Friday, February 28, 2014

Ribs and Dry Rubs

Some time ago, oh, 20-odd years or so, I took a long overnight drive with a couple of friends. After 16 hours of No-Doz and coffee, griping, bitching, and desperately trying to keep one of us (not me) from popping a Dylan tape into the cassette deck, we found ourselves at our destination--Chicago. There, after a much-needed nap, we indulged in some of the things the Windy City is most famous for: Cubs baseball, Chicago dogs, blues music, and barbecue.

One of our evening excursions during our stay involved both blues and barbecue. As this was long before teh Innernets, I'm not sure how we discovered that a restaurant called Brother Jimmy's had both the ribs we were craving and live music, but we found the joint and paid it a visit. The place was packed, but we squeezed into three seats and ordered a bunch of food. We decided to try every type of ribs they offered, and that included their sauce-less dry rub ribs. Now, this was back before my palate was used to eating spicy food on a regular basis, and I could swear that my nose hairs were singed a bit when I lifted one of those dry rub ribs to my lips. They were incendiary, at least to us, but they were so good. I think I ate the majority of them, even though my mouth went numb after the second one.

I've eaten a lot of ribs since then. Heck, I've cooked a lot of ribs since then. I use Alton Brown's method of steaming the meat in foil with a bit of liquid before putting them under the broiler (or on the grill) to char with a little sweet sauce. The ribs are moist and succulent that way, but much of the dry rub seems to wash off, leaving them on the bland side. I decided to change the method a bit to see if I could keep the rub from coming off yet cook the meat in the same way.

The first step: make a dry rub. I usually just toss some seasonings with kosher salt and brown sugar (I do not use Alton's recipe--it is outrageously salty). This time, I wanted to achieve some nice heat, so I piled on the chiles.

The second step: cut back on the liquid used for steaming the ribs. Alton puts his ribs into little foil packets with a half cup of liquid in each. I used a scant quarter cup. The ribs still were very tender, but the liquid didn't wash off the spice. Remember--while the ribs are cooking, they produce still more liquid, so they really don't need all that much to start with.

While these ribs weren't nearly as spicy as the dry rub ribs from Brother Jimmy's, and I did coat them with a sauce later, I think they were some of the best ribs I've made to date.

Spicy Ribs

1 rack of St Louis-style or baby back ribs

For the dry rub:
3/4 cup brown sugar
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon paprika
2-3 teaspoons ground chipotle powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1-2 teaspoons ground pasilla negro
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

For the glaze:
3 tablespoons reserved dry rub
1/4 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
4 tablespoons honey

To make the rub: Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Reserve three tablespoons for glaze.

Place a sheet of aluminum foil on a large rimmed baking sheet and set close by.

If you're using a slab of St Louis-style ribs, cut the slab into three pieces. Tear three large sheets of heavy-duty aluminum foil, each large enough to hold one of the slabs. Place the sheets, one on top of the other, on the counter in front of you, horizontally. Place one slab of ribs on the top sheet; coat the top and bottom of the ribs liberally with rub, pressing it into the meat. Take the top and bottom edges of the foil and bring them together like a tent. Fold the edges together and roll them down towards the meat to make a package. Roll the open sides of the package up toward the center to seal all sides. Repeat with other two slabs of ribs. Place all three wrapped packages on the prepared baking sheet.

(If you're using baby backs, leave them whole and use only one large sheet of aluminum foil.)

Refrigerate ribs for 6 hours or overnight.

To make the glaze: Place all ingredients in a small saucepan. Heat until warm, stirring to combine. Remove from heat and set aside. Refrigerate until ready to use.

To cook the ribs: Preheat oven to 300°F.

Gently unroll one short end on each package. Pour in a scant quarter cup of liquid of your choice--apple juice, Dr Pepper, water, whatever as long as it's not alcohol (you don't want to tempt a fire)--and re-roll the end. Keeping the packets on the rimmed baking sheet, put the whole thing into the oven.

Cook 1 1/2 - 2 hours, until meat is fork tender.

Remove tray from oven and turn on the broiler. Gently unroll one end of each package and pour out the liquid. Cut ribs into two-rib pieces. Place the ribs on a foil-lined baking sheet and brush the top side liberally with the glaze. Broil for 5-8 minutes, until sauce is bubbling and charred in spots. Turn meat, brush with more glaze, and repeat broiling.

Serve with wetnaps.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Progressive Dessert Tasting at Wit & Wisdom

How would you feel about having a dinner that consisted only of dessert? (Life is short, you know....) Five of them, presented one after the other. Dessert as appetizer course and soup course. Dessert as fish course and meat course. And dessert as well...dessert. I'm not talking about a slab of cheesecake followed by creme brulée, coconut cake, apple pie, and a brownie sundae, but rather a series of sophisticated flavors and textures, as layered and nuanced as in a savory meal. But predominately sweet.

Dessert tasting menus have been a thing in cities like New York and Chicago for a while now. While we can't yet compare Baltimore's food scene to either of those foodie destinations, it's nice to see interesting new trends hit our area. Is Baltimore ready? I'd like to think so. Especially after sampling the creations of the new pastry chef at the Four Seasons Baltimore, Dyan Ng. Chef Ng wanted to introduce her talents to the area via a five-course dessert tasting, and Mr Minx and I were thrilled to participate.

