Week Night Yum Yum: Classic Caprese

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Insalate Caprese is one of those perfect dishes in my opinion. It's colorful and enticing, it's rich without being heavy, it's fresh without tasting "thin." It's also very simple to prepare and comes together literally in five minutes or less. That said, I've had many spectacularly bad caprese salads.

A traditional caprese salad consists of thickly sliced fresh ripe tomatoes, similarly sliced fresh buffalo mozzarella, crisp fresh basil leaves, an economical sprinkling of salt and pepper, and a drizzling of good quality extra virgin olive oil. On occasion one can add a good balsamic vinegar to the dish for added flavor and color. More on that later.

So how do you screw up something as simple as a "slice-n-serve?" Very easily: you buy shitty ingredients and use them.

First of all, the crux of this salad is the tomato. Don't use an under-ripe tomato -- it will totally ruin the dish. You need a beautiful red, ripe and juicy tomato so the juice can help flavor the cheese and so the sweet basil can contrast the acidity with. If you use under-ripe tomatoes the entire dish will be tasteless. It doesn't even matter what kind of tomatoes you use, as long as they're in season and properly ripe. Overly ripened tomatoes won't work either -- you won't be able to cut them properly, they'll turn mushy when the salt is applied, and it'll be a nightmare to eat as the pieces drop off the fork and splatter onto the plate. You want to choose tomatoes that are ripe and at their brightest in color, but that are also still firm enough to the touch to be easily sliced. If the tomato feels too soft and you can easily imprint your thumb into it forget it; save that tomato for a killer addition to a soup.

I like roma tomatoes the best for this salad -- they are naturally the same size and shape as a buffalo mozzarella so you can slice both to be practically identical (makes for nice presentation as well as being easier to eat). But you can also use heirloom tomatoes of various colors, big juicy beefsteak tomatoes, even small cherry tomatoes halved in two. Either way you go just make sure the tomatoes are at their peek in ripeness and color.

Once you've got the proper tomato then you have to get the right cheese. Buffalo mozzarella is usually the choice, prized for its creamy texture and mild flavor. The size is usually around a baseball, and one ball of buffalo mozzarella can usually match 2 good sized roma tomatoes. Caprese salads gone wrong have had the cheese be the issue. Usually held in a vat of water, the buffalo mozzarella must be drained properly and then sliced for the salad. Using a wet cheese will yield an unappetizing milky film on the rest of the salad and water it down too much, especially where the basil is introduced. To avoid this pitfall, simply drain your cheese first and then pat it very dry with multiple paper towels to remove as much moisture as you can. This will also help the seasonings stick to the cheese better so it tastes good too.

Finally, the third major part to this salad composition is the basil. You can serve it gently torn by hand or chiffonade then sprinkled on top, or I personally love including big whole leaves of basil right into between the tomato and cheese slices. Just make sure it's fresh, it's bight green (black spots means it's getting old and the flavor is getting muted!), and crisp to the touch. You should hear a "snap" sound when you pick the leaves off the stem; if you don't it's too wilted and will just die on the plate. Fresh basil picked right from the garden at the last minute is ideal for this salad if possible.

A higher quality commercial grade balsamic vinegar, the "Acetum" denotes

Finally, the seasonings. I like using a good quality course sea salt for this salad like fleur de sel or large crystal celtic sea salt. You want a punch of salty flavor but with a softened edge; commercial salts especially those with iodine added to them taste too salty. They can taste chalky, processed, and leave a bizarre after-taste in the mouth especially when paired with acidic foods like tomatoes. A natural sea salt (whatever you use) that has not been processed but rather naturally harvested has a more delicate salty flavor to it and enhances the food rather than masking it. Even kosher salt I think is too aggressive for a caprese. Plus the course natural salts add a crunchy texture to the salad that's just irresistible.

Freshly ground black pepper is a must. Try a courser ground if possible so the pepper comes through more and doesn't get lost amont the other flavors.

And finally, a good quality imported and fruity extra virgin olive oil is necessary. A generous drizzling over the entire salad after it's been seasoned will dress the ingredients and give a luxurious texture and taste to the ingredients. If you like you can also use a higher quality aged balsamic vinegar. Domestic balsamics tend to be far sweeter and more sugary than the imported properly aged ones. They certainly have their place in vinaigrettes and other dishes, but for a caprese I like something a little thicker in consistency with a taste of fortitude. Used sparingly and very lightly drizzled atop the salad, it can add a new level of brightness in flavor. If you're planning to serve bread, then I love the addition of vinegar as well.

This salad as you can see is more about choice than technique. You want to put all your efforts in properly choosing the ingredients, as there's no room for error given the scarcity of what's going on. If you enjoy the caprese salad it's a great time to invest in a good bottle of oil and vinegar, some more elegant natural salts, and play around with different fruit and vegetable combinations especially with spring and summer's garden fare coming up. And remember to serve the salad immediately!

