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Texas Style BBQ Brisket

11 Mar

Lucas needs a new camera. He does not need a new smoker.

One of the first comments on this blog was about smoking meats or barbecue. Living in greater NYC, Nathan doesn’t have the space or opportunity to operate a side box smoker, or I assume any other form of open flame cooking.

Due to this restriction, he requested that I do a guest post on smoking meats. As a born and bred Texan, I like to cook brisket. It’s cheap and, if cooked correctly, really outstanding.

Anyone who has known me for more than 25 minutes knows that I am a barbecue snob of the highest order. Therefore I will inject reasons my brisket is better than others and why. Some folks hold their brisket techniques close to their chest but I’m happy to share what I do.

Stuff

1. Brisket

2. Yellow Mustard

3. Every spice in your spice cabinet

Steps

Here's how to pre-trim your brisket. Notice that some fat is left on.

The preparation steps are simple, although you’ll hear different techniques from everyone who cooks bbq. Here’s how I do it.

Selecting a brisket: First off, never buy one of the pre-trimmed briskets at the grocery store. You’ll see they have no fat on them and cost about 2x the price. Find the whole, untrimmed briskets to select from. I always pick up every brisket is available and see how much they’ll bend or flex; the more the better. My granddad told me this is how to select a good brisket so I do it. I think more than anything it shows you how much fat there might be in that cut. The fat is congealed at cold temperatures and less flexible than the muscle so the more flexible the cut is, the more meat you have compared to fat.

Sizing: The rule of thumb is about 2 persons per raw pound. That accounts for trimming loss and water weight lost during cooking. I rarely worry about sizes, but try to err on the higher size. I also like leftovers.

Now that you’ve selected your brisket, it’s time to get it trimmed up and ready for the smoker. Some folks trim a lot of fat off their briskets, I do not. I’ll try to trim down some really thick spots on the fat side, but generally leave most of the fat everywhere on the fat side. One the lean side there is a kidney shaped piece of hard fat that I try to remove more of than the main layer of fat on the other side.

How you can avoid messing up slicing against the grain before you cook. Also, if you do slice against the grain ONE TIME, your friend will hold it over the head for the rest of your life. So don't do this wrong.

Slicing a brisket correctly can make or break your product and your pride, just ask Nathan. You’ve probably heard it before to ‘slice across the grain’ to produce tender slices. What does that mean? If you look at the lean side of the brisket you’ll actually see lines going across the meat. That is the grain. You want to cut perpendicular to this grain to produce quality slices. A trick I use is find the grain when the brisket is raw, go to the corner they point to, and cut a small chunk off the brisket as a guide. If you forget to do this you can still find the grain after cooking, but having a nice squared off spot to start your slicing at is nice.

Rub:

Here’s another part of cooking briskets that you’ll have 100 different answers from 100 different people: Rubs or other methods of spicing. Some use strictly salt and pepper, some buy elaborate rubs, some brine, some marinate; I use a dry rub.

My rub, as stated in the “Stuff” listing is quite literally everything in my spice cabinet.

My ratio is 5 parts salt, 1 part everything else. For one brisket, I used about 1 table spoon as my part.

  • 5 parts salt
  • 1 part black pepper
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 oregano
  • 1 basil
  • 1 cinnamon (yes, cinnamon)
  • 1 cumin
  • 1 chili powder
  • 1 did I miss something?

I just mix these things up in a small Tupperware so I can put the lid on and shake to mix it up.

The next step is I coat the entire brisket with yellow mustard. “Yellow mustard?! I hate mustard!” you might be saying. However, the mustard is only used to hold spice on the brisket during the cooking process. I was suspect at first when I first learned about the technique (I thought “Mustard?! This isn’t Carolina!”) but the mustard flavor is not imparted on the meat, on the flavors from the spices. It does make a big difference.

Rub a dub dub, one brisket...on a board...

I like to coat the brisket with a film of mustard then mix in the dry rub to make a thick paste.

Finally you have a brisket ready to go on the smoker. Time to prep the smoker. I am lucky enough to have space in my backyard to have a big sidebox smoker to use. I will write up the technique using a sidebox. Your fearless leader, Nathan, will have to add to the write up to try to make it apply to someone without the ability to cook with open flames.

Sadly, my advice is to not make brisket if you don’t have a smoker. I have tried oh so hard to come up with a way I could do this in an oven and feel okay about it. I can’t. There are people who make “BBQ Brisket” in ovens. It’s not good. 

I use a mix of charcoal and hardwoods during cooking. Charcoal is easy to get started and re-lit. Another battle that barbecue folks like to have is about what type of wood you use. I don’t get caught up in that particular argument, but as long as it is a hardwood you should be fine. I like mesquite but have no problems using oak cut from my back yard. This smoke I used oak.

Woo hoo! Sparklers!!

I use a charcoal chimney to get the coals started. If you use charcoal with any frequency, get one of these. They’re cheap and you’ll never need starter fluid again. I got to use leftover sparkers from New Year’s to light the newspaper.

Once your coals are nice and hot (you can tell they’ll be white and burny) dump them in your pit. I look to smoke somewhere between 225 F and 275F. It’s not an exact science but low and slow is the name of the game. The difficult part of cooking any barbecue is about to begin. You want to maintain this temperature for a long time. The brisket will take 1 to 1.5 hours per pound. So a 14 lb brisket will be 14 to 21 hours to finish. You want to maintain a steady temperature. To help steady the peaks and valleys of the heat, I put a big pan of water in the smoker to help hold heat.

Now that your pit is steady around 250, it is time to put the brisket on the smoker. I put the brisket on fat side up, with the thicker part towards the fire. Among the endless debates you’ll hear about barbecue, this is another one. Some people put fat side down, some flip halfway through the cook, some do other crazy things. I put the brisket on the smoker, close the lid, and look at it 16 hours later.