Chef Ng's resume includes nine years in Las Vegas where she was pastry chef de cuisine for all of the restaurants at Caesar's Palace. Currently, she's responsible for desserts at both Wit & Wisdom and Pabu, plus the sweet treats at Lamill Coffee. For our dessert tasting, she prepared five courses, each of which were paired with an appropriate alcoholic beverage chosen by one of the restaurant's sommeliers.

Chef Ng isn't a fan of heavy or overly sweet desserts, instead favoring interesting interplay of flavor and texture. She started us off with a dish that shows off the simple apple. The raw and cooked elements, which included a sweet-tart apple sorbet and caramelized apples, made this dessert both refreshingly sophisticated and apple-pie homey.

Textures of Apple | fresh green apple sorbet, chartreuse compressed apples,
caramelized apples, apple puree, apple chips, finger lime zest,
paired with Bonny Doon Querry Cider
The second course, a play on "lemon meringue," resembled the trendy appetizer of roasted bone marrow; it was a triumph of textures. The meringue itself was light and delicately crunchy and held buttery bits of almond and tangy grapefruit. The sherbet on the side somehow took a rich ingredient, avocado, and made it even more decadent (and I can imagine a tiny scoop of it served quite successfully with some tuna tartare at Pabu). As far as cilantro on dessert--the answer is "yes."

Lemon | meyer lemon cream, avocado sherbet, delicate meringue,
seared grapefruit, marcona almonds, browned milk solids, streusel,
fleur de sel, micro cilantro, meyer lemon zest,
paired with Ordonez "Victoria" Moscatel
The third course highlighted the unusual combination of white chocolate and olives. If you think about the current popularity of salted caramel and salted chocolate items, it makes perfect sense. The briny bitterness of olives cuts the buttery creamy flavor of white chocolate. The dish also featured a variety of textures, including the glassy top sheet of crisp isomalt (that we broke through, creme brulée-like), white chocolate mousse, olive oil foam, and an extra savory bit of pine nuts, golden raisins, green olives, and extra virgin olive oil at the very bottom.

Olive | white chocolate gelee, black olive gelee, pine nuts, golden raisins,
green olives, citrus, extra virgin olive oil, white chocolate mousse,
white chocolate pieces, extra virgin olive oil foam, aerated black olive ice cream,
green olive paper, white chocolate pearls, isomalt,
paired with Taylor Fladgate 20-yr Tawny Port

The fourth course was a risotto made with chocolate and chunks of banana. On top was a pile of shaved frozen foie gras, and the whole was seasoned with truffle salt and truffle oil. Despite the savory elements, there was no mistaking this dish for anything but a dessert. Think of it as a marriage between rice pudding and chocolate pudding. But with shaved foie on top.

Risotto | chocolate, foie gras, black truffle oil, black truffle Maldon salt,
banana, vanilla broth, Acquerello rice,
paired with Broadbent 1997 Port

Our fifth course was a "cheese course," that included lightly caramelized tomato "marmalade," along with a lovely tomato water gelée, blue cheese ice cream, and a goat cheese foam. Blue cheese ice cream! Fabulous.

Tomato | tomato marmalade, tomato water gelee, tomato pulp,
blue cheese ice cream, Barden blue cheese, goat cheese foam,
black pepper,
paired with Macarini Barolo Chinato

And just when we thought we were done, as the menu listed only five courses, we were brought a large sandwich cookie comprising creamy chocolate ganache and fresh raspberries between two chewy wafers that were texturally somewhere between a macaron and an almond cookie. (These babies are available at Lamill.) It was wonderful, but we were stuffed. And you know, it didn't seem like we had just eaten five desserts. Each course was balanced, and none were overly-sweet. My favorite was the cheese course, with the olive and white chocolate coming in second. Mr Minx was a fan of the risotto. Both of us were simply blown away by Chef Ng's creativity, and the seriousness of her playfulness (if that's a thing). After eating our way around the city for many years now, our palates were ready for a multi-course dessert tasting.

Is yours? I'm thinking yes.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Broadway Diner Revisited

When the Broadway Diner opened in the early 2000s, I was cautiously optimistic. There was a dearth of good restaurants in the Dundalk area, limiting our dining options whenever Minx and I would visit my mother and brother. A diner would provide a place where everyone could get something regardless of what they had an appetite for, the portions would be big, and the prices reasonable. The only question was, would the food taste good? Well, we were happy to find that the food exceeded our expectations and, over the years, we have enjoyed many a meal there.

I have fond memories of eating at the Broadway Diner, most of them football related. I recall watching Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers win a divisional playoff game against the Seahawks in a raging snowstorm while eating prime rib, for example. And for some reason, we were always at the diner when the first round of the NFL draft was going on. I watched the Baltimore Ravens draft the likes of Haloti Ngata, Ben Grubbs, Joe Flacco, and Michael Oher while enjoying meat loaf, cheeseburgers, and roast chicken. The Minx even reviewed the diner way back in 2008.

