Category: Resources


Warm Winter Salad

December 31st, 2011 — 8:00am
shrimp and feta salad

Shrimp, Feta and Couscous Salad

I am not a person who usually puts in a plug for prepackaged food. But once in a while you come across something that is pretty good and becomes a staple in the pantry. In my case it has even earned a container in the cabinet along with rice, beans, and assorted pastas. It is produced by World Market and is called Couscous Medley. It is a pearl couscous, also called Israeli couscous for some reason, that is mixed with lentils, orzo, and dried corn. I have been making a lot of warm salads with it and it is remarkably versatile.

I have made it with vinaigrettes and simple lemon juice and olive oil mixtures. I have made it completely vegetarian or mixed it with some leftover chicken and in this case some shrimp. The mixture tends to work best with feta cheese for some reason. Topped with some fresh herbs it is really hard to beat for a quick, easy, hearty salad.

This particular shrimp salad is very simple. It includes the couscous, onions, tomatoes, a mixture of greek olives, some fresh herbs, feta cheese, and a simple lemon and olive oil emulsion. I suppose you could serve it cold but I prefer it on the warm side, especially this time of the year. Who would have thought something out of the package could be so good?

world market couscous medley

World Market Couscous Medley

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Local Gems

April 27th, 2011 — 8:00am

Entrance to Queen Creek Olive Mill

Every once in awhile you run across a local gem. A place where local resources are combined to make a very special food or entertainment experience that you are not going to be able to see anywhere else, More often than not they are in places that you would never find on your own or really care to venture to because they are on the wrong side of town or the wrong side of the tracks. A case in point is the Queen Creek Olive Mill in Queen Creek, Arizona just outside of Phoenix.

My friend Jon had been telling me about the place for years admiring both the harvest from the farm and the skill with which the marketing for the mill had been executed. At first I was not so sure about the marketing part as the retail portion of the mill is located in a rather nondescript warehouse building on a narrow road more commonly used by farm trailers than by local people.

The Olive Oil Selection

Once inside however you realize that what is at heart an olive grower has morphed into a multifaceted producer of all things olive and a great place to grab a bite to eat and enjoy a glass of wine. The principal product is olive oil which comes in a few special blended varieties (none of which really sparked my interest) a very good extra virgin variety which has some grassy and peppery notes that I really like. And a variety of oils pressed with lime, orange, and lemon rinds during the pressing process to yield some delicious oils for topping off a salad or perhaps drizzling over a nice piece of meat or fish before serving.

Menu Board

The food menu is extensive and tends toward the sandwich realm. My breakfast frittata was also a sandwich with scrambled eggs, asiago cheese, and a locally prepared italian sausage. It was a very heart start to the day and a delicious combination of ingredients. Everything else looked very fresh with the promise that local ingredients are procured whenever possible.

Mission Olive Tree in Bloom

You can also take a tour, which is more of a classroom instruction on making the olive oil. Apparently insurance keeps the public away from the groves. But we were able to see an olive tree in bloom realizing that in a mere six months or so it would yield about 250 pounds of fresh olives. A remarkable thing when you consider the size of the blooms. If you are in the Phoenix area I highly recommend a visit. You can order their extra virgin olive oil on line as well.

Queen Creek Olive Mill
25062 S. Meridian Road
Queen Creek, Arizona 85242
(480) 888-9290
www.queencreekolivemill.com

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Local Flavors

January 28th, 2011 — 9:29am

Terra Verde Balsamic Vinegars

I have been working like a dog. This is an expression I have never understood as work is the last thing I have ever seen a dog do. I am going to go with it because I am too tired to think of another. I generally arrive home after 7 in the evening with the intention of going to bed rather than stand over the cooktop to prepare a meal. Will has performed valiantly over the past few weeks cooking up a wide variety of meals. A job, which as I know too well, often goes under-appreciated.

Will is also the one who picks up new ideas when he goes shopping. I am mostly a buy the same old thing kind of guy. He browses around and often finds new products that we need to try out. He also has an affinity for finding new locally produced products. As the trend to going local continues he seems to keep us on track.

I have to admit I was not a big fan of the Texas olive oil. It seemed just a tad bland to me. We live off the locally produced mozzarella. And there are actually some incredible wines from the state as well. His most recent acquisitions were two bottles of flavored balsamic vinegar. One a fig variety. The other a peach variety. With trepidation I used the fig in the dressing for a spinach salad. To keep it more on the savory side I added some mustard. I think this went well with the fig. The result was quite tasty. And after a long boring day at work it certainly piqued my interest. The peach variety I am not quite sure how to use it yet. I am thinking this may be more of a dessert application. You can buy them online from the Texas Hill Country Olive Company.