Classic Caprese Salad
6 larger ripe roma tomatoes (or other tomatoes to your liking)
1 very large or 2 medium-sized fresh buffalo mozzarella
1 cup fresh basil
course natural sea salt (recommend: fleur de sel or celtic sea salt)
freshly ground black pepper (preferably set to course grind)
good quality extra virgin olive oil
good aged balsamic vinegar (optional)

Slice the tomatoes thickly, about 1/3-1/2" thick, discarding the ends. Drain the cheese very well and pat dry with paper towels. Slice into same thickness as tomatoes. Take a serving platter (or if making individual plates), begin alternating tomato slices with cheese slices in any pattern you wish. Gently nudge whole basil leaves in between slices and crevices to desired amount. Conversely, you can stack all three ingredients into a "tower" if doing individual portions. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, then give a generous drizzle of olive oil. (note: if doing the tower presentation you'll have to lay out all your tomato slices and all your cheese slices into an even layer, season them, then stack them up) and vinegar if using. Serve immediately.

Serving suggestion: freshly baked, crusty Italian loaf bread is perfection with this salad and for an added salty bite, a few pitted kalamata olives in the middle or off to the side are beautiful.

Fromage Friday: Truffle Cheese

Friday, May 18, 2012

Every Friday now I'm going to try to do a new segment called Fromage Friday where I showcase a particular cheese, post a recipe where cheese the highlight, or both. For the first installment I've chosen the truffle cheese.

The flesh of this cheese is a hard-creamy texture, sort of like a more solid fontina but less structured than a manchego. The rind is very thin, and the distinguishing factor is the dark brown line of real shaved truffle worked into the cheese. If you notice the cheese above, there's actually not much truffle in it; truffle is an extremely potent flavor and too much of a good thing will ruin a dish (or cheese, as it were). So choose a piece that uses a restrained hand at the truffleness.

This cheese is particularly good if you love the taste and smell of truffle but lack the pockets to invest in some. Fresh truffles (real truffles) are abhorrently expensive. I'm lucky in a way that here in the Pac NW people are growing their own truffles. Although they're not "legit" in the strictest sense of the word, they will more than do for a dish. But even these will cost me over $30 for a quarter-sized nugget.

Enjoy the cheese sliced thinly. Or, melted into sandwiches. The slightly nutty and creamy cheese together with the punch of truffle goes very well with beef and pork dishes especially. Try it on burgers, sandwiches, or even served sliced with grilled spring vegetables like asparagus.

O Burger: Truffle Burgers with Grilled Onions and Spinach

Thursday, May 17, 2012

This is a panty-dropper burger.

This burger is so intense and amazing I caution you -- if you're not great at sex, you may not want to serve this burger because it's officially better than you.

This burger is a must try, on multiple levels....

Ok, so I go into Whole Foods the other day knowing I wanted to make burgers. Seattle's been enjoying unseasonably good weather lately, and I was in the mood to grill. I wanted burgers but not the usual this time. So I head over to my Happy Place, also known as "the cheese section" and was delighted to see my friend Jordan there. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Hey, what's going on?"
J: "Not much! Whatcha thinking?"
Me: "Burgers."
J: "Yeeeessssss."
Me: "I'm building the burger around the cheese this time."

Jordan's eyes lit up and I could see he had something up his sleeve, something amazing and incredible and outrageously good. I couldn't help but widen my eyes in equaled excitement.

He reaches over the counter into a small pile of tiny cheeses -- creamy, soft, with one delicate blackened line running through the otherwise perfectly ivory colored creamy heaven.

"This," he continued almost reverently, "is what you must use. This -- is truffled cheese."

Me: "Oh. Hell. Yes."

Jordan offered simply a nod of mutual appreciation. Then I began filling out the burger...

Me: "...grilled onions....walla-walla of course...wilted spinach perhaps to mellow out the truffleness..."

J: "Oh yes. And the meat? What are you going to do with the meat?!" he excitedly asked.

Me: "Simple. Beef. Salt. Freshly ground. A light hand of fresh thyme."

J, his eyes getting larger: "And mixed with....pork."

Me: "Yeeeeeesssssss....."

....and so this burger was born.

Much like how good sex has a build up to it I offer this conversation to wet your palate panties. I couldn't wait to get home and do this burger.  The mix of beef and pork added wonderful flavor, even to this beef purist when it comes to a proper burger. I make the exception here because truffles and pork are pure heaven together. I keep the seasonings simple -- salt and freshly ground black pepper -- and added some fresh thyme to the ground beef as I mixed the meat in and created the patties. The thyme adds a lovely woodsy note to the burger that compliments the meat and cheese beautifully. For greenery I chose the humble spinach -- delicate and slightly sweet in flavor, it balances out the more aggressive truffleness in the burger. And makes it "healthy." To bring it home I took Jordan's recommendation and did brioche -- sliced thickly, the sweet egg-based bread held its own against the formidable filling and complimenting it perfectly. Instead of fries I threw some asparagus on the grill to balance out the heaviness of the burger. And it was a perfect meal. 

Truffle Burger with Grilled Onions and Spinach and Asparagus "Fries"
1.5 lb ground beef -- at least 15% fat
1/4 lb ground pork
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves, torn from stem
truffle cheese, sliced thinly
1 large walla-walla onion (or other sweet onion like vidalia)
1 cup wilted, cooked spinach*
fresh brioche loaf
1 bunch fresh asparagus
olive oil

Prepare your grill for cooking.

Take the beef and pork and place in a large mixing bowl. Bring up to room temperature so mixing is easy. Season with salt and pepper to taste (I usually do 1 tablespoon of each) and add the thyme leaves, then gently mix together until combined. Form into desired thickness and number of patties -- I like larger, thicker burgers for this so I made 6 equal patties out of 2 lbs of meat. Set the patties aside.