Sadly, since my mother can not get around easily anymore, we haven't been to the diner in a few years. Then the other day, we were heading to Essex and decided to stop hop off I-95 at the Eastern Avenue exit to grab some dinner. At first. we were assaulted with the plethora of Guy Fieri pictures on the wall (he filmed a segment of Diners, Dipshits, and Douchebags there a few years ago), so we averted our eyes and followed the host to our table. Broadway has all the familiar chrome and glass decor one associates with a modern diner trying to make you feel like you are in the past. Despite the artifice, the place has always had an air of genuine warmth. The wait staff is friendly and there are always regulars chatting at the counter. It just feels comfortable there.

After being away for some time, we felt some trepidation that the food may not be what it was. The Minx was not all that hungry, but chose to splurge on the broiled crab cake platter. Just as I have a fixation with meat loaf, Minx has to try every crab cake in town. Broadway's crab cakes were pretty top notch. The large and meaty cakes, which looked to have been formed with an ice cream scoop, were nicely broiled to an actual brown (unlike the albino broiled cakes served in many other restaurants). There was both minimal breading and binder holding together the moderately-sized lumps of crab, making for a somewhat firm cake. The flavor was herbacious in bites, and crab-spiced in others, which was a bit unusual, but the flavor of the seafood manged to shine through. The picky Minx felt these were top-notch cakes. Offering both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce was a nice touch.

Broiled Crab Cakes
Since I was going to be speaking with people later that evening, I searched the menu for something that would not generate bad breath. The Chicken Diana looked to fit the bill with chunks of tender chicken breast, asparagus, broccoli, and a blanket of melted Swiss cheese over angel hair pasta. Mild and creamy with a healthy portion of pasta, it was rich and comforting while offering enough green vegetables (a shame the asparagus was a bit bland and overcooked) to make me feel like I was eating healthily. The huge portion almost required a doggy bag, but I polished off the plate.

Chicken Diana - Chicken breast, asparagus, broccoli,
and swiss cheese sauce over angel hair pasta
We didn't have time for dessert, but we knew from past experience that they were also quite good. It was reassuring to find that one of our favorite diners had not lost any of its appeal after all these years. We hope to make some more memories soon.

Broadway Diner
6501 Eastern Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21224

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Cookbook Review - Fusion Food in the Vegan Kitchen

I was sent a review copy of Fusion Food in the Vegan Kitchen: 125 Comfort Food Classics, Reinvented with an Ethnic Twist! by Joni Marie Newman some weeks ago and didn't get around to cooking anything from it until now. There were just too many interesting choices, and I couldn't make up my mind as to which recipes to try.

I'm a fan of fusion cooking--taking elements from different cuisines and mixing them in one dish--and have been doing it for years. The way I think about it, seemingly disparate cuisines have similarities: Italian ravioli and spaghetti and Chinese dumplings and lo mein; Slavic rice-stuffed cabbage and Greek rice-stuffed grape leaves; the spicy cumin and coriander flavors of both Mexican and Indian foods. To me, Newman's fusion concoctions make sense. And while I'm not a vegan, I'm not adverse to experimentation. In this case, it's easy--there are many cultures that don't consume the vast quantity of animal-based products that we do in the US. Combine two or three of them, and there's enough good stuff going on without adding meat.

Take, for example, Newman's recipe for Korean Barbecue Satay, which mixes elements from Korea (the sauce) and Indonesia (the technique). The sauce is flavorful enough to give slabs of skewered tofu a nice kick in the pants. The recipe for El Paso Egg Rolls stuffed with black beans, corn, and avocado will be familiar to anyone who's eaten a similar dish at Chili's or Cheesecake Factory. There are so many things going on in it, so many textures and flavors, that nobody will miss the meat or cheese.

In that vein, we tried a recipe for pizza, something usually found topped with both meat and cheese. Newman's version involves a crisp crust, a Thai-style peanut sauce, and a salad of cabbage and sliced fennel. We didn't have cabbage on hand, but we did have sugar snap peas and asparagus, so I substituted. The combination of crisp and fresh with the contrast of creamy peanut sauce was really stupendous. I can see myself making this recipe over and over, using whatever vegetables that are on hand.

The dish was even visually beautiful, the proverbial feast for the eyes.

I also appreciate that Newman gets creative with her meat substitutes. There are recipes that involve tofu and tempeh, but also jackfruit, which has a stringy/meaty texture that simulates pulled pork. And several recipes involve home-made "wheat meat" or seitan, a simple technique that involves vital wheat gluten, an ingredient found in any supermarket (it's also used for baking bread).

Overall, Fusion Food in the Vegan Kitchen is a lovely book with a good solid concept, well-thought-out recipes, and photos for most dishes. There are even recipes for desserts and libations. I recommend it for vegans and meat-eaters alike.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Towson Tavern

One of the restaurants we visited during last month's Baltimore County Restaurant Week was Towson Tavern. It was the lentil soup on the appetizer menu that got our attention; it's not often we see a good hearty lentil soup offered outside of an Indian restaurant. We were also curious to try their burger and the Gruyere-crusted salmon.