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Vino Italiano

May 23rd, 2010 — 8:00am

Chianti and Valpolicella

This is my first post about wine. You may wonder why it took me so long to write about something I consume daily. The reality is that I tend to stick with wines that I like and that are reliably produced in the same manner year after year. I also am hard pressed to justify spending more than $15 on a bottle of wine that I drink on a daily basis. I have eaten pizza with a Chateau Lafite Rothschild, but I was young and naïve then. If the $100 bottle of wine was all you had on hand you drank it.

My other worry about price is that it is not always a good indicator of taste. How many times have you splurged on that $50 bottle of wine only to find out that it was about as good as the $10 bottle of wine you had the night before? For me this happens all too frequently. Relying on the food and wine magazines is usually suspect because the wines they recommend are often advertisers in their pages. How likely are you to give a negative rating to a wine that spent $30,000 to advertise in your magazine?

I have a new favorite food magazine La Cucina Italiana. My college roommate told me he had stopped his food magazine subscriptions except for this one. I just went ahead and added this to my list of reading without canceling any others. It is obviously about Italian food and wine. The photography is beautiful. The recipes seem reasonably simple if you can find a source for all the ingredients. The wine recommendations are always in a reasonable price range.

This month the magazine listed 25 Italian wines under $25 dollars. Interestingly the day after I received the magazine my wine store was having a one day sale of Italian wines. So off I went to see if La Cucina Italiana would be a better wine resource than most others.

I found two of the wines listed in the magazine; “Palazzo delle Torre,” Valpolicella, Veneto, 2006 by Allegrini, and “Nipozzano Riserva,” Chianti Ruffino DOCG, Tuscany 2003, by Frescobaldi. Both were memorable and worth the price.

Frescobaldi, "Nippozzano Riserva," Chianti Ruffino DOCG, 2003

We tried the Chianti first with the chicken and sausage burgers. I wanted to see how the wine would hold up with the spiciness of the meat. The wine provided its own spice contrast with anise and pepper notes. It had a nice body to it which held up well with the condiments on the burger. This was one of the best Chianti’s I have had in a long time. At $21 per bottle it was well worth the price.

Allegrini, "Palazzo delle Torre," Valpolicella, 2006

We then tried the Valpolicella with meatballs and a red sauce. I am not sure this was the best food paring but the wine was delicious regardless. La Cucina Italiana calls this a “baby Amarone.” It definitely has the richness of an Amarone with a much smoother taste on the palate. There were a lot of nice berry flavors. At $23 per bottle this is another to add to your list.

I guess, for now, I can rely on the wine recommendations of La Cucina Italiana. At least the small sampling that I tried turned out to be excellent recommendations.

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Kitchen Essentials

March 18th, 2010 — 7:57am

8" Chef's Knife

I am visiting my mother for two weeks.  I like to cook for her but she does not have a whole lot of the essentials I rely on to cook.  The most important essential is a good chef’s knife.  I would actually rank this as the most essential because without it I am pretty much lost in the kitchen.

I had heard a lot about the Victorinox Fibrox 8-Inch Chef’s Knife.  The people at Cook’s Illustrated always rank it as a “best buy.”  More importantly they rank it much higher than many knives that are 5 to 7 times the cost.  I am a person who uses very nice Wusthof and Henckels chef’s knives.  I like the feeling of the grip.  They feel substantial so I am not afraid of slipping and cutting off a finger.  And they are relatively easy to sharpen, when of course I remember to do so.

I went on line before my visit and ordered the Forschner and had it delivered to my mother’s house.  I have to say I was more than pleasantly surprised with its performance.  It does feel a bit insubstantial.  But in reality it cuts through everything as easily as my more expensive knives.  It has a good balance for cutting.  And despite the composite plastic handle it feels like it would hold up under most of the hard cutting tasks.  At $30 per copy it makes sense, especially if you are just learning the process of cooking.  I will be keeping my other knives.  If they need to be replaced I would be happy with the Forschner.

