Cedar Plank Salmon with Rosemary and Smoked Salt

Friday, September 14, 2012

Here in the Pacific Northwest you must know how to work with two ingredients in particular: oysters and salmon. I'm spoiled here, as I get a ridiculous array of various kinds of both farm and wild salmon throughout the season, from Coho to King freshly caught in Alaska, to locally raised to even white salmon. At my local farmers markets I see at least one vendor selling his or her brand of smoked salmon. At Pike Market there is an entire store dedicated to smoked fish. In short, there's a shitload of ways to work with this most preferred fish.

Why salmon? Why not! It's low in fat, high in omega 3 oils (think Brain Food), and incredibly tasty. It can have a mild to strong fish taste, depending on if you're getting fresh or wild or what variety you choose, and it's a very easy fish to work with, yielding itself to a variety of cooking techniques from pan fry to grill, even poached and smoked.

But probably my favorite way to prepare salmon is with cedar plank.

Cedar wood (untreated!) is used as a barrier between fish and grill to create a slow-cooking process by which the heat from the coals can "activate" the flavor in the wood, and thus infuse whatever is cooking on top of it. This infusion adds incredible aroma to the food as well as a deep, earthy smoky flavor that is delicate enough to not overpower the food; just enhances it. It's wonderful! I've successfully used cedar to also cook burgers! Check out my recipe for Pacific Northwest Burger in the cookbook, inspired 100% by my new found home's local ingredients and cooking techniques!

But back to salmon.

A great way to make salmon is simply cedar plank and grill. I go simple but earthy with flavors here adding smoked salt as opposed to the usual, grains of paradise instead of black pepper, and some fresh rosemary leaves on top. This combination is amazing, between the sweet smokiness of the salt to the cardamom-flavored grains of paradise, it for sure is unlike any salmon recipe you've had in a long, long time.

Keep the garnish simple too -- a salad lightly dressed with olive oil, maybe some quinoa or wild rice would be outstanding. If you're looking for a new way to cook salmon, new flavors profiles, then this is your recipe! Enjoy!

Cedar Plank Salmon with Rosemary and Smoked Salt
1 large cedar plank, soaked in water overnight (or at least 4 hours)
1 side of salmon, skin on and bones removed
smoked salt
grains of paradise, finely ground  (can substitute with a combination 2:1 of black pepper to cardamom)
sprigs of fresh rosemary

Pat dry the cedar plank and set aside. Preheat your grill to medium low.

Place the salmon skin side down on the cedar plank. If using smaller planks, then cut the salmon up into pieces to fit on each piece of wood. Season with salt and grains of paradise (or pepper) to taste. Have a light hand, however -- the smoked salt can be overpowering as well as the gop. Top with the sprigs of rosemary -- if breaking it up into pieces, then 1 sprig per piece. Place on grill and cook with lid down until cooked through, about 10 minutes for medium-well, depending on the thickness of your fish. If you want the fish cooked through more, keep longer. Remove and serve right on the plank or transfer off and onto plates.

Week Night Yum Yum: Grilled Summer Vegetable Lasagna

Thursday, September 13, 2012

With a kindergartener now (seriously though, where has the time gone?!) and a slew of after school activities, I'm finding myself in the "what the fuck can I pull out of my ass" level of panic for week night dinners. I need something filling but not fatty. Something healthy and still delicious that the kids won't give me trouble eating. The solution?
It's actually way healthier than a casserole, especially if you stick to a tomato based sauce which is like no calories. All of the fat comes from the cheese, which using part skim and low fat ricotta helps to mitigate. Added bonus -- it totally sneaks in all the veggies in the world and they love it, and I love giving it to them. I add a side salad to make it a full meal, or sometimes some baked meatballs on the side (future post). But for a week night meal, this is perfect. And helps you use up any leftover veggies as well!
Here I use the usual suspects of the summer vegetable spectrum: grilled zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, red bell pepper, and asparagus and layer them with no-boil lasagna sheets (hello easy!), a quick mixture of ricotta cheese, egg, roasted garlic and salt and pepper, a basic store-bought marinara sauce and some cheese on top. I'll compose the lasagna the day before my busy day, then simply bake it off when I get home from our chaotic afternoon and it's ready in less than 25 minutes. Add the salad or some fresh fruit and voila! Dinner is served. You can use an vegetable combination you like, but you won't go wrong with this recipe. And no time to grill them? Simply toss them in olive oil and roast them in the oven.