The atmosphere at Towson Tavern is pleasantly clubby, with dark walls, spacious booths, and a short wall separating the dining area from the drinking area. We could, however, still see the numerous televisions mounted around the bar. Thankfully, we couldn't hear the various sports-related talking heads opining on the relative merits of Peyton Manning and Richard Sherman. What we could hear was an weird oddball surreal eclectic selection of music that included slightly psychedelic acid rock from the late 60s/early 70s and 70s jazz with some porn-y riffs thrown in. As Mr Minx opined, "it started out like the Mod Squad and transformed into Baretta."

Shortly after being seated, our server brought us a small round loaf of squishy warm bread and a saucer of olive oil-based dip flavored with Grana Padano and herbs that tasted like liquid pizza. Thus armed, we perused the menu. Mr Minx jumped on that lentil soup flavored with ham and garlic. It turned out to be quite the generous portion, homey-flavored and served piping hot.

Most of the other first course options were salads, and while they were probably a better choice, I went for the Towson Tots. Now, I have never liked tater tots. On the rare occasion my mother bought a bag of the frozen potato bombs, I'd eat a few and declare them an abomination. Yes, I was an unusual kid, but the potato has never been a favorite of mine. That said, the tots at Towson Tavern were actually pretty good. They were rather light, with a nice crispy outer shell. Three dips accompanied the huge mountain of spud blobs: horseradish Dijon aioli; Cajun remoulade; and a black truffle bacon Parmesan ranch. The latter was more like flavored sour cream than a ranch-style dressing, and its thickness made it a bit difficult to swipe a tot through. My favorite was the spicy chipotle-flavored remoulade.

After doggie-bagging a generous portion of tots, our entrees arrived. Mr Minx went for the Tavern burger, a hefty patty of the now-ubiquitous Creekstone Farms Angus beef topped with lettuce, tomato, bacon, fried onions, and cheese on a toasted and also ubiquitous brioche-style bun. The burger was a bit firmly-packed for my taste, but it had a nice char-grilled flavor that reminded me of a good home-cooked specimen. The crisp sweet potato fries were fine, served merely salted and not gussied up with unnecessary cinnamon and sugar, as they do in some places. Part of this potato-fest ended up in the doggie bag as well.

My entree was Gruyere-crusted salmon with a soy citrus glaze, fingerling potatoes, and haricots verts. I know you Italians out there are cringing at the thought of cheese-crusted seafood, but hey, I don't care. (I sprinkle Parm on my white clam sauce.) The crust was surprisingly delicate and proved to be an interesting salty texture on the perfectly-cooked salmon. 

(If you're curious about trying such a combination in your home kitchen, Chef Tyson Spangler's recipe is featured in our upcoming cookbook, Baltimore Chef's Table, available in June.)

We had a choice of cheesecake or chocolate opera cake for dessert, so we tried one of each. They were good, nothing special, and probably made off-premises.

With our meal, we sipped a gingery Moscow Mule and a Rhubarb Rum Crush that didn't necessarily taste of rhubarb, but it was tangy enough.

Overall, we enjoyed our visit to Towson Tavern. We liked the casual but not unprofessional service, the atmosphere, and the food and will certainly make a point to go back. 

Towson Tavern
516 York Road
Towson, MD 21286
(410) 337-7210

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Monday, February 17, 2014

Creamy Chorizo, Chicken, and Corn Chowder

Nothing hits the spot on a frigid winter day like a bowl of soup. Especially a hearty soup made with a bunch of stuff that I usually keep on hand: frozen chicken thighs, chicken, and corn; canned tomatoes and chipotles; and chicken stock. A loaf of freshly baked bread is the perfect accompaniment.

If you don't have chicken, chunks of beef stew meat would work well, just cook the soup longer to ensure the meat is tender, adding additional stock if necessary.

Creamy Chorizo, Chicken, and Corn Chowder

2 links Mexican chorizo
1 cup chopped onion
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 chipotle en adobe, plus 1 teaspoon of adobo sauce
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes and their juice
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 large red potato, peeled and diced
1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half
honey (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Remove chorizo from casing and place in a 3-quart pot along with the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until the onion is translucent and the sausage has browned and broken into small pieces. (There should be more than enough oil in the sausage to cook the onion without burning; if you have some weird super lean chorizo, add a dribble of oil.)

Stir in the chicken and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is no longer translucent. Add the chipotle, tomatoes, stock, and corn. Bring mixture to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer soup for 45-60 minutes, until chicken is very tender. Add potato and cook an additional 10-15 minutes, until potato is done to your liking.

Pour in the half and half and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and add a bit of honey if you think the soup needs some sweetness (I did) and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 2-4

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Spicy Korean Tofu

One day not long ago, I ate mostly carbs. A sugary yogurt for breakfast, leftover noodle casserole for lunch. Waffles with maple bacon syrup for dinner. The next day, I craved protein big time. Breakfast was eggs, and dinner involved tofu.

There were any number of proteins in the freezer: a skirt steak; sausages; chicken thighs. But I wanted something easy. You may be thinking, "How is tofu easy? It takes some work to make that stuff taste like anything!" Hey--some of us like tofu in its original bland state. It's soft and soothing. But yeah, I wanted something a bit more flavorful for dinner. And since tofu soaks up flavor like a sponge, it is indeed easy to make delicious.