Take the onion and cut off the stem and top. Then with the skin still on, slice into thick circle-shaped slices. Leaving the skin on will keep the rings together better as they cook on the grill; you will remove them before eating. Brush gently with olive oil on both sides and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Trim the ends off the asparagus and discard. Take the spears, toss in some olive oil, season with salt and pepper and set aside with the onions.

Slice the brioche bread loaf into thick slices for the burgers. Conversely you can use brioche buns if you can find them. Brush both sides of the slices with oil (or melted butter). Set aside.

Cook the burgers on the grill until desired doneness. The pork fat will make the burgers flare up, so be cautious when working with them and make sure you don't put them on too soon with too high a flame if using a charcoal grill. Add the asparagus and onions to the grill and cook until tender -- asparagus about 5 minutes and the onions about 7-8; remove and set aside. The last 2 minutes of cooking the burgers top with the sliced cheese, close the top of the grill, and cook until cheese melts 2 minutes. Remove. Add the bread slices all at once and toast on both sides, about 30 seconds per side.
To assemble the burger, simply take a slice of bread, top with a cooked patty with cheese, add a whole onion patty (don't forget to remove that outer skin!), top with some spinach, and the other slice of bread. Very gently press down with your hand, then slice in half. Serve with the asparagus fries on the side.

*To easily wilt spinach, simply heat 1 tsp of olive oil in a saute pan with a lid. Add the spinach all at once (or in batches) and cook on low heat, turning occasionally with a wooden spoon and placing lid on so as to steam. Cook until bright green and wilted. You'll need around 4 cups of fresh spinach to yield 1 cup cooked.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake with Sea Salt

Monday, May 14, 2012

There's the espisode of Dora the Explorer where Dora makes her "madre" a special chocolate cake with nuts and bananas. Fast forward to this past weekend, the kids are hell bent on making me the same cake. Only one problem: I kinda don't love bananas and the only hazlenuts I really love are via Nutella. So, with a little creative and culinary direction, we tweeked Ina Garten's recipe for Aunt Betty's Chocolate Cake into something so incredibly tasty, it's now officially my new favorite cake. And the best part -- the kids and I baked it together on Mother's Day, giving me a new cherished memory to associate with the day from now on with this cake I'll make now every single year.

The buttermilk based cake is super moist and delicious, and the frosting is light and slightly sweetened. Good quality Dutch-processed cocoa is a necessity for this cake; don't bother making it without some. You can find some excellent options at Whole Foods. Ina loves to use bittersweet chocolate for her desserts which I think is fine, but my heart personally falls with milk chocolate, so I subbed out good quality European milk chocolate for her bittersweet in the frosting. Some fresh creamy peanut butter added to the filling added just enough peanut butter goodness to the cake without overpowering it. And a sprinkling of course sea salt added delightful crunchy texture as well as flavor to the filling that made each bite surprising and irresistable. Please try her recipe with these two small but significant changes; you will love it!

The cake is done extremely quickly and easily, and is very kid-friendly so it's perfect for a project if you're looking for something to do with the kiddos. It keeps very well and carries well to parties or parks. Enjoy it and happy mother's day to all the mamas out there!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake with Sea Salt
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups dutch process cocoa powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk (at room temperature)
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup brewed coffee
3 Tbsp fresh creamy peanut butter
1 Tbsp course sea salt
chocolate frosting (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8x2 inch round cake pans (or simply spray with baking PAM).

Sift together the "dry ingredients" -- flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt -- in the bowl of a standing mixer. In a seperate bowl (or large measuring cup), combine the "wet ingredients" -- buttermilk, oil, vanilla, and eggs. Turn the mixer on low, and while mixing slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix on low until incorporated. With the mixer still on, slowly add the coffee and mix until well combined, scraping down the sides a few times. The mixer will be quite thin and almost watery; this is fine.

Divide the batter evenly among the two pans and bake in oven 25-40 minutes or until set and a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven, let the cakes cool in the pans for 30 minutes, then turn them out onto a cooling rack to finish cooling off.

While the cakes cool make the frosting:

Milk Chocolate Frosting with Sea Salt
1/2 lb good chocolate milk
2 sticks unsalted butter (at room temperature)
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups confectioner's sugar
1 tsp course sea salt

Melt the chocolate -- either set over a double-boiler or place in microwave-safe bowl and with 30 second intervals, melt the chocolate. Set aside. Using a handheld electric mixture, beat the butter on medium speed until pale yellow in color and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla and beat another minute or two until combined. Add the sugar 1/4 cup at a time and mix in at low speed until fully incorporated. Srape down the sides of the bowl occasionally as you do this. Add half of the melted chocolate and mix to combine. Add the salt and the rest of the chocolate and mix again until well blended. Be careful not to overwhip the frosting because then it'll be too stiff to spread! You want the consistency to be nice and soft and spreadable!

To assemble the cake, take one of the cake pieces and place on a cake stand you plan to serve the cake on. Take about 1/3 of the frosting and place a dollop in the middle, then spread it out evenly over the top of this first layer. Then taking the peanut butter and place the dollop in the middle on top of the frosting. Then taking a knife or wooden skewer, drag the peanut butter through the frosting to incorproate it. You don't want to mix it in fully, but rather create pockets of peanut butter and of chocolate for optimal taste. Then sprinkle the salt evenly on top. Add the next layer of cake carefully on top, then frost the rest of the cake on top and the sides until fully covered.

