Monday, July 19, 2010

Carribbean Inspired Pork Skewers

I dream of cooking. I really do. There are times I wake up thinking I've actually produced a dish, only to realize that it was all in my head. Dang.

This is one of those - we had been facing several days of thunderstorms, and I suppose it was grill-deprivation that caused me to dream of juicy, succulent, tangy pork grilled off to that perfect caramelized luciousness. It just so happened that I had just received a delivery from a friend who has a garden that was producing in spades, so I was gifted with fresh produce; peppers and cherry tomatoes among them. Poking through my cabinets I found the few other ingredients I needed to make it all sing - pineapple, soy, hoisin, mirin, and black vinegar. The entire dish took only a few minutes to throw together - I spent more time chopping and skewering than actually cooking.

I also got all prep work done, went to start the grill, and discovered we were hit with one more thunderstorm. Usually a little rain doesn't stop me at the grill, but this time the rain was blowing all over - so I punted and went with plan B. The broiler! I've now done them both ways, and they work equally well. I just happen to like the primal attitude which cooking over open flames entitles me to. There is that additional smokey flavor when they're done on the grill. I'll admit that. But the broiler works really well too.

Even better? Served with Chipoltle Black Beans and Rice, this dish carries some serious nutritional punch - lean protein, quality carbohydrates and tons of fresh veggies. On top of that the flavors just rock - sweet and tangy, with a touch of slow heat if you wish from the optional chipolte. Broiler Bombshell baby.

You'll Need:

For 4-6 servings

•1 lb pork loin or pork spareribs, cubed (in my region they're often sold as 'country style spareribs' - and they're relatively lean)

•1 bell pepper, large cubes and blanched, any color

•1 red onion, cut into cubes

•a handful or two of cherry tomatoes - however many your garden produces, or about half a package. Whole tomatoes cut into wedges then halved work well too

•4 oz crimini mushrooms (button mushrooms work well too)

For the marinade/sauce:

•1 - 20 oz can of pineapple cubes, with the juice

•4 tbl soy sauce

•1 tbl black vinegar

•2 tbl mirin

•2 cloves garlic, minced

•a pinch of salt, to taste, if needed

•1 tbl of chipoltle in adobo, minced - optional

1.Mix the ingredients for the marinade well. Divide it in half. (Include the pineapple chunks in both the marinade and the sauce as well.) Place half the marinade in a container and add the cubed pork. Toss well, and refrigerate for at least an hour, and preferably four to six hours.

2.Set the remaining marinade in a seperate container. You'll simmer this down to make a dipping sauce.

3.Place 6-8 wooden skewers in warm water to soak - this helps keep them from catching fire. Alternately you can use stainless steel skewers.

4.When you're ready to go, either preheat your grill or start your broiler. Remove the pork and pineapple chunks from the marinade, and discard the marinade that was used with the raw pork. Place the fresh marinade in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, and allow it to cook very gently while you're prepping the rest of your ingredients.

5.Alternate the pork, pineapple chunks, red onion, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and bell peppers on the skewers. If you get to the end of your skewering, toss any leftover vegetables into the sauce - especially the red onion and pineapple. The sauce will love you for it.

6.Once you've assembled your skewers, grill them over medium high heat for approximately ten minutes, turning just once halfway through. You're looking for just the edges of the skewered ingredients to begin to caramelize, and for the pork to take on a lovely, golden brown. This can also be done under a broiler on high. Place the grilled skewers on a platter and allow to rest for five minutes.

7.Taste the sauce, and add a touch of salt if necessary. Strain the simmered dipping sauce into a serving bowl, and serve with the skewers. This dish also is amazing with black beans and rice.

Chipoltle Black Beans and Rice

This dish came from raiding my own pantry, which was only about halfway stocked at the time. I happened to have a ton of fresh tomatoes I was looking for a way to use up, and the beans just came from there.