I made a simple glaze with the spicy Korean condiment, gochujang, and brushed it onto thinly-sliced tofu that I blasted in a hot oven. The heat evaporated some of the tofu's moisture and even gave it a slightly chewy texture. The sauce gave it a flavorful kick. And a pile of roasted broccoli--cooked at the same time--added a necessary bit of green and garlic.

Baked Korean Tofu

1 package of extra firm tofu
2 tablespoons gochujang
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
Sesame seeds
Chopped scallions

Cut the tofu crosswise into ten slices. Arrange them in one layer on a paper towel-lined plate or baking pan. Cover with another piece of paper and press down lightly to absorb some of the liquid in the tofu. Replace both layers of towels and refrigerate tofu until ready to use.

Combine gochujang, sesame oil, soy, honey, and vinegar in a bowl. Set aside until ready to use.

Preheat oven to 450°F. Place tofu in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet sprayed lightly with release spray. Brush some of the sauce onto the top side of the tofu and place the tray in the oven. Bake for 7-8 minutes, remove tray from oven, and turn tofu pieces with tongs. Brush other side with the sauce and replace in the oven for another 8 minutes or so. Remove tray from oven and turn pieces again. Turn oven up to broil and broil tofu for 3-4 minutes per side, until edges start to get crusty.

Serve with garnished with sesame seeds and scallions, and a bit of sauce on the side.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cook-Off Season 3 Finale Recap

I am so glad to see the end of this show. While I found the previous seasons to be highly entertaining, this season was a real snooze. The fun in watching celebrities cook is the trainwreck factor. In season 1, that lasted all the way to the finale, as Coolio was both a freak and a pretty decent cook. This year's trainwreck was Chris Kattan, and he was the first eliminated. BTW, he was arrested the other day after slamming his Mercedes into a highway construction truck. He wasn't injured, but it seems he was under the influence of some unknown drug. Probably the same one that made him sooo sleepy back in episode 2.

Anyhoo...on with the show.

There are only four celebs left, two each on Team Guy and Team Rachael. Herschel, Tiffany, Penn, and Florence meet up with Rachael and someone who appears to be Popeye's gay cousin, Pop-Guy at Hudson River Park.

(They were going to dress Rachael as Olive Oyl, until wardrobe realized that Olive Oyl has a neck.)

The celebs will be cooking their finale dinner on the yacht Hornblower Infinity, which seems appropriately named. No, wait, I'm thinking of "blowhard." The challenge is to make a three-course meal in two hours for seven "challenging" judges. (Scott Conant featured largely in the promos, and I can't imagine anyone more challenging than him, except maybe Bourdain, and we know he doesn't want to have anything to do with the Food Network anymore and vice versa.) There will be celebrity sous chef assistance in the form of Vanilla Ice on team Pop-Guy, and Judy Gold on team Rachael.

The boat's kitchen is pretty small, so only two celebs will be cooking at a time, one from each team. The first up are Florence and Herschel. They meet with their respective team leaders to plan their meals. Flo is doing an Italian Sunday supper, reintroducing her spicy marinara for the appetizer course, and Herschel is doing the southern food he knows best.

In the kitchen, Flo wastes a lot of time with her sauce. It's not tasting the way she wants.

Herschel's meal seems to be much more than 2 hours worth of cooking, but Guy is around to nag him to hurry up.

Herschel is calling his sous chef, Vanilla Ice, "Rob." Funny to hear a celeb who uses a stage name being called by his real name. It's like calling Judy Garland, "Frances," or Cher, "Cher."

Out in the dining room, the "challenging" judges file in. In addition to Conant, there's fellow "Chopped" judge Aaron Sanchez, fellow douchebag Todd English, former Top Chef Masters contestants Michael Schlow and Sue Torres, No Kitchen Required non-winner Michael Psilakis....and Sunny Anderson. I am immediately reminded of something from my childhood....

Cooking time is up and Flo comes out to present her meal to the judges. In addition to the food, each celebrity, because they are ostensibly entertainers, must do some sort of 5-minute presentation. Flo starts out telling the judges that she grew up poor; her dad was a "dirt farmer," and she was the youngest of 10 children. Her mother said Flo was born singing, so she exploited her child by forcing her to perform on street corners for money, like a monkey.

Flo goes back to her roots and passes a hat; the judges guiltily toss in a few bills. Guy offers his gold Rolex. Then Flo tells them that she's donating the funds to her favorite charity--herself--and stuffs the dough into her pants pocket. Then she changes her story and says she will match the funds and donate them to her charity.

Likely story.

She leaves, with Guy's Rolex, and the judges taste her food. The spicy marinara with crab isn't spicy enough and could use salt. Her fish piccata is a little unevenly cooked, but Aaron likes that it's infused with the lemon caper sauce. Finally, everyone seems enchanted by her cannoli parfait.

Herschel comes out next, handing out a nicely-printed booklet with photos of himself over the years. He tells the group about his life, how he won the Heisman, became a Dallas Cowboy, competed in the Olympics, and danced ballet. Honestly, I would have loved to see him demonstrate some of his dance moves as part of his presentation. He leaves and the judges judge. They rave over every part of his meal, and Michael Psilakis calls it "restaurant quality," which is a pretty impressive compliment for a meal cooked by a former NFL star assisted by a vegetarian juggalo. Of course, Psilakis didn't say what restaurant. It's possible he meant Guy's American Kitchen & Bar?