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Kitchen Confidential

March 9th, 2010 — 10:44am

The original publication of Kitchen Confidential was released in 2000.  Although I have been a big fan of Anthony Bourdain and his style of food and travel criticism, I never got around to reading, other than small snippets of this book until this week.  I guess perhaps like a fine wine I was hoping that the test of time would give me a better perspective on what the book contains.  The book has been re-released with some additional commentary to maybe tone down the original ramblings.  And of course I waited until I could get the book for free on the “Buy 2 Get One Free” table at the book store.  This does not mean I would not pony up the $11 for the book.  It is just that the stars aligned at just the right moment and it was indeed free.

This is largely an autobiography of someone who was full of passion for food but did not really get around to pulling it all together until much later in life.  I suppose there is a good moral in there for all of us.  He is not ashamed to tell you about his addictions to drugs, booze and cigarettes.  One is actually amazed that he is someone who can still stand erect.  His story is typical of one who has a great intellect matched with a total lack of ambition smothered by an overbearing ego.  In his early career he seems to go through kitchen gigs faster than he can pop aspirin; which is actually one of his other special talents.

Let’s face it Mr. Bourdain was the original potty-mouthed celebrity chef.  Based on his outrageous commentary in the book he landed his first television show in 2002 on the Food Network traveling around the world, trying to gross everyone out with his proclivity for eating brains and intestines.  The use of shock value in the cooking world was born.  Unfortunately he paved the way for Gordon Ramsay who just went one better than Bourdain.  That is if you think a foul mouth is a great asset on a great chef.  I bring this up because if you are at all offended by coarse language this is not a good book for you.  On the other hand if you can read through all the coarse stuff you will understand that Bourdain’s acting out is actually his way of expressing admiration for certain things culinary.

The book by itself is a good culinary history spanning from the mid-1970’s up until its publication in 2000.  I think the post script added in the latest release does help to round out the reader’s perspective.  The advent of the Food Network and the increased interest in cooking has actually increased the expectation of the diners.  This has stopped many of the outrageous behaviors outlined in the book.  And, as I would agree with Bourdain, has launched a bunch of hacks on television peddling recipes and rubs at the expense of serious cooking.  So I think it is a good read.  And I will continue to enjoy Bourdain’s irreverence.  It is based on a serious love of good food, and of course, good drink.  You can find more about the book here.

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Time for Lime!

November 19th, 2009 — 8:00am

ttar_keylimes_vMexican Limes.  Citrus aurantifolia. They are the same as Key Limes and West Indian limes, and they are native to Malaysia.  Regular limes – or Persian limes – are originally believed to be a hybrid of citrus latifolia and citron, and are native to Malaysia, as well.  While both varieties come from Southeast Asia, they have a very different flavor and, when considering West Indian and Caribbean recipes, I have begun to use the Mexican limes to give what I assume is a more authentic flavor.  But I digress…

Some of the difficulties in dealing with Mexican limes are: the seeds, the size, the juice.  They are jam-packed with seeds – more in one tiny lime (about 1.25″ diameter) than there are in several lemons put together.  Their tiny size makes zesting a little harder, just because it is hard to hold onto the little guys.  And, again, because of their size and the fact that they have so many seeds displacing room for juice, you don’t get a lot of juice from each lime.  Here are a couple of tools I find really valuable for zesting and juicing citrus, especially Mexican limes.

Microplane zester

Microplane zester

Citrus juicer

Citrus juicer

While I have tried many graters, this microplane variety (which comes in different degrees of fineness) is the easiest for me and gives you much better zest for the purpose.  As for juicers, I have tried the elecric ones and they just don’t work well with key limes.  Again, it’s the size.  The old-fashioned variety Mom had works, but then you need to strain the seeds.  This variety is quick, easy and has a self-straining filter built in.  As a historical note, my mother had an original version of this style of juicer made of wood with a hinge.  It was her mother’s and possible her grandmother’s.  We assume it goes back to the late 19th or early 20th century.

If you haven’t tried these little gems, I recommend doing so.  Their flavor is unique, adds more pucker and cannot be replicated using fresh limes.  The closest I have gotten when they weren’t available is using 2 parts Persian lime juice to 1 part lemon juice.  But, really, it isn’t the same.  Until I moved here and had access to fresh Mexican limes, I would use bottled key lime juice and had convinced myself there was really no difference.  But there was – you can definitely taste the difference.  Back to the basic rule – use fresh ingredients when in season.

Today’s recipe is one I made recently to add closure to a Mexican meal of guacamole with mango and pomegranate seeds, posole (really, faux-sole, as I cut a few too many corners to make it authentic…), skillet white cornbread with rosemary and honey and Caesar salad (eggless dressing).  This mousse is very easy to make, and it is light and refreshing even though its butter and cream content is pretty darn high.  I might add that when making the recipe, you start by making Mexican lime curd – and this, by itself, would make a great toast topper or filling for a coconut cake.