It's delicious. Flat out, no questions asked, I could probably eat this everyday and be perfectly happy. Which is a good thing. Not only do beans and rice together pack an amazing nutritional punch, they are satisfying, hearty and remarkable inexpensive. That, in my book, is an all around winner. On top of that - it's remarkably easy, and very fast. Dang all mighty.

One note - I love the long, slow burn of chipoltle in adobo sauce. LOVE it. However - it can be pretty powerful. Proceed with caution. This is the type of heat that takes a few moments to start, but once it does, it stays right on target for a while. If you wish to cut the heat some, use just a touch of the adobo sauce, instead of the actual chipolte pepper. If served with a dab of sour cream, the dairy will cut a good deal of the heat. In my house though - we all say 'bring it' when talking spicy hot.

I love serving these with the Caribbean Inspired Pork Skewers - they just flat out WORK together. And both dishes together bring everything you want nutritionally speaking. Low in fat and calories, high in quality lean proteins, lots of veggies and fiber - this one is a winner all around.

The Recipe!

You'll need:

For 3-4 servings

•1 20 ounce can of black beans, or three cups cooked (it's not exact)

•1 glove garlic, minced

•1 Tbl olive oil

•1/4 red onion, diced

•1/2 fresh tomato, diced - about 1/2 cup

•1-3 tsp adobo sauce - or if you want really spicy, 1-2 chipoltle chilis, minced

•Kosher salt, if needed, to taste

•2 cups cooked rice

•Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley, your preference, to garnish

1.Preheat a saucepan over medium heat.

2.Add olive oil, then the garlic and onion. Saute until translucent, just a 3-4 minutes.

3.Add tomatoes, and saute a minute or two more.

4.Add black beans and chipoltle or adobo (or both!). Stir well to combine, and reduce heat to medium low.

5.Cook over medium to low heat for about ten minutes, then hold at warm until serving. Taste and adjust for salt, if needed.

6.Serve with warm rice, and top with cilantro or parsley.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Burgers - Tips for Grilling the Perfect Burger

Burgers - Tips for Grilling the Perfect Burger: "Burgers"
If you've read much of my work you'll already know that among my many food obsessions the grill and the burger rank near the top. I love them both. They're just plain good - no matter what you make one out of. And the truth of the matter is that a good burger is super simple and very easy. Most people get off track with a burger by attempting too much.

The rule for grilling perfect burgers can pretty much be summed up in one phrase – “leave it alone ”. The good news is that this means that most of the things you thought you had to do to produce a juicy, succulent, beefy grilled little beauty can be tossed out. The even better news is that there really isn't any bad news. Perfect burgers are easy to produce and much of what I'm going to tell you will be about why NOT to do things. Which leaves you more time to enjoy whatever else you might want to do.

The first step is to choose the ground meat you wish to use. I can and do make burgers out of almost anything – but in this case we’re talking about beef. Go middle of the road here – different supermarkets label ground beef in different ways, so look for the fat content numbers. Burgers can be made out of any ground beef - from chuck to tenderloin, but you really just need to pay attention to fat content. Look for ground beef or chuck with a number on the label reading 85/15 - meaning a 15% fat content. This is enough fat to render through the burger and keep it moist – less fat and you’ll run the risk of having a dry burger. A higher fat content will probably taste good, and much of the fat will render out onto your coals. But it also means you’ll lose more volume – meaning your burgers will shrink, sometimes alarmingly so.

If you're choosing other types of protein, there are a few things to keep in mind, although much of it is the same principle as you use for beef. Fat content is king. Fat means flavor, but it also means the burgers will be less likely to fall apart on the grill. Lamb is naturally somewhat high in fat, so should be good to go as you find it. But most other things will be lean - seafood and poultry especially. You can look for dark meat for chicken or turkey burgers, which is much more moist for a burger than white meat. For any of them though, mix a couple of beaten egg whites into the meat as you season and shape the patties. This will help both maintain juiciness and help keep them together during cooking.