Next up in the kitchen are Penn and Tiffany. Penn says he's too tall for a ship's galley, so he manged to finagle a prep kitchen somewhere else in which to do most of his work. Tiffany is short, so she's on the ship with Rob Van Winkle. She's making arancini as her main course, which is weird because they're more of a snack or appetizer, and the deep fryer is not cooperating with her. Probably because it knows that she's trying to serve something appetizer-sized as an entree and Scott Conant and Aaron Sanchez will have something negative to say about that. (That's a real no-no on Chopped.)Eventually it changes its mind and allows her to fry her balls. Penn and Judy Gold come on board to cook his main course, and while there's not that much space above his head, he's not exactly banging it on the ceiling, either.

Come meal-time, Penn entertains the judges by juggling broken booze bottles, which make a big mess when he drops them at the end. (Because, as he says, "it's hard to stop.") He leaves, the cleaning crew comes in, and the judges pick around the broken glass shards on their plates to taste Penn's food, aka "Vegas on the Sea," which sounds like a euphemism for a venereal disease. They enjoy his Caesar salad, even Aaron, who has to remind everyone that Caesar salad was invented in Mexico. Penn's halibut was overcooked, but the judges enjoy his bread pudding topped with the ice cream flavor he invented on All-Star Celebrity Apprentice.

Tiffany is Tiffany, so she sings some lame-ass song about her Italian Lover, which is the theme of her meal. When she leaves, Guy takes credit for helping her write the feeble ditty, which explains its lame-ass-ness. The judges enjoy her opening salad of perfectly cooked seafood, and think that making a vegetarian entree (the arancini) was gutsy. They might have liked her tiramisu, if they could have gotten a better taste. However, she served it wee demitasse cups with wee demitasse spoons and there really wasn't enough of anything to judge it by.

We then see the judges scoring each celebrity. Scott Conant is then asked to tally up the votes; presumably he's the only one at the table with either math skills or a calculator. Then the four are brought out and the verdict is announced.

Herschel Walker is the winner, and his charity, Patriot Support, is the beneficiary of $50,000. Penn is named the runner-up (despite his overcooked fish...but...broken glass juggling!), and Rachael and Guy claim to be kicking in $2,500 each to benefit Opportunity Village.

And - it's over! Yay! I hope you've enjoyed this mess.

Next week: Worst Cooks in America, which I will be watching but not recapping.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

White Beans, Kale, and a Whole Lotta Other Stuff Soup

Sometimes I get these fantastic ideas in my head and they turn out not to be so swell when it comes time to execute them. For example, when I made that "deconstructed" cassoulet the other day, I had two duck legs (one for each of us) but I made way more white beans than necessary. So I plopped the leftovers into a container and put it in the fridge to use when inspiration struck.

Inspiration came pretty quickly. I remembered that we had a partial bag of kale in the freezer, and figured that white beans + kale would make a lovely soup. But when I dumped the leftover beans into a saucepot, there was far less left-over than I thought there was. And there wasn't all that much kale, either. Once I poured in a couple cups of chicken stock, the soup seemed a bit insipid. But that was going to be dinner and I had to do something to beef it up, so to speak.

I went back to the freezer to rummage for more ingredients. I found two partial bags of corn kernels, and a few green beans in another package. I pulled out the chicken andouille sausage we had just purchased from Trader Joe's the day before and hacked off two of the frozen links, popping them in the microwave to thaw enough for me to chop them. The original beans were flavored with andouille, so this was a perfect addition. I also grabbed a can of tomatoes from the cupboard, and used a bit of tomato paste as well.

After a vigorous 20-minute simmer, the beans had broken down considerably, the tomatoes had lost their canned taste, and the sausage lent a spicy meatiness to the soup. A grating of fresh cheese on top gave it just a tiny bit more depth, and a freshly-baked loaf of bread made it dinner.

Leftover White Bean and Kale Soup

1 cup leftover white beans (or 1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed)
1 cup frozen kale
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon Bouquet Garni seasoning, or add rosemary and thyme to taste
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes and their juice
1 cup frozen green beans
1/2 cup frozen corn
2 andouille sausages, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
pinch red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste
grated Parmesan cheese

Add everything except salt and pepper and cheese to a 2 quart sauce pot. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer for 20 - 30 minutes. If you're using the can of beans, stir frequently to break them up a bit. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve in wide bowls with a grating of fresh Parm or other hard cheese on top.

Serves 2-4.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Deconstructed Cassoulet

There's a new Asian grocery store in Catonsville called Great Wall. It caters to a largely Chinese clientele, and while I'm not Chinese, I find myself cooking more Chinese-style food than anything from other Asian cultures. That made Great Wall right up my alley, especially when I discovered the selection of duck parts, including whole ducks, duck tongues, and duck legs. On our first exploratory trip to the store, I grabbed a pack of two duck legs to keep in the freezer until inspiration struck.

Inspiration struck pretty quickly.