Grilled Summer Vegetable Lasagna
1 small Italian eggplant, ends cut off and sliced 1/4" thick
2 zucchini, ends cut off and sliced lengthwise 1/4" thick
2 large summer squash, ends cut off and sliced slengthwise 1/4" thick
1 large red bell pepper, ends trimmed and seeded then cut into quarters
1/2 bunch asparagus, tough ends trimmed
olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup ricotta cheese
2 Tbsp roasted garlic (or 2 cloves fresh), minced
1 Tbsp fresh basil, chopped
no boil lasagna pasta sheets
1 jar marinara sauce
1 bag shredded mozzarella cheese

Take the vegetables and drizzle liberally with olive oil, then season them with salt and pepper. Grill until tender, or roast in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until tender. Take the bell pepper and slice it. Set vegetables aside.

Combine the ricotta cheese, garlic, basil, and some salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Set aside.

Take your lasagna dish you plan to use and spoon out some of the sauce so it covers one even layer on the bottom. Layer out your lasagna sheets to fit. Add 1/2 of the ricotta mixture in one even layer, then 1/2 of the vegetables right on top. Spoon some of the marinara sauce over, then add a sprinkling of mozzarella cheese. Add another layer of lasagna sheets, then the rest of the ricotta mixture on top, then the rest of the vegetables, some sauce and cheese, and finish with a top layer of lasagna. Pour the rest of the marinara sauce right over covering the entire top; it's ok if it drips on the sides. Add a generous layer of mozzarella cheese right on top.

Cover and refrigerate or place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 minutes or until sauce is bubbling and cheese is beginning to turn golden brown. Let stand 3-4 minutes before slicing, then serve.

Kitchen Basics: Walnut Pesto

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

As basil ends its run, it's time to grab all the leaves you can and make piles and piles of fresh pesto.

Pesto is an incredibly easy and quick sauce to make. You only need fresh basil leaves, nuts (pine nuts are traditional but as you see here, walnuts work great too and are cheaper!), fresh garlic, parmesan cheese and good extra virgin olive oil. A food processor literally whips the pesto up in a matter of seconds, and voila! you have a sauce for pastas, grilled meats and fish, and a killer spread for sandwiches or bruschettas for the whole week. You can also make it larger batches and freeze it, but fresh pesto is always the best.

Walnut Pesto
1 cup shelled walnuts
6 cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
2 cups fresh basil leaves
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1/3-1/2 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil

Place the walnuts, garlic, basil leaves, and a small pinch of salt with pepper to taste in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chopped fine. Add the cheese and pulse again to combine.

With the processor on, slowly stream in the olive oil through the "feed tube" at the top until you get the desired consistency. Less oil will give you a thicker pesto perfect for spreading while more oil will be perfect for pasta dishes and dipping sauces.

Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Place in an air tight container and add a layer of olive oil on top to help preserve color. Serve or refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.

For Dip: serve with vegetable crudite.

For Spread: combine some pesto with room temperature cream cheese and mix well to combine, then serve it with crackers or sliced fresh bread.

For Pasta: cook desired pasta according to package directions, then simple toss the pasta with some pesto and more extra virgin olive oil to taste; you can add some leftover cooked chicken or shrimp, cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and steamed asparagus for a delicious plate.

For Sandwich: spread some pesto on one side of sliced artisinal bread, then top with roasted vegetables (combination of squash, eggplant, red pepper, zucchini, etc.) and sliced fresh mozzarella cheese, then grill panini style for a classic bistro lunch.

Navajo Pumpkin Fry Bread Doughnuts with Prickly Pear Dipping Sauce

Monday, September 10, 2012

A couple of years ago we went to Sedona for a week's vacation. It's a beautiful place -- majestic rock formations, perfectly formed cacti dotting the surprisingly forested landscape. There's a sense of magic in the air, a spiritual vortex if you will of something unwordly, something strong and very present. In short: it's a very cool place to go.

As for the food....

I walked away from our trip being obsessed with three things: cacus fries, prickly pear cactus fruit, and navajo bread.

Our entire trip restaurant after restaurant and at our resort I ordered everything I could with this cactus fruit. The color is a beautiful deep, rich magenta. The taste is surprisingly sweet and slightly fragrant. And when simply peeled and cooked down, the resulting syrup can be made into anything from dipping sauces to glazes for meats to bases for delicious cocktails. Yes, the Prickly Pear Mojito was kind of an obsession. More on that later...