Your next step is to preheat the grill - you can do this before you start making the burger patties. Make sure you have a nice hot grill - this goes a long way to searing the outside of the burgers, as well as helping to prevent them from sticking. Burgers will stick much more quickly on a cooler grill. Whether you are using gas or charcoal is up to you - just make sure that you allow for a 'zone' either way - a place where the heat will be indirect, so that you can cook the burgers off direct heat if you wish. The easiest way to do this is make sure the charcoal is on one half of the grill and not the other, or simply turn the burners off on one side AFTER the grill has preheated. This also allows for developing grill marks, as they are done over direct heat, and it's those grill marks that are the pride of old-hand grillmasters.

When you make the burger patties, there are a couple of tihngs to keep in mind. You really don't need eggs, breadcrumbs, milk, oatmeal or any of the other additives that people tout as binders or extenders. Those are for making meatloaf. These are burgers – so skip all of that. You do however want plenty of salt and pepper, and maybe onion or garlic powder and a touch of Worcestershire. Anything else really can be overkill (not always but often). One of the glories of a great burger is the essential 'beefiness' - so allow it to shine.

Take the meat out of the package and loosely break it up into a very large bowl. Give yourself as much surface area as possible. You want to be able to season the meat thoroughly, while also handling it as much as possible. Handling ground meat too much will toughen and compact it - resulting in the dreaded 'hocky puck'. A large surface area allows you to season more of the meat - and you want to season liberally. Many think salt will dry meat - but that only happens if it's done too far ahead of time. Don't be afraid of salt or pepper either one - beef loves salt!

To make the burgers themselves, just divide the amount of beef you have by the number of servings you wish. Typically I use 1/4 lb portions of raw meat for each burger. Gently, but firmly form them into patties, pressing enough for them to hold their shape, but don’t worry too much about it. If you have a reasonable fat content and a nice hot grill, they won't fall apart. Especially since once they go on the grill you will be leaving them alone. Once you make each patty, gently make an indentation in the top of each one. This will prevent them from swelling in the center and trying to turn into meatballs.

When your grill has preheated, transfer the patties to the grill, then do not touch. Don’t you dare start the ‘squish and sizzle’ with your spatula – that’s the sign of an amateur griller. Yes, it sounds great, but what's happening is that all the juices are running out of your burger and on to the coals. The coals can’t taste it – so don’t do it. If you let the meat stay in contact with the hot grill for 2 minutes – several things can happen. The Maillard reaction will be the first – basically that’s when the natural sugars in the food caramelize. That’s what gives you flavor, but also where you get grill marks. Another thing is that burgers are less likely to stick - once that crust forms, they release themselves from the hot grill. After 2 minutes, rotate (not flip) the patties, and give it another two minutes. After the second 2 minutes you’ll flip and repeat. So you’ll have a total of four 2 minute increments. Otherwise – don’t mess with the burgers. Also, try to leave the grill lid shut between flips or turns, to keep the internal temperature up.

This 8 minutes of cooking time will give a 1/4 lb burger a doneness of rare to medium rare. If you want yours more done, then move the burgers to the cooler part of the grill, close the lid, and add two minutes for each additional stage of doneness. I almost always use a thermometer to take the internal temp of the burger itself, shooting for 145 for my own preferred medium – but under no circumstances should you cut a burger open to look. Again – you’ve just lost all the juices. If you want cheese, which was made to adorn a burger in my opinion, simply place it on top for the last two minutes of cooking time. It’ll melt and ooze like a dream.

When you've reached the doneness you desire, move the burgers to a platter, and again - leave them alone. You're after carryover cooking here - the internal temperature will continue to rise a little even after the meat is off the heat source. In addition, the juices that rushed to the surface of the burger during cooking will redistribute throughout the meat. Don't underestimate the importance of this step - this is what can most often insure a great burger. Let them rest for at least five minutes - although going a full ten minutes is even better. Put the rest time to good use - prep any topping you want to use, and grill off your buns.