I had never cooked duck legs on their own before, but after doing some research found that confitting them (cooking them in their own fat) was a pretty simple proposition. Ordinarily, a confit involves extra duck fat in addition to the fat on the legs, but I didn't have that. (I did have a cup or so of bacon grease, left over from making a quadruple batch of bacon jam, but that wasn't going to work. Or maybe it would, but I didn't want bacon-flavored duck. I wanted duck-flavored duck.) Instead, I just went ahead and cooked the legs as is, figuring nothing could go terribly wrong.

Ok, I know you're now expecting me to relate a disaster story. But really--nothing went wrong. As the duck cooked low and slow, its fat was rendered, the meat cooked, and the skin got crisp. Exactly the results I wanted.

While the duck was in the oven, I threw together some white beans seasoned with sausage. In my mind, duck + white beans + sausage = cassoulet, and rather than going through the whole somewhat complicated process of making a real cassoulet, I cooked my components separately. I even toasted some plain bread crumbs in olive oil to mimic cassoulet's customary crusty surface.

The beans were an experiment. I found two lonely links of andouille sausage in the freezer, and added them, with a handful of carrot and onion, to a couple cans of cannellini beans. I didn't have all of the proper fresh herbs to make a bouquet garni for the pot, but I did have a little jar of bouquet garni seasoning that I got from Penzey's as a free gift the last time I placed an order. Their spice mix is a combination of savory, rosemary, thyme, Turkish oregano, basil, dill weed, marjoram, sage, and tarragon; it packed the perfect herbal punch for the bland beans. You, of course, can use an actual bouquet garni (fresh parsley, thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf tied up in a bundle with twine), just make sure to remove it before serving.

Both elements of the dish were highly successful. And the beans were amazing. If you cook beans long enough, stirring regularly, they get dreamily creamy and taste really fattening. While my dish used pork sausages, I'm betting that if one used chicken andouille sausage, the result would be just as delicious but practically a diet delight. 

Deconstructed Cassoulet

For duck confit:
2 duck legs

For the beans:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup carrot, cut into small dice
1/2 medium onion, diced
pinch salt
2 andouille sausage, cut into small dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup chicken stock
additional salt and pepper to taste

To serve:
minced parsley
toasted bread crumbs

To make the duck: Prick the skin all over with a needle or tip of a sharp knife. Salt generously on both sides and allow to rest for at least an hour. 

Wipe salt off of duck and place in a pan or baking dish into which they fit somewhat snugly. Place baking dish in a cold oven and turn oven to 285°F. Cook for 90 minutes to 2 hours, until fat has rendered and duck is tender.

Raise oven temperature to 375°F and cook duck for an additional 15 minutes to brown skin. Remove from oven and allow to rest for about 15 minutes.

To make the beans: Heat the oil in a 3-quart stock pot. Add the carrots and onion and pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until vegetables start to soften. Stir in the sausage and cook an additional 3-4 minutes before adding the garlic and herbs. Add the beans and stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer beans for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until quite soft, stirring frequently.

To serve: Either pull the duck meat from the bones or serve legs whole on top of beans. Garnish with minced parsley and toasted bread crumbs.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Rachael vs. Guy Celebrity Cook-Off Season 3 Episode 5 Recap

We're coming down to the wire here, folks...there's only one more episode after this one, and I can't be more pleased. Ok, I'd be more pleased if this week's episode were the final episode. I used to like this show, but back when it seemed to be an actual cooking competition between somewhat inept celebrities. Now it seems more like a contest to determine who can best follow Rachael's or Guy's instructions. Bah.

This week, the celebs are in Coney Island. The weather looks magnificent, but there is a surprising dearth of non-Food Network persons wandering around the boardwalk. I can't believe that the network has such clout they can clear a town for their use. Or maybe Coney Island is in a serious, serious slump.

Anyhoo...there are two challenges again this week, one of which involves running a hot dog cart.

Florence Henderson says this has been a dream of hers, and it's hard to tell whether she's telling the truth or if the pain killers that she's taking for her broken foot are a little on the strong side. Perhaps life after the Brady Bunch and Wessonality has been a bit slow. But first, before the celebs get to serve up delectable meaty treats that have been floating in a tank of greasy water, there's a french fry challenge, the winner of which gets an extra ten minutes for hot doggery.

The teams head to their respective big-ass trailers, which seem even more over-sized and unnecessary when one considers that Team Rachael only has two players. Penn Jillette thinks he might make disco fries, which are french fries covered with cheese and gravy. Sounds like a sog-fest to me. Rachael wants Penn to amp up the fries by making French onion gravy. She also gives this sound advice: "don't over-cheese, don't under-cheese."

Perhaps walking cheese-fest Guy Fieri should take that advice to heart.

Florence wants to make "everything bagel" fries, coated with garlic, onion, poppy seeds, etc. Rachael is down with that.

Over to Trailer Guy. Herschel mutters something about "Famous 34 Gravy Fries." Vanilla Ice will make "Buffalo-style Ninja sticks." Apparently Buffalo, New York is rife with ninjas. Who knew? He also does a little rhyme, "gonna open your eyes and give you a surprise." By this, I assume he means that they'll be so spicy, diners will have some painful eliminations afterward.