Cactus fruit has a rich color ranging from magenta to a deep fuscia.
The seeds are terribly tough so when eaten, need to be spit out or removed before serving.  
This past weekend to usher in the first football game of the season and impending fall, I felt like something fried and fall-ish. Our trip instantly popped into my head and I thought "navajo bread." After some research I found a recipe for pumpkin navajo bread which sounded just perfect. I happened to have some ripe cactus fruit laying around, so decided to make a dipping sauce to go along with my bread. I took the navajo bread and instead of making long disks, I cut them like beignets to make puffy doughnuts -- easier to dip into the sauce. Then rolled them in some cinnamon sugar. The result was perfection.

These are best served straight from the fryer while still hot, so make them to order. You can make the sauce in advance. Enjoy these perfect doughnuts this fall!

Navajo Pumpkin Fry Bread Doughnuts with Prickly Pear Dipping Sauce
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
4 tsp baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup warm milk
3/4 cup pumpkin puree (unseasoned, plain)
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla powder (can use 1 tsp vanilla extract as well)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon + 1 tsp cinnamon, divided
1/4 tsp ground allspice
vegetable or canola oil for frying
1/2 cup granulated sugar
prickly pear dipping sauce (recipe follows)

Combine the 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 tsp of cinnamon in a bowl. This is your cinnamon sugar mixture to roll the doughnuts in after they fry. Set it aside near your fryer. Add a serving platter or plate next to the bowl to receive the finished doughnuts.

Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Add the egg and milk and gently stir to combine. At this point, you can add the vanilla to make basic regular fry bread. For pumpkin version, continue on...

The dough will be extremely soft and very sticky.

Add the pumpkin puree, sugar, vanilla, and spices and fold in to combine. A fork works best actually.

Turn half of the dough out onto a large, well-floured working surface. The dough will be extremely soft and sticky, so use a lot of flour sprikled both on the bottom and then again on the top. Gently smooth out and roll an even rectangular shape that's about 1/2" thick. You'll have basically one large rectangle. Take a pizza cutter and cut 1" thick strips the long way, then again the short way to create little squares.

Place a baking sheet lined with paper towels next to where you plan to fry.

Place oil in a large dutch oven. You want about 2 inches of oil in there for a proper fry. Heat the oil untiil hot but not smoking. You know it's ready when you place a small piece of the dough and it starts to bubble and puff up. If it sinks, the oil's too cold; if it burns it's too hot.

Add the squares 2-3 at a time to the oil and fry, turning them over a few times. You'll see the squares will puff up as they cook. Fry until golden on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and onto the paper towel lined baking sheet for a few seconds, then promptly place in the cinnamon sugar mixture to coat while still hot.

It helps if you have one person doing the frying and another person doing the cinnamon-sugar part.

Keep frying the dough in batches until you've made the amount you desire.

Repeat process with the remaining half of the dough.

Half of this recipe makes around 12 doughnuts; the entire recipe makes around 24.

Serve hot with the cactus fruit dipping sauce.

Prickly Pear Dipping Sauce
4-5 ripe prickly pear/cactus fruits
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup hot water

Take the fruits and make sure all needles are taken off. If you buy them from the store, they probably are. Make a slit along the side of one fruit and then peel back the skin. Remove it completely exposing the fruit. Repeat with rest of fruits. Cut into large chunks and add the fruit into a saucepan. Add the sugar, cinnamon stick and water, then bring to a boil. Let simmer for 20 minutes until fruit is very soft and lets out juices. Let cool 5 minutes, then remove cinnamon stick and transfer fruit mixture to a blender or food processor. Process for a minute to make an even blend. Take a strainer and straing the mixer to catch all of the very tough seeds. This is your cactus fruit syrup.

At this point, you can serve the syrup as is for a dipping sauce or use it as a base to create a bbq sauce, glaze, or even a sweetener for cocktails.

Football Frenzy Part 2: Grilled Corn -- The Perfect Football Food For The Season On A Budget

