North Carolina) and grits, but you could absolutely add these to your bread basket for dinner.

You start with one cup of cooked, mashed sweet potatoes.  It took two medium potatoes to yield this amount.  I cook my potatoes by scrubbing, pricking with a fork, and microwaving for 8-10 minutes.  You could use canned sweet potatoes, but I think they'd be sweeter with all the syrup used in canning.  Use what you have, though.

These tender biscuits are just sweet enough and I think they'll make you smile.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
from The Food Network

2 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
1 stick butter, melted
1 1/4 cups milk
4 cups self-rising flour (if you don't have self-rising, just add 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder per cup of flour)
Pinch baking soda
3 tablespoons sugar

Mix together the sweet potatoes, butter and milk until well blended. Stir in the flour, baking soda and sugar. Shape the dough into a ball and knead about 8 to 10 times on a well-floured board. Roll the dough out 1-inch thick and cut with a 2-inch biscuit cutter. Bake in a greased baking pan in a 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until brown.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Gardening and Essential Fresh Herbs

It's almost Mother's Day which means the danger of frost has passed and it's time for me to plant my container garden on our little backyard deck!  I got up early and made a trip to the Home Depot to pick up all my supplies...

I grow fresh herbs on our deck from May through September. In the colder months I resort to (higher priced) grocery store fresh herbs. Growing your own herbs is more cost effective than purchasing them at the grocery store (one plant costs less than a handful of fresh herbs at the store, plus it will keep producing for nearly 6 months), plus you don't waste anything. I mentioned my herb garden back in this post.  I also think that fresh herbs are essential herbs and spices.  If you decide to start a garden it will cost you a few bucks the first year (I need to buy pots, plants, fertilizer, etc.), but I get so much pleasure out of growing my own vegetables and herbs and snipping them from the garden just minutes before cooking them.  If you consider how much you spend on grocery store produce and  how much of it may be thrown away before you get to eat it you'll understand the convenience of having your own garden.

Here's a list of my essential fresh herbs:

Basil - One of my favorite herbs, ever, but it's very delicate and can be difficult to grow. I use it for bruschetta and marinara. It's the perfect companion for fresh tomatoes from my garden

Rosemary - One of the few herbs that I can re-pot in my my kitchen after the cold weather arrives. I use it on my roasted pork tenderloin, in white bean dip, soups, and on any type of poultry.

Sage - Easy to grow and fantastic on pork and chicken.

Cilantro - I grow jalapeno peppers and tomatoes and cilantro helps me make delicious salsa.

I don't grow my herbs from seed because I'm impatient and busy.  I prefer to purchase small plants for $3-5 each.  To each her own.  Bonus:  sage is a perennial (it comes back every year)!  Who knew?  I know I was shocked when mine turned green and grew into a huge bush after this long winter.

So even if you have a tiny, tiny yard (like our 1/16 of an acre) you can have a garden as long as you have 8 hours of sunlight a day.  Consider giving it a try this year.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tres Leches Cake

Tres Leches Cake is probably husband's favorite dessert.  (I served it at our dinner party back in March.)  He put me on to it a few years ago, and I must admit that it's well worth the calories.  Since today is Cinco de Mayo, I'd like to celebrate by sharing one of our favorite Latin American recipes.

Yes, it kinda looks like a mushy mess, but this cake is excellent.  It's a sponge cake (light and airy, made without butter) soaked in three types of milk ("tres leches"):  half and half, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk.  Despite the generous amount of sweet milk poured onto this sheet cake, the cake maintains its integrity becomes the perfect moist and sweet vehicle for fresh whipped cream and fresh fruit.  It's light... it's soft... it's sweet... it's just right.

We literally visited restaurants up and down the East Coast looking for a version of this cake that could rival the one my husband devoured at the Brooklyn Mariott back in 2002.  We never found that perfect cake until I found this recipe by Emeril Lagasse.  I think this made my husband love me even more than he already did.

If you try this cake, please be sure to make it at least 24 hours prior to serving so it has time to cool completely and soak up all that milk...

Just cover it with plastic wrap and let it chill in the fridge overnight.  I know it's not pretty, but once you hit it with some fresh whipped cream (I don't use the icing from Emeril's recipe, the cake is sweet enough) and some fresh berries or mangoes... oh... my... goodness.  You need to bake this cake.

(P.S. Speaking of Latin American food, this carne adovada wasn't half bad.)

Tres Leches Cake
from Emeril Lagasse

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening
2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
6 large eggs, separated
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup whole milk
1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
3 cups heavy cream, divided
1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

Position rack in bottom 1/3 of oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Lightly grease a 13 by 9-inch baking pan with the shortening. Add 1 tablespoon of the flour to the greased pan and shake it around to coat the entire pan with the flour. Shake out excess flour. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the sugar with the mixer running, beating until stiff peaks form.

Add the egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well after each egg is added. In a small mixing bowl, sift together the 2 cups flour and baking powder. Add the flour mixture to the batter in stages, alternating with the whole milk, beginning and ending with the flour. (Do this quickly so that the batter does not lose its volume.) Add 1 teaspoon of the vanilla extract. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and place in the oven. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes.

In a blender, combine the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and 2 cups of the heavy cream. Cover and blend on high for 45 seconds.

Remove 1 1/2 cups of the milk mixture, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve the cake.

Pour 1/2 of the remaining milk mixture over the warm cake.

When the cake has soaked up most of the liquid, pour the remaining half of the milk mixture over the cake, and cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.

(I just use freshly whipped cream or whipped cream from the can instead of this last step.)  When ready to serve, beat the remaining cup of heavy cream in the electric mixer until soft peaks form. Add the confectioners' sugar and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla, and beat until stiff peaks form. Spread the whipped cream over the chilled cake.

Serve the cake with the reserved chilled milk sauce.
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