At this point you can serve the cake, refrigerate it, or serve it later. The cake can stay out a while but should be refrigerated overnight and brought back up to room temperature before serving. Enjoy!

Cheese Pie: An Exercise in Crispy Cheesey Deliciousness

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Greeks call it tiropita. The Romanians call it placinta. Americans call it cheese pie. However you want to call it, you can all agree it's yummy. It's fatty. And you adore every crispy phyllo bite of it knowing that.

Quite simply made, it involves layer upon layer of buttered phyllo dough (the butter's what turns it crispy in the oven so don't skimp!) with a salty soft cheesey middle. The filling can vary and every Mediterranean and Eastern European family has its own version; this one's the recipe my mom makes for Easter every year. Simple ricotta cheese is mixed with salty feta ("French...imported...the best"), eggs, some more salt and a small amount of very finely ground black pepper for a great basic cheese pie. Greek versions are a bit better in my opinion because they use a combination of cheeses to really get a depth of flavor, but this recipe is perfect for a basic platform you can spring off of with different cheese and even herb combinations. The entire assembly of the pie takes less than 10 minutes and can be made up to a day even in advance. You can even bake it off a day ahead and reheat, but it's really at its best eaten freshly made.

We eat this pie cut into large square chunks and served with a side salad with vinaigrette. It's wonderful with a hot cup of tea on a cold rainy day or with a cold glass of white wine on a hot summer one. Enjoy!

Basic Cheese Pie
1 package phyllo dough (recommend: Athens brand)
1 stick unslated butter, melted
12 oz ricotta cheese (choose your skim -- doesn't matter)
1 cup good quality feta cheese (recommend Valbreso brand), crumbled by hand or roughly chopped
4 extra-large eggs
pinch of salt*
small pinch of finely ground black pepper

special equipment:
pastry brush for brushing the phyllo
rectangular pan (lasagna size or brownie size work well for this) -- you want the dough to fit easily

the filling should be thick and very creamy; don't worry if it has lumps!

First make the filling. Place the ricotta cheese, feta cheese, eggs, salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl. Then using a hand-held mixer fitted with the paddle attachments, combine the ingredients into a thick filling. You can also do this by hand using a fork, but the electric mixer is really a lot easier. Set aside.

Brush the bottom and sides of your baking pan with some of the butter. Lay one piece of the phyllo dough into the bottom of the pan, smoothing it out gently with your hands. Carefully brush the top with some butter, then lay another piece of dough on top. Brush again with butter, another layer of dough, and keep repeated until you've used half of the packaged dough. Then gently pour the filling all at once into one even layer, leaving about 1/2 inch border around the perimeter of the pan. This allows room for the filling to expand when cooking so it won't burn on the sides.

for added protetion you can position some of the dough layers to come up the sides of the pan and then simply fold them back over on the pastry before adding the final couple of layers on top

Top the filling with a piece of phyllo dough and gently brush it again with butter. Repeat the dough-butter process again until you use up all of the dough.

Then taking a sharp pairing knife, gently cut into the pastry and through the filling but not all the way through (you want to go about halfway through). This step isn't required but will make it much easier to cut when the pastry is baked and crispy.

Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 40 minutes or until top is golden brown and crispy and filling is bubbling. Depending on how strong your oven is, if you see the top is burning then gently cover it with aluminum foil, bake covered until the filling is bubbling hot, remove the foil and bake open until top is crisped a couple of minutes. Let stand at least 10 minutes before cutting so the filling can set. To cut, simply slice through the slits you've made already this time all the way through to the bottom. A spatula helps remove the pieces easily. Enjoy piping hot or at room temperature.

Kid Tested, Toddler Approved: Meatball Soup

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Little girl is usually quite good with vegetables, but Little Boy is admittedly harder to convince. With only a handful of veggies he's willing to eat, I have to sneak other nutritous veggies like spinach or kale into other dishes he likes like pasta dishes or soups. And thus this soup was born. They love meatballs, and I can get them to eat anything with meatballs in it. This soup is very low calorie and fat and is pretty healthy. Carrots, celery and onion form the base along with garlic and bay leaf for aromatics and flavor. Ground chicken makes a healthier meatball but you can certainly use beef or even turkey if you like, and spinach adds nutrition and flavor as well. For more protein or a vegetarian version you can add a can of beans. And ditalini pasta adds fun and texture to the soup.

The whole thing came together in about 35 minutes, making it perfect for a mid-week busy night dinner. Kids and adults love it and you'll love how light you feel after eating it. Some fresh bread and a side salad complete the meal. Enjoy!

Meatball Soup with Chicken Meatballs, Spinach, and Parmesan
for the meatballs:
1 lb ground chicken thigh meat*
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 egg lightly beaten
2-3 Tbsp bread crumbs

for the soup:
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 white onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped small
1 carrots, peeled and chopped small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp fresh parsley
1 tsp fresh basil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup ditalini pasta (or other small pasta like orzo, alphabet, etc.)
grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Mix the meatballs first. Place the ground meat in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste. Heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the onions on medium-low heat until softened and translucent, about 8 minutes. Add the onions to the meat, then the garlic, parsley, egg and 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs. Using a fork or spatula (or your hands!) mix to combine. If the mixture feels too wet and won't come together into a ball, add a little more breadcrumbs until to achieve this. Form the mixture into balls -- I like doing very small bite-sized balls if making this soup for kids also -- and set on a plate. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. The chilling will help the balls keep form when introduced into the hot soup.