That's all you have to do. Remember the basics - don't over mix the meat, season well but simply, and make sure you let the burgers rest. A great burger on the grill is simplicity itself - it really just means taking good ingredients and not messing them up. Nobody will know that the amazing burgers you can crank out are a result of what you didn’t do!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Gumbo Glory - Or How to Really Rock a Pot

Gumbo! I don’t often approach a blank page with emotion other than eagerness, yet when it comes to describing the glory of gumbo and all it contains, I found myself momentarily wordless. What mere articles can do it justice? How can I capture the complexity of flavors, the textures, the intensity that is gumbo? That je ne sais quois that is alone in the culinary world?

Well, I can’t. Although I am about to describe it in excruciating detail, until you’ve had gumbo - of any variety - you just haven’t eaten. If you have a culinary Bucket List, (and you should) any and all gumbo should be in the top ten. If it’s good gumbo. Bad gumbo is just nasty. You just listen to me on that one. So I’ll tell you all about it, including how to make it, and you pay attention.

All righty then. Gumbo is stew.

Yes. I said it's stew. That's it. See? There's nothing funky or bizarre about that. Although I'll freely admit that it is a lovely little bit of magic!

It was developed in Louisiana, although it’s popular across the South, and whoever first made it should be granted Evil Culinary Genius status in perpetuity. The essentials of gumbo - the things that make it gumbo - good strong stock, the trinity (onion, bell pepper and celery), meats (including seafood) and a thickener. Those are the elements that must be there, and the thickener can be one of three things - roux, okra or file powder. The latter two are truly traditional, and some will claim without one of those there is no gumbo.

I personally don’t think Gumbo could have happened anywhere else in the world. The trinity is of Spanish origin, the method is French. The word gumbo is a derivation of the African word for okra - okingumbo. If ground sassafras is used (file powder), thank the Choctaw. If you have Creole roux, then the tomatoes were added by Italians. (Cajun cuisine on the other hand has no tomatoes in gumbo).

Breakdown!Ok - so we outlined the necessary components of a gumbo - those things that make it gumbo. Stock, trinity, proteins, thickener. Easy enough to this point. So let's go one step further. All you have to do is choose what you like out of each category.


This is the first of the four main flavor bases of this dish, so do yourself a favor and use good stock. If you want a great, simple basic stock that fast and easy, try this one. I have to say - if you want your gumbo elevated from good to great, then take the time to use homemade stock. If you need to prove it to yourself, make one batch with homemade, and one batch with canned. That's all that it'll take to show you how great the difference is. I'd almost rather use water than canned stock in gumbo.

Now - which stock you use depends on the flavor base you choose, and which proteins you're going to use. Generally speaking, the more delicate the flavors of your protein, the lighter the stock you'd use. But in this dish, you're also using some bold intensely flavored ingredients. I love to use Basic Chicken Stock, because I usually have it on hand, or can throw it together quickly. Good chicken stock is always a good choice, simply because it is neutral enough to not overwhelm your other ingredients, but instead enhancing them. Veal stock, if you're lucky enough to have the ingredients to make that is even better. Beef, pork, and fish or shellfish stocks can all work - depending on the flavor profile you want and the proteins you wish to use. A good pork broth with smoked sausage? Oh yeah.

If you just aren't sure, or if you're a novice, start with chicken broth. You won't go wrong.

My point is, you wouldn't use wilted veggies, or shrimp past it's due date. Take the same care in choosing the stock. It will show in spades in your finished gumbo - you'll love me and maybe send me fan mail.

The Trinity

Many cultures have a basic aromatic flavor base is used. In France and Western European cultures it's the mirepoix - carrots, onion and celery. In parts of China, it's garlic, ginger and soy. In Thai cuisine it's fish sauce.