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I'm driving through the country this past weekend, on my way to Little Girl's new school. She's starting kindergarten this year and I'm in full denial, but that's another blog entirely. Along the way, the fields are just covered with corn -- growing tall and proud, many people don't realize corn grows in Washington probably as easily as the blackberries. But I digress. I was instantly inspired to make some of my most favorite corn dishes. The top of the list? Simply corn grilled right in the husk then brushed with a compound butter and slathered with freshly grated cheese.
Nothing so simple and so tasty as a grilled corn. It's very easy to make and requires very little attention. It's a wonderful side dish to any grill, especially with football season upon us and tailgating in full force. It's very easy to prepare and to make, coupled with the lack of utensils needed make it a wonderful finger food. It pairs perfectly with sliders or wings and various dips. You can make how much or how little is needed and definitely use the leftovers in a salad or cornbread later. But honestly the best part is, it's a perfect budget-friendly entertaining food. I can get local corn for 4 ears for $1. For under $5 I can feed up to 10 people very well with this dish alone. Add some easy sliders and a quick dip and beer and I can entertain people for around $25 which is nothing.
It's also seasonal, which I love. Corn is coming into its own now as we transition from summer to my favorite season of all, autumn. Not only is it easy to find now but the corn is festive and brings the seasonal element into your party or dinner. It's just perfect.
Now for the grilling...
Why the husk? Because the husk = flavor. Tamales aren't put in corn husks because they look nice; it's because cooking the masa in the husk adds tremendous amount of flavor to the tamale. When grilling corn, you'll have to gently pull back the outer husks to expose the fine silk hairs. Remove those -- they'll come off easily, and then simply fold the husks back up onto the cob. At this point you have a choice -- for a more "corn" taste, wrap the cleaned husked corn in aluminum foil and then grill. For a smoky flavor, put them on the grill as is without the foil. The husks will get burned -- you want this -- to achieve that desired smell and flavor of char. To serve I make a simple compound butter -- butter flavored with salt and herbs -- that's spread right on the hot corn and then sprinkled with some freshly shredded cheese. This time I went Greek and used a butter flavored with oregano and salt, and the cheese was sharp mizithra. But you can use any herb and cheese flavor you love.
It was perfect.
If you're planning to tailgate in the next month or are firing up the grill anyway, this is perfect to add on. The corn can be prepped the night before, and the butter made days in advance. Just bring it to room temperature before serving to make it easier to spread. Enjoy!

Grilled Corn with Compound Butter and Cheese: Greek Style
6 corn in husks
1 stick unsalted butter, very soft at room temperature
1 Tbsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, very finely minced
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
mizithra cheese for serving

Take the corn and peel back the husks, but be careful to keep the husks still attached to the base. Do not completely take the husks off the corn. Remove the silk hairs and discard. Take the husks and fold them back up onto the cobs. Wrap in aluminium foil if using.

To make the compound butter, combine the butter, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl with a fork. Mix well to combine. Take the butter mixture and place it in the middle of a piece of plastic wrap. Form the butter into a log shape, using the plastic wrap to help you if you need it. Wrap with the plastic and refrigerate until ready to use. You can also make this in advance and freeze the butter.

Preheat the grill to medium. Add your corn right on top of the grills and cook about 10 minutes, or until kernels turn bright yellow. If not using aluminum foil, don't be alarmed as the husks begin to char and turn black; this is normal and good. If you feel they're getting black too quickly, lower heat or move to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking.

To serve, peel back the husks to expose the cob. Smear with the butter and then grate a generous amount of cheese on top. You can also grate the cheese in advance and offer the grilled corn on a platter with a bowl of the cheese and butter for people to help themselves.

Roasted Pork Chops with Peach and Herb Israeli Cous Cous

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Heaven. On a plate.

But first...


I hated pork chops for most of my life. My mother made an abhorant version of pork chops. Dry, brittle, terribly under or way overly seasoned chops with the texture akin to shoe leather were often forced down our throats many a week night. God forbid my father was let loose with the grill -- then we'd have Arson Victim Pork Chops. Very no bueno. In short, after years and years of improperly cooked pork chops, I grew to hate them and never made them myself. Just never wanted to.

A few weeks ago The Hubsters implored me to make him a chop. You see, he -- conversely -- had decent chops as a kid and actually enjoyed eating them. This blew my mind, because I never met a chop I could actually eat without a full on glass of Pepsi to help it go down. Never one to back down from a challenge, I took it head on. And marched down to Whole Foods to get myself a couple of thick cut, bone-in pork chops. My mission: make them taste fucking good.

Mission accomplished.

I knew I wanted to grill them. Charcoal would add some smoke and flavor to my pork that I knew I would love. I'd be careful -- no arson victim here -- and season them simply with salt and peper with the smallest sprinkling of smoked paprika. Why? Because I felt like it.

To go with my perfectly cooked chops would be something sweet but not obvious. I had peaches so I used them. Peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces and tossed with cooked tender Israeli cous cous I flavored simply with chicken broth. To add brightness I added some fresh herbs: parsley, scallion, and mint. An earthy bite from shallots added the requisite crunch I wanted.