While the balls chill, make the soup. Heat the olive oil in a pot and add the onions, carrots, and celery. Season with some salt and pepper, and cook until vegetables are softened, about 10 minutes. Add the bay leaf and garlic and stir to combine, another minute. Add the broth all at once and stir to combine. Bring soup up to a simmer. Add the spinach and cook a minute until wilted. Next, add the meatballs. Remove from fridge and while still cold, gently drop the balls one at a time into the simmering soup. Use your spoon to help guide them in safely. Cover with lid and reduce heat down to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes. Remove lid, add the pasta, parsley, and basil (if using beans you'd add them now as well) and cook another 5-6 minutes (or according to pasta package direction). Taste and adjust seasonings to taste.

To serve I like to do a sprinkling of parmesan in the middle, but this is totally optional. Goes great with fresh bread as well.

*I used ground chicken thigh meat because it's slightly fattier and more flavorful for a soup. You can certainly use ground chicken breast, turkey, or classic beef or pork meatball as well. Same amount, same mixture.

If you want to add beans then add a can of your favorite beans. Cannelini, red kidney, pink pinto, and even black beans would work great here. Garbanzos will take a tad longer to cook, so if you use those then add an extra five minutes to the cooking time. And make sure no matter what bean you use, drain them and give them a good rinse in cold water before adding to the soup!

Kitchen Basics: Grilling 101

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Grill.

My friend Christa recently posted on TES's Facebook page asking about advice on grilling, specifically how to grill beef, chicken, and fish. And thus I shall answer the question here.

First of all, there's so much to know about grilling that I could write a book on it. Many have. So this is an extremely compressed version. If you grill often or are planning to, I highly recommend investing in some grill books. Not only cookbooks, but ones that explain the art of grilling. Because it really is an art. This post will hit the main points on grilling and offer some tricks of the trade; for more comprehensive information check out the end of the blog where I list my personal favorite books on grilling. And please add some suggestions for reading in the comment section if you have one you like!

First of all, it's important to understand what it means to grill. Grilling is not BBQ, despite the misappropriation 99% of people use when desribing this culinary skill. They think they are BBQing when in fact, they are grilling. BBQ, as I've said before, requires the use of indirect heat via smoke to cook the proteins over a long period of time, over a slow and constant temperature. By contrast, grilling is direct heat applied to the food item by way of charcoal or gas (if you have an electric "grill" then please stop reading this blog -- I cannot help you). You must know what you have and how to properly use it if you're going to cook anything decently.

photo from: www.barbecuegrills.us
So what does a grill look like? They vary. You can range from a very primordial grill -- a hole dug in the dirt, surounded by rocks with wood and/or charcoal in the middle lit on fire with or without grate on top -- to the super fancy schmancy stainless steel "minivans" rich people like to have on their manicured patios. Either is fine. And p.s. -- the hole in the ground is probably gonna make better-tasting food than that $1000+ minivan you've got. But that too is another blog entirely.

You must decide first if you're going to use a gas grill or a charcoal grill. Both are fine, but the charcoal grill will enable you to get beautiful char marks on your foods (especially steak!), add smoky aroma and flavor to your foods which you can never achieve with gas, and gets you in touch with your ancestors. Conversely, the gas grill offers you temperature control which is particularly nice if you're a novice griller, easy start up and clean up (you turn it on and off), and you don't have to wait to heat the brickets in the smoke stack first; you can just preheat the grill and move on in 5 minutes. Personally, I love both for different functions and requirements during the week. Charcoal is great for weekends when I have more time; gas is ideal for a weeknight meal. Either way, the cooking aspect is basically the same...

Now, assuming you have an appropriate apperatus to grill your food, let's talk about some cardinal rules with grilling.

1. Food must be at room temperature prior to placing on the grill.
This. Is. Huge. This is the difference between evenly cooked meat and the random piece of still-mooing cow in the middle. This ensures great grill marks on steaks and fish. This enables you to properly flip and otherwise move your food, especially fish, more easily and keep it all intact and not have it fall into pieces. This is massively important, which is why it's the first rule. Simply take out whatever it is you plan to grill at least 15 minutes prior to placing on grill and leave it out on the counter to come to room temperature. Don't defrost it in the microwave -- you will cook it and end up with dogshit to eat. Simply plan ahead and take whatever it is out a little early. It won't spoil; I swear to you. I've successfully eaten many a piece of chicken or steak or fish that have been on the counter, uncovered (gasp!) for more than 2 hours even and look -- I'm still alive. But in all seriousness, make sure it's all at room temperature. Same goes for grilling veggies!

2.  Your grill must be pre-heated properly.
Another massively huge tip. Cold grill = shit will stick to it and not cook properly. Preheated grill = sexy salmon filet flipped with ease. Much as you would preheat your saute pan before adding oil and food, you have to pre-heat your grill. If you're using gas then it's super easy -- turn the grill burners on, put the cover down, let it heat up on high for about 5 minutes, then scrape the crap off (more on this in a second), and now you're ready to cook. If doing charcoal, turn your brickets over into the pan, place your grate on top, let it heat up uncovered a good 5-8 minutes, scrub and cook. Pre-heating will ensure proper cooking, reduce the liklihood of the meats and especially fish sticking to the grill, and will give you those desired marks.