The recipe for the Mexican Lime Mousse can be found here.

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Two Essentials For Cooking

October 14th, 2009 — 10:05am

cookbooks

I was originally going to call this post “For Beginners.”  The reality is whether we are a beginner or an old hand cook we still adhere to some very basic recipes and techniques which we have to learn somewhere.  Long before the day of the ubiquitous cooking shows we had to rely on cookbooks and maybe a person who was kind enough to let us watch how recipes really came together in a meal.  Not having enough mentors around most of my learning was by trial and error guided by my old friend the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.  Whether it was telling the difference between a veloute or bechamel sauce or finding out how long to cook the turkey this book has stood the course of time.  My paperback volume purchased in 1983 is held together with heavy tape and stained with every conceivable splatter from the kitchen.  I suppose I could buy a new one but the old one seems to be such a good friend. I would hate to give it up.  This is one of those essential volumes to keep on hand to get you through the basics of cooking.  It has lots of good illustrations to help you truss that chicken or debone a duck.  This is my “go to” volume for everyday cooking.

The other essential I came to a bit late is a notebook where you jot down new recipes, changes to recipes, or any ideas that pop into your head.  I am a great experimenter.  Many of my original ideas turned out great.  However, if you do not write them down the next time you make them they may not be such a good idea.  Under much pressure I began documenting my ideas many of which I will share here in the blog.  I also use my notebook as a catchall for the recipes that always seem to be floating around on scraps of paper.  It is not an ideal filing cabinet but it keeps the scraps from floating around all over the kitchen.

My suggestions is this.  Get these two essential in your kitchen.  The first a good everyday cookbook for learning.  The second a good journal for sharing ideas.  After all that is what cooking is all about.

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Grillinnovations

September 30th, 2009 — 9:57am

gasgrill

Next to Will, the two cats, and the parakeet my favorite member of the household is my gas grill.  We spend a lot of time together.  Admittedly our conversations are a bit one sided.  But it talks about as much as my last therapist and it takes a lot less money per visit.

The grill was a Christmas present from Will a couple of years ago.  At first I was a bit leery of such a large commercial behemoth.  In a matter of a few weeks we became best friends and have been on good terms ever since.  While the dutch oven may be the mistress of the kitchen, the gas grill is the king of outdoor cooking.

We are fortunate here in North Texas, I can grill pretty much throughout the entire year.  And if  you want to keep your kitchen cool in the summer you will need to use a grill of some sort.

Of course with grills also come accessories.  My favorite of these is the rotisserie attachment.  And with the rotisserie attachment comes super moist, flavorful chicken. Candidly it one of those dishes that I remark on every time I have it.  How did we live without rotisserie chicken, and of course the leftovers.

My recipe for rotisserie chicken is here. A good resource for grill accessories or replacement parts is here.

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Dutch Ovens

September 25th, 2009 — 8:54am

dutchovenFor many years I lived without one of the most essential cooking tools in my kitchen; a Dutch Oven.  I knew I could not live without a cutting board and a chef’s knife.  But until I actually acquired a Dutch Oven I never knew what I was missing.

I use my Dutch Oven for every use for which you would usually use a pot or pan.  One big exception is mashed potatoes.  The potato masher would scratch the enamel.  Otherwise this baby is used for making sauces, and soups, for braising, and for pan roasting.  Because it can go into an oven up to about 400 degrees in temperature it allows braising at very low temperatures over a long period of time.  It makes a great pot roast.

Dutch Ovens come in a few varieties. I highly recommend cast iron with enamel.  The king of this type of Dutch Oven is made by Le Creuset.  This is a heavy duty cooking tool, with emphasis on the heavy.  You definitely need two hands to put this on the stove.  The cost is certainly an obstacle and prevented me from even buying one for many years.  Not because I did not have the money but because I did not want to have a $200 pot sitting in my cabinet.  Mine is in use constantly.  It is well worth the investment.

My Dutch Oven is a 4 1/2 quart.  Most people opt for the larger 5 1/2 quart.  I find the smaller one is just fine for feeding 2 to 4 people.  And it is just a bit lighter and more maneuverable than the 5 1/2 quart.  The only drawback for this type of pot is that it cannot go in the dishwasher.  You should also only use wooden or plastic utensils to preserve the enamel.

You can check out the Le Creuset web site here.

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