Together this meal was exquisite. Simple, bright and extremely flavorful without being fussy or overly dramatic. This meal showcased how far I'd come as a cook -- my skills at the grill for the perfect juicy chop together with a side balanced both in flavor and texture hit the mark high. I'd done it again. Now I pass it on to you.

This meal is fast enough for any week night. Elegant enough for a weekend dinner with friends or family. Put this in your repetoire and impress everyone. You're welcome.

Pork Chops with Peach and Herb Israeli Cous Cous
2 pork chops
salt and freshly ground black pepper
smoked paprika -- about 1 tsp estimation
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2/3 cup israeli cous cous
1 scallion, finely chopped
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2 Tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
1 ripe but firm peach, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces

For the pork chops:
Season the chops with salt and pepper to taste on both side, then sprinkle some of the paprila on both sides of each chop. Preheat grill to medium-high. Place chops on grill and cook until pulls easily away from the grill and a deep golden crust forms. Flip over and grill other side until nice golden brown crust forms.

*Note: pork chops are best served medium (a departure from previously held well-done for pork; this recipe aims to cook chops to medium well; for well done chops add 2-3 minutes to total cooking time.

For the cous cous:

Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Once boiling, add the cous cous, reduce heat to low and cover with lid. Cook for about 12 minutes or until cous cous is al dente and liquid is absorbed. Cous cous should be nice and tender. Toss cous cous with remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste. Can be served warm or at room temperature, and can be made up to a few hours in advance of the pork chops.

To serve, simply plate up the cous cous in a heaping pile and add a grilled chop right on top. Serve immediately.

Football Frenzy Part 1: The Cheesey Beef Quesadilla

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ok, I'll admit it....
this is super fatty and not that great for you. But it tastes effing awesome and amazing and it's perfect beer and hang over food. So there. Judge me if you will, I don't care.
Football season officiall begun so to celebrate, I'll be offering a few recipes for you to make your next game. They're easy, taste great, are meant to go with or without alcohol (read: beer), and can be made to scale to suit your crowd. First up, a simple but super tastey quesadilla...
Ground beef is seasoned with a mixture of smoky paprika and a combination of chile powders, cumin, and earthy oregano and sauteed with onions and lots and lots of garlic until softened and tasting incredible, then layered with a mixture of monterey jack and sharp and mild cheddar cheeses into simple flour tortillas, then grilled until golden and perfect. Slice and serve. It comes together just that fast and is a perfect football food for your next game.
This recipe makes 2-3 quesadillas, good to serve 4-8 people depending on portions. You can easily double the recipe to suit a larger crowd, and make the quesadillas to order.

Cheesey Beef Quesadillas
1 Tbs olive oil
1 lb ground beef
1 small white onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp ancho chile powder
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp spanish paprika
3/4 cup beef broth
1 package flour tortillas
butter at room temperature
1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded mild cheddar
sour cream for serving (optional)
spicy pickled jalapeno peppers (optional)

First prepare your ground beef mixture. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the ground beef and using a spatula or wooden spoon, begin to break up the beef. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook on medium-high heat until beginning to brown, about 7 minutes. Add the onions right into the beef and mix to combine. Cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the spices(cumin, ancho chile, oregano, paprikas) and mix to combine, then pour in the beef broth. Use the liquid to help pick up any "brown bits" along the bottom and sides of the pan. Lower heat to medium-low and cook until all of the broth is absorbed, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust with seasoning to taste. Set aside.

This can be done up to a day in advance. (Reheat before ready to  make quesadillas if making in advance.)

To make the quesadillas:

Mix all of the cheeses in a bowl. Set aside.

Take a tortilla and spread a thin layer of butter on one side. Repeat with another tortilla. Set one tortilla into a non-stick pan, buttered side down, and add a layer of cheese. Spread out an even thick layer of the ground beef mixture, then top with some more cheese. Add the other tortilla, buttered side facing up at you. Cook on medium heat -- checking to make sure not burning (if burning or cooking too quickly, reduce heat to low) -- and gently pressing down with a spatula. Flip the quesadilla over in one quick motion and cook the other side until cheese is melted inside and both sides are a nice golden brown.

Remove from pan and let stand a couple of minutes for cheese to settle. Cut with a pizza slicer or sharp knife into wedges and serve hot with sour cream and pickled jalapeno peppers if desired.

These are best made to order, but they cook quickly so you won't miss much of the game at all!