3.  Clean your grill prior to adding the food.
Seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people skip this step. It's quite simple -- dirty grill = dirty food. And no one wants to eat dirty food, no matter how much that guy says "it adds flavor." No, it doesn't. It adds carbon and bullshit to an otherwise gorgeous piece of steak. To clean your grill properly, all you need is three things: high heat, a good brisle brush, vegetable oil. Simply heat your grill as stated in Rule #2, then take your handy dandy grill brush (the one with the long handle and bristly spiky stuff) and brush the shit out of your grill. You'll notice the black char will come straight off and fall down into the bottom of the grill where it will become obliterated. Very easy. Then, wad up a paper towel or two into a softball sized wad. Dip it in some vegetable oil -- not too much but don't be shy either -- then taking a pair of tongs and holding the wad with them, brush the grill with the oil. This will not only clean the grate, but also create an instant non-stick effect for the food coming on it. If you're watching your diet no worries -- the fat in the oil will burn off and not throw off your calories. Following this rule will greating improve your grilling by 1000%.

4.  Use the right amount of heat and place appropriately.
This was a rule I learned in a book that I've found invaluable. Especially when using a charcoal grill, heat will be displaced differently depending on how you spread out your charcoal into the pan. If you concentrate the charcoal in the middle for example, you're creating a far hotter area there in the middle of the grill, with a border of cooler spots to allow food to rest or stay warm but not necessarily cook. If you place the charcoal all on one side of the grill, you've created a place to cook and a place to rest. I like using this technique when cooking burgers: the patties cook on the hotter side and I can toast the buns simultaneously on the cooler right side so they're all done at the same time. Or, you can spread the charcoal all out evenly into one layer if you're cooking all vegetables or all fish for example; foods that require the same level heat. Obviously, the more charcoal you put in the hotter it will be; the less you use the less hot it will be. It's always better to use more than less and just wait a few minutes for the heat to die down if it's too hot to cook with.

Know what you're cooking. Different meats and fish require different levels of heat to cook optimally, and even within their category -- when "doneness" is a factor as in with steak for example -- you'll want to manipulate your heat source to cook it properly. A grill is actually extremely versatile if you know how to work with it. You can use it to sear a food, roast, cook it like an oven even, all with just manipulating how much charcoal you use, where you place it, and gaging how hot the heat source is. Working with a gas grill makes all of this obviously extremely easy; you want a lower heat you lower the dial. Using charcoal requires much more skill and patience to learn to use properly, but the rewards are amazing if you can commit to a serious handful of attempts.

5.  Place it and leave it. Just. Walk. Away.
Mistake number 2 that people do when they grill badly is they keep moving the stuff on the damn grill, not giving it a proper chance to cook and develop the requisite crust to keep the stuff moist and juicey! Popular culprit is burgers -- notorious for people constantly moving them about, until finally you get a crumbled formerly-known-as-patty sheepishly slid onto a bun, then just covered mounds of melted cheese to cover the faux-pas. I know you people who do this. And you can never get me drunk enough to ever not notice it. Instead of this, simply place the damn room temperature food on the grill, and back the fuck away. Let the grill do its job; stop micromanaging the grill and let it do what it was born to do. The way grilling works is if you've properly seasoned your food items, when the heat from the grill is applied to said seasonings it will cause them to melt, creating a protective crust that will become flavorful in its slightly burnt state. The inside will be moist and tender and full of flavor. If you keep screwing with it, moving it around a hundred times, then this important crust can't form and you'll end up with a drier final result devoid of all deliciousness. Plus, the more you move it the more you run the risk of breaking the thing you're cooking. This is especially true with vegetables, patties of any kind, and fish (the exception is shellfish of course). Most food items grilled should be handled 3 times during the course of cooking -- putting it on the grill, flipping it once, then removing it. The only exception to this rule is chicken and sausages! Chicken has to be cooked thoroughly or else it's inedible. This is a big time exception for the larger pieces of chicken, especially bone-in and skin-on pieces. They don't have the fat on there to protect them as much as beef does for example, so they have to be constantly moved around and more "grill-roasted" rather than grilled to get them fully cooked and not burnt. Similarly, sausages and hot dogs need to be rotated constantly to achieve even and full cooking. A good rule I use is "2 minutes then move a turn" -- meaning, cook at one position for 2 minutes then turn it slightly, cook 2 more minutes, then turn again and repeat until the whole thing is cooked right. Vegetables don't have any natural fat to them, but they are smaller and thinner and full of water usually so they will cook much faster -- naturally they need to be placed, flipped, and removed or else they burn.

Those are my top 5 rules of grilling. Now, let's talk about some seasoning tips, marinades, and ideas to make it all taste good.