Tiffany wants to represent Noo York by making Italian fries topped with cold cuts and whatnot. She's calling them "Yo, Yo, Yo" fries. Does that seem somewhat inappropriate to you, too?

The celebs don't have to cut the fries, they only have to cook the Ore-Ida crinkle cuts provided to them and top them with the slop of their choosing. Flo's having a problem getting her topping to stick to her fries, and Rachael makes her start over. Tiffany is having "meat issues," because she wasn't provided with the pro-SHOOT she wanted. Instead, she cooks up some hot Italian sausage, which, personally, I think would work better. Herschel decides to top his fries with a fried egg, but he ends up mangling and overcooking the poor thing.

Amanda Freitag is the Special Guest Celebrity Chef Judge this week. I watch her hug Guy and I think to myself, "he must stink." Cheap cologne or sweat, either or both. They judge the fries. Vanilla Ice's "ninja" fries are too spicy. Herschel's egg should be runny. Penn's has too much Swiss cheese (he over-cheesed). Flo's are clever and delicious, but the toppings are still falling off. This leaves Tiffany, whose fries are tasty enough to get her the win, and an extra 10 minutes in the wienerfest.

She's calling her dog a "Jamaican Hottie," which I suppose is better than her original name, "Ganja Dog." She's wrapping her tube steak in bacon, and making a pineapple and mango salsa to top it. None of that sounds Jamaican, particularly the bacon. But it's got Jerk seasoning, so of course it's authentic! In any case, Tiffany uses her extra ten minutes to make the salsa, while the other celebs champ at the bit to get started.

Flo wants to make a Kosher deli dog in honor of her friend Judy Gold. (The everything bagel fries may well have been in her honor as well). She's rolling her pups in yellow mustard and pastrami before topping them with slaw and home-made Russian dressing. I want one.

Herschel is making an "All-American" dog, topping his with a baseball, apple pies, and a tiny Chevrolet.

Penn is doing what he calls a New England breakfast with a carny trash touch: a bacon-wrapped pancake-battered dog on a stick with a side of maple syrup. Rachael wants him to taste the dog without the syrup, to get an idea of how well his batter is working. She thinks it needs salt, despite the bacon. Penn's not budging; he wants the dog to be dipped into the syrup, not eaten dry. When Rachael tries this, she's happy, and Penn feels vindicated. Carny trash know their corn dogs!

Vanilla Ice is vegetarian, and mercifully he's not going to inflict commercial tofu hot dogs on the unsuspecting crowds. Have you ever tried one of those things? They taste like smoked band-aids. Instead, he's taking logs of tofu, wrapping them in egg roll skins, and giving them a quick deep fry. And they are as bland as shit. As has become customary, Guy makes him throw out his first batch and try again. Despite their blandness, Vanilla is calling them his "crispy kung fu veggie dawgs." What happened to Ninja? or Voodoo?

Amanda Freitag is trotted out again to judge the dogs. Between the judges and the diners on the boardwalk, we hear that Penn's dog is "heavy" and "has too much going on." Everybody loves Flo's dog, and Guy calls her a "gangster," which is one of the more ridiculous things he's ever said. And this is a man who built his career on saying ridiculous things. Herschel's dog is also too busy, and the Chevy's tires are a bit chewy. Tiffany's dog may not be particularly Jamaican, but the salsa is tasty and everyone seems to enjoy it. Finally, Vanilla's flavorless tofu blobs are, well, flavorless.

Freitag has no choice but to name Team Rachael as the winner this week, because she's only got two players and both need to go to the finale. Florence is named the MVP, which earns $2500 for City of Hope. Vanilla Ice is clearly the weak link this week, so he's told to pack his collection of hot sauces and rhymes and leave.

Next week: Finale!

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Monday, February 03, 2014

Nutty Bars

A day off work means free time to play in the kitchen! But first, I spent a few moments thumbing through a copy of Fat Witch Brownies: Brownies, Blondies, and Bars from New York's Legendary Fat Witch Bakery before deciding on the Pecan Bars.

We had about half a pound of pecan pieces in the freezer, but I opted to use half walnuts because they're less-expensive. I also didn't feel like opening the bag of light brown sugar when there was just enough dark brown sugar left to fit the bill. And...the original recipe called for rum. Mr Minx isn't the biggest rum fan in the world, so I used bourbon instead. The results were crunchy, sticky, nutty, and quite fabulous.

Make them. Now. Unless of course you have nut allergies.

Nut Bars adapted from Fat Witch Brownies

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
7 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 cup coarsely chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon bourbon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 3/4 cups coarsely chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350°F and grease and flour a 9" x 9" baking pan.

In the bowl of a mixer, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and brown sugar. Add the 7 tablespoons of butter, a few small pieces at a time, and combine until mixture is sandy. Stir in the nuts. Gently press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan and bake for 15 minutes.

While crust is baking, melt the 4 tablespoons of butter and allow to cool. Combine brown sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, bourbon, and salt in a bowl. Stir in the cooled butter. Add the egg and mix well.

Pour the filling over the baked crust. Evenly sprinkle the nuts on top. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the filling no longer wobbles when you shake the pan gently.

Allow to cool completely before cutting, about 2 hours.

Makes 12 - 16 bars.

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