In Louisiana - the Trinity rules. Celery, bell pepper and onion, which are sauteed together. The flavor profile is distinct and profound. You'll want to generally use about twice as much onion as celery or bell pepper, but honestly - that's a personal preference. All three of these vegetables caramelize beautifully, and when cooked develope a sweetness and complexity that's gorgeous.

Pick the best, freshest vegetables you can find. Onion often becomes difficult in late spring or early summer, whenm the previous season's produce had gotten somewhat tired, and the new crops aren't in. Bell pepper is hot house grown year round, except in the Deep South, and celery is available all over. If your lucky enough to get all three fresh at a farmer's market, you'll rule the universe. If not - then you're with me. Still - do the best you can. This is also a fundamental flavor base, so treat it with respect. It'll pay you back.

Add your trinity to your hot roux before adding the other ingredients.


This is where a gumbo can really shine, and also how the cook can tailor a dish to what's best and most fresh and available in her own area. Anything goes. Typically a gumbo contains at least two types of meats or seafoods, such as chicken and pork, sausage and shirmp. In the Carolinas, it's often beef with another protein. Inland it's less often seafood, and of course the Coastal South can go nuts with shellfish. Use what's best in your own area.

I have seemed to notice that one of the most common ingredients is smoke pork, usually a sausage. Probably because it's so universally available, it seems to nearly be a common denominator. But you don't have to use it if you don't wish (although the liberal application of pig to any dish is nearly always a good idea in my opinion). Tasso, andouille, boudin, bacon, pancetta or chorizo - any of those is a good idea. All impart a rich flavor with either smokey highlights or complex profiles on thier own. Go for it - experiment.


There are three traditional thickeners to consider:

· Filé powder - ground sassafras, filé was used by the Choctaw already when European settlers arrived in the area. It was adopted immediately. Filé is not typically combined with the other thickeners, but that's tradition, and not even that is a hard and fast rule. It's often added at the table to individual bowls. Try using a roux as the primary thickener, then adding a touch of filé at the table. A traditional "File Gumbo" is often Chicken and Sausage.

· Okra - my personal favorite, once the whole mucilaginous issue has been dealt with. I combine this one with roux as well, although I tend to treat it as a vegetable instead of a thickener. I do this by pan frying the okra, which gets rid of the slime factor it has when boiled (there are childhood issues with boiled okra – and that’s a whole ‘nother ugly story). It also lessens the thickening affect of the okra, therefore I use the roux as well. If you wish to go traditional, simply throw the raw okra in with the broths.

· Roux – simple and delicious and my personal favorite. Roux is simply a thickener made by cooking together equal parts of oil and flour. The longer it cooks, the deeper the color (hence the various roux are known by their hues), and the richer and more intense the flavor. Roux has supplanted the use of okra and file somewhat in the past century or two. It’s considered a basic preparation in the Southern kitchen, and while not difficult, a good roux is one of the primary tricks many Southern cooks master. Roux is magic in the kitchen.

Although I’ve never personally had any (not yet – going to make it now I’ve learned of it!) there is another type of Gumbo known as Gumbo z'Herbes (an Americanization of the French gumbo aux herbes ). The dish came about in Catholic New Orleans and became associated with the Lenten season, especially Holy Thursday or Good Friday. Preparation is as for standard gumbos, with roux, stock and trinity, and then either seven or nine (traditional holy numbers) types of greens are added. Among these are cabbage, collard, mustard, turnip, lettuce, parsley, nasturtium, scallions or green onions, spinach and chard. In keeping with Lent, often local seafood is added.

You’ll probably come across recipes that call for Cajun seasoning as well. You can buy it at the grocery, or a better way is to make it yourself. It will consist of cayenne, black pepper, onion and garlic powders and salt. Try mixing it with tablespoon measures: 2 cayenne, 1 black pepper, 1 garlic powder, and ½ each onion powder and kosher salt. It’s dirt cheap this way, and you can throw it in a small mason jar and use it however you like. It keeps for several months if stored in a cool, dry cupboard. You can also tweak it to your preference (I double the cayenne usually).