Beef Tips...
If you're grilling beef it's usually going to be steak or hamburger. If it's steak, I'm a huge fan of a good cut, good salt, coursely ground pepper. That's it. On the grill, generally fattier cuts of meat will serve you better than leaner ones because the fat in those cuts will keep the cut moist as it melts away on the grill. This is really important as well if you like your steaks more done -- medium well to well done -- so you don't end up eating shoe leather for dinner. The rarer the meat in my opinion, the leaner you can get. Which is why filet mignon for example is just fine for a nice grill (although my favorite is still the pan saute with oven finish). Don't skimp on the cut you choose to grill, and aged beef is the holy grail of steaky goodness. If you "season" your grill properly (i.e., oil it prior to placing food on during the cleaning process described in Rule #3 above) you won't have to add any additional oil to the steak itself when you season it. In terms of salt and pepper, I love a good course salt like sea salt and freshly ground black pepper set to a course grind is perfection.

If you're doing burgers I highly recommend forgoing the 90% lean cut of meat and saving that for meatballs on another dish, and rather going for the fattier but far more flavorful and grill-friendly 80% lean mix. This means 80% is lean, and there's 20% of fat mixed in. This in turn means more flavor and having a moist delicious burger. Nutritious? No. But it tastes good. And on occasion I'd rather have one amazing burger than many shitty ones.

Regardless of what beef you're grilling, you don't move it when it's on the grill. The steak will tell you when it's ready to flip over -- it will be very easy to pick up and flip over. If it sticks to the grill that side is not done yet and it's not ready to flip. Same goes for the burger. I go simply by this rule now and don't even bother timing my steaks for doneness, but if you're nervous about it then you can certainly go by a doneness chart according to your steak's size and thickness or even use one of those electric measuring tools that gages doneness. I've found them to actually be pretty accurate.

Notes On Chicken...
As stated above, chicken is the exception to the grilling rule: it needs to be rotated on all sides every couple of minutes in order to create that desired crust and prevent drying out. Also, chicken fares better going on a medium level of heat rather than high-medium to high. If using a gas grill this is extremely easy to control, and you can get some pretty spectacular chicken on a gas grill if you keep the heat medium and keep an eye on it. For charcoal it's a bit tougher. You need to really gage the temperature of the coals and place your chicken on when the temperature is right. Or, disperse your coals properly to create a lower temperature surface area as opposed to a concentrated heat more suitable for steaks. A good rule I use myself is when you can hold your hand to the coals -- about 8 inches away from the grill -- for 4-5 seconds before you feel it's too hot and you have to move your hand, then that's optimal for cooking chicken. If you have to pull your hand away before 4 seconds then the grill is too hot; if you're holding it there comfortably longer than 6 then it's too cold.

Keep in mind too chicken can have bone-in or bone-out, and the meat around the bone takes longer to cook. So if you've got bone-in chicken breast make sure to add the appropriate grill time and you'll want to turn it even more often than a boneless chicken breast to prevent it from burning. Chicken skin also is super high in fat but it's very thin, unlike it's thicker fat beefy counterpart. Chicken skin tends to burn on a grill which can be actually tasty, but you don't want the whole thing black either. If grilling with skin-on then keep an eye on it and turn it more often. Wanting a lower maintenance chicken? Go for skinless and boneless breasts. And remember: dark meat takes a couple minutes longer than white meat to cook!

Fish Pointers...
Many people freak out at the idea of grilling fish. Like freak the fuck out. Vividly I remember my mother just butchering beautiful and expensive filets of halibut on my grill back in California, turning them constantly until most of the thousands of pieces fell through the grate and we had like literally 1/2 cup of cooked fish left, the rest on the coals. So sad. Fish, unlike chicken and beef, needs to be oiled prior to placing on the grill. Always. No exception. Nope, not even for that. Always. Fish is extremely watery and when introduced to the hot grill the water evaporates, creating that notorious sticking effect. Many a fish filet I've literally inadvertantly glued to the grill. Then cried. Insteaid, a properly seasoned grill together with a lightly oil-rubbed filet is all you need. AND DON'T MOVE THE DAMN THING TOO MUCH! Fish is idiot-proof for the grill -- it will change color as it cooks and texture, so you can gage off of that. Once the bottom isn't sticking to the grate and can be picked up quite easily, it's ready to flip. Gather it all up on a larger spatula, then with one fluid and confident motion -- flip it over and onto the other side to finish cooking. Once the fish is firm to the touch and the other side removes easily, it's ready to be taken off the grill.

Shellfish are even easier to cook on the grill. If doing mussels, clams, or oysters then you know they're ready when the shell pops open. And no need to turn them over. If working with shrimp or lobster in the shell, when the shell turns bright orange it's ready. Squid (aka calamari) and octopus are slightly harder to work with -- they need to be cooked either a really, really long time or very quickly like on the grill.

Some Proper Utensils to Help You...
For the grill you basically need two utensils: a good pair of steel tongs that you can easily open and manipulate, and a good sturdy steel spatula. Obviously you're not using plastic here or even half steel/half plastic because it's going to melt on the grate and grill. So go for the steel. A huge mistake I've seen people do is use massively large, hard to hold and manipulate BBQ equipment. You want to be able to use the tools easily -- if your hand hurts working with the tongs then they're too big for you or not maleable enough. It's going to create problems while cooking and increase the chance of you dropping the food, not properly moving or removing it, and just be annoying. Choose your utensils carefully and specifically to your hand and strength level. A good flat and sturdy spatula is also a must, especially if you're planning to grill a lot of fish.

As stated above, you can also invest in a meat thermometer to gage doneness with steaks. They range anywhere from a basic stick-in kind to a fancier electric reader. If you're really concerned about doneness then invest in one. They have plenty in all price ranges at various stores from your local super market to professional stores.

A Note On Charcoal...
I love doing charcoal grills. They had immense flavor and texture to grilled dishes you simply can't get any other way. If you choose to do the charcoal, I highly recommend investing in a smoke stack. You place your brickets in this smoke stack along with newspaper, light the paper, then heat the coals this way. When they're ready you simply pour out the hot coals into the base of your grill and place the grate on top and you're ready to go. Some people like using lighter fluid and starter brickets; I'm not a huge fan. Both leave a peculiar gasy taste and smell in my opinion that totally overtakes the food you're eating. Plus it feels unhealthy. So do the smoke stack.

Some Extra Reading...
This post just barely scratches the surface of grilling. For more in depth analysis I suggest the following books:

Anything written by Steven Raichlen. He's a grilling and BBQ god and has some great tips. Check out one of this many books here.

Weber (who also makes bbq's) puts out a few books that are great as well. Especially if you have a Weber grill, it's worth a read.

And for some easy and delicious introductory recipes that will wow, check out Bobby Flay of course and his many cookbooks.

Happy grilling!

My Little Party: Some Pics and Ideas for a Kids Party Extravaganza!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Part of why I've been abscent on the blog scene is in addition to have a newborn muffin, we've had back-to-back parties and celebrations galore since March. Little Girl turned 5 years old on March 19th and to celebrate, we hosted a My Little Pony themed party at the house. Here are some pics of the dessert table I did, along with some super simple ideas to add some fun to your next kids party (or adult party!). Enjoy.

Various toppings for the ice cream bar included: gummy bears, M&Ms, sprinkles, cherries, nuts, and other rainbow-colored candies. Rainbow swirl lollipops were a HUGE hit at the party, as were the unicorn-shaped rainbow pops as well. I stuffed them in planter containers filled with blue jellybeans.

Fist, instead of a candy-centric table, Little Girl wanted ice cream. So I went with a rainbow theme for the pony Rainbow Dash as my color palate. This was super fun to work with, and as you could imagine, the options were endless. I did a turqouise table cloth because Rainbow Dash's body is a turquoise-blue color, and accented with rainbow colors. I did a rainbow of poms above to illustrate the theme brightly and add festivity to the area of the room. The cake was done by a local bakery that copied our invitation. And then the food!

She wanted chocolate covered strawberries which is a great tip for any party really. Everyone loves them. But just because they're red and green doesn't mean you're married to that color palate! I brought in the rainbow theme by using rainbow sprinkles on both white and milk chocolate, and placed the strawberries in brightly colored cupcake liners.

Not only did they present just beautifully, but they were easy to handle for guests as well. As soon as they were done eating they simply put the stem back into the cupcake paper and threw it away. Very easy, very no-mess, and very decorative! I'll definately be using this trick for future parties, matching my cupcake papers to the color or theme of the party. Super easy and cheap!

Then to present the strawberries I put them on a tiered platter. It added both height and color to the table, and made it super easy for people of all ages to help themselves.

If you don't have a tier platter, use two cake stands one on top of the other!

Rainbow Dash is also a unicorn pony, so I took ice cream cones and dipped the tops in white and milk chocolate, then again in rainbow sprinkles. I made them to match the strawberries on purpose, but you could use any color or sprinkle or even nuts you wish. These little "unicorns" were then added to the cup of ice cream the kids chose, and it stood out like a unicorn cup! Plus, no mess for eating ice cream cones for 5 year olds in my house.

If you're really ambitious you can coat the entire cone and drizzle patterns on top!

These were extremely easy to make, and in fact I made them 3 days in advance and stored them at room temperature in a ziploc bag. Easy. You can adapt this idea to an adult party or holiday party quite easily as well, simply swapping out the sprinkles for a color in your theme. Or, use candy melts instead of chocolate to add even more color!

Of course when I thought of rainbow I thought of fruit. I did a fruit platter in the colors of the rainbow. A simple white platter served perfectly to house the fruit. Since I had strawberries already I chose to use raspberries this time for the "red." And kiwi (Little Girl's second favorite fruit) was a great choice for green, especially since I already had the cantelope for the orange. I also used purple grapes but you could use blackberries as well, or even sliced plums turned skin-side up.

On the savory food table I had Little Girl's favorite sandwiches -- nutella sandwiches -- on display. Using a simple cookie cutter gave a gorgeous shape and instantly made an otherwise boring-looking sandwich fun to eat. 

A purple cake stand adds festive color to the sandwiches' presentation.

 You can use any cookie cutter really to accomplish this, but remember that the less complicated the shape and the larger the size, the better they will turn out. Nutella and peanut butter work perfectly for super fast and easy sandwiches the kids would love. You could also very easily do turkey-cheese-mustard, ham and mayo, smoked salmon and cream cheese, etc. as well. A fun St Patrick's Day for kids item could be a sandwich with smoked salmon and herbed cream cheese for example cut out with a clover cookie cutter. Easy! And you can assemble the sandwiches in advance, cover tightly with plastic wrap, refrigerate until ready to cut and cut them right before the party.

The kids had a great time and it was fun to watch everyone make their sundaes with gusto, picking every topping carefully and arranging them just right. :)  I'd say the party was a success and everyone had fun. Happy Birthday Little Girl!