However, in making gumbo, I’d rather have the elements separate, and simple adjust seasoning on the go. There’s far more control that way – not only for your individual diners (my Dad and youngest son hate spicy things, the rest of us like it hot enough to hurt), but for the different ingredients you might be using. If I have a really garlicky sausage and strong elements, I’ll pop up the intensity of the seasonings. If I have more delicate shellfish, I scale back on all but salt and black pepper, so I don’t cover up my precious seafood.

Ok. Enough backstory. Let’s get to the meat of the matter – or the sausage, crawfish, mussels….

How do I MAKE a gumbo?!?I love this, because it really does epitomize the core of my philosophy. Get your technique right, then apply it to what you can get that’s best and most wonderful where you are. In this case, the technique is the roux, and layering in the stock, then the proteins at the right time. Sausage will be browned before being added, shellfish or seafood added only in the last few minutes. Think of your ingredients and what they need, and handle each one appropriately and it’ll be not just fine – but fabulous.

I’ll give you a ‘recipe’ – gumbo that’s on my stove right this minute matter of fact – and you can certainly find hundreds of great ones out on the internet. I have to say, Emeril Lagasse does some truly spectacular things to gumbos, as does John Besh and Paul Prudhomme. They do tend rely on more expensive ingredients, however, read what they do to learn from the masters if nothing else. If you have the means to duplicate their work – do it!

Take the time to search out traditional or home cooking recipes though. Remember this dish has a long and beloved history for a reason – and home cooks can be trained by generations of good cooks, not just by a couple years in culinary school. So don’t discount them.

You’ll need:

Chocolate Roux – in this case I used 4 Tbl butter, 2 Tbl bacon grease, and six generous Tbl all purpose unbleached flour

1 – 2 quarts good chicken stock (did I mention it needs to be homemade?) – I took a lazy way – roasted off six thighs and legs with just salt and pepper, stripped the skin and the lighter thigh meat, dumped the rest (including the juices) into a stock pot, covered it with cold water and simmered it for an hour. Skimmed it and strained it right into my gumbo pot when I was ready

2 large Spanish onions (yellow), diced

2 large bell peppers, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

3 smoked Turkey legs

1 lb fresh shrimp, deveined and tails on

Fresh clams – however many you wish – about a lb or two

2 large bay leaves

4-5 sprigs fresh thyme

Kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Tbl garlic powder

1 ½ tsp onion powder

Cayenne pepper – again to taste – I’ll tell you 2 tsp as a baseline, but start with half that, then layer it in if the heat level isn’t enough. Add as much as you like, but remember, heat is about balance and flavor as well as pain

The rest is simple – if you’ve paid attention to your ingredients. Make the roux; add the trinity veggies and sauté for a few minutes. Slowly whisk in 1 quart of the warm stock, add the turkey legs, bay leaf, thyme, garlic and onion powder, and salt and peppers. If they aren’t covered, add a little more stock until they are.

Cover and allow to simmer until the turkey is fully cooked and falling off the bone. Reduce heat to medium low, and remove meat from the turkey legs if you wish – if not, don’t worry about it. Taste and season – adjust for salt, pepper, garlic powder and cayenne at this point. If you want a little more broth – add more stock.

Add shrimp stirring them in, then the clams on top. Cover again, and allow the pot to remain at a bare simmer just until the clams open and the shrimp is cooked through. Taste a final time for seasoning, and you’re good to go!

You can garnish with a touch of Filé if you wish, or a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley, but if you’ve tasted as you cooked, you shouldn’t need much adornment. Plating is however you wish, although usually accompanied by fluffy mounds of white rice. You can make this as elegant or rustic as you wish – all up to you.