If you don’t have a wire thermometer for cooking yet, buy one. You’ll never overcook a chicken again. Brisket is a funny cut in that you want to cook long beyond it’s safe to eat. The internal temperature I look for is about 180 degrees.

Now that your brisket is on the smoker, feel free to do whatever you want as long as you can come check on the cooker every couple hours to add more wood/charcoal. We went to the horse track and won 3 dollars and had 10 beers. Then we came back and stoked the fire. Went to the bar and played darts for a while. Came back and stoked the fire. Went to bed, got up couple times during the night to stoke the fire. Then finally about 18 hours later, our brisket was ready.

We were having people over later in the day so I just wrapped the brisket in foil, then wrapped in a towel and put into an ice chest. The longer you can wait to slice it, the better it will be. Storing it in such a manner will keep it plenty hot for a long time. I think I let this one rest in the cooler for 4-5 hours until I pulled it out to slice. When I pulled it out, it was still too hot to handle.

Foil. Towel. Cooler.

Now your brisket is cooked and smelling amazing. A quick way to ruin it is slicing it incorrectly. Luckily we have used the pre-cook trick to slice a guide. Use a sharp carving knife and make thin cuts along the guide you’ve already cut. Now you notice that one side of the brisket is much thicker than the other. The thick side actually consists of 2 muscles held together by a layer of fat between them. The grain of each muscle runs perpendicular to each other. So applying what we learned earlier, if you slice with the grain you have shoe leather not delicious bbq. Most restaurant just ignore this and continue to slice the whole piece and you’ll see the 2 pieces of meat held together with a layer of fat. This is my pet peeve about brisket (well one of them). The pieces are not hard to separate with a sharp knife. Once you do you’ll need to identify the grain and slice against it.

Finally you’ll have a big platter of brisket to enjoy and share. Brisket freezes well so feel free to not slice the whole thing if you don’t plan to eat it all in short term. It makes for excellent everything. Eggs, tacos, sandwiches etc.

Here it is done. Also, you can see how the one section runs on a different grain angle than the other.

Lets eat!

Wait, wait, wait, where’s the bbq sauce? I thought barbecue = barbecue sauce?! Please get out of my guest post on this blog. No, in all seriousness, sauce does have a place in barbecue, but I’ll never say it has a place in Texas style. If you’re ever invited to eat a Texan’s barbecue, please don’t embarrass yourself by asking for sauce if it is not provided.

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Smoked Gouda Cheese Sticks

20 Feb

These things were really good. Your cardiologist might beg to differ.

Yeah, so I haven’t posted in 5 months. WHAT? FIVE MONTHS?? How did that happen? Yeesh. I sincerely apologize for failing so hard at blogging. Maybe I’ll be better at it now? Yes? Yes. I will.

Anyways, there was a Methodist potluck here at school and I decided to make something new and exciting that would impress my Methodist friends. I was desperate for inspiration and down in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan when I had an epiphany. I was at a legendary cheese shop with the most ridiculous prices in the world (seriously, it probably disproves some basic pillars of economic theory to sell cheese this cheap) and then I started thinking about fried cheese sticks.

Did you know that everybody loves fried cheese? It’s true, even the lactose intolerant folks in the world love the forbidden fruit of breaded and fried sticks of moldy milk. Since this is true, it must be the case that we make cheese sticks out of lots of kinds of cheese, right? Wrong. I have never seen cheese sticks made out of anything but mozzarella. This upset me greatly. After I suppressed my rage and calmed down, I bought a 3 pound log of delicious looking Smoked Gouda (for NINE dollars. I told you this cheese shop defied economics) and got to work. Let’s get to it.

Stuff

3 lbs of smoked Gouda

1/2 can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

Not pictured: Panko. Mostly because I hadn't bought any yet.

1/4 c. olive oil

4 cloves garlic

1 T. black pepper (plus more for breading)

1 c. flour

1 c. cornmeal

3 eggs

1/2 c. water

8 oz. plain Panko bread crumbs

a lot of vegetable oil

Steps

I decided I would marinate the gouda overnight for three reasons. The first and most obvious is that I love things that have strong flavors, and marinates help do that. The second is that you want to fry cold cheese, and cutting the gouda into strips would warm it up — more on that later. The third is that you need to moisten the cheese a little bit before you bread it anyway. Right. so on to cutting the cheese. Ha.

I'm way more proud of this graphic than I should be. Also, a 3 lb. log of Gouda is a LOT of cheese.

Mucho queso.

Cut one inch thick rounds out of the Gouda, and then cut said rounds into sticks that are about half an inch across. It is important to pay attention to keeping the rounds uniformly an inch thick, because if you don’t you’ll end up with cheese slivers instead of cheese sticks, and slivers don’t fry well.

Once you’ve got your cheese cut up, put it in a big zipper bag. Add half of the contents of the can of chipotle peppers. A couple of the peppers themselves are good to include, but the magic here is that adobo sauce. It is liquid flavor magic. Mince the garlic cloves, throw them into the bag too. Add the olive

Cheese. In a bag. With happy fun friends like chipotles.

oil and black pepper, close the bag, and shake it up to make sure everything gets a relatively even coating. Use a straw to suck all the extra air out of the bag (cheese doesn’t like being stored with air) and put the bag into the fridge overnight so the flavors can all get happy together.

When you’re ready to fry, set yourself up an assembly line of frying happiness. First, put a big pot (I use my dutch oven) of vegetable oil on the stove on medium or medium-high heat. Make sure you have a good 3″ or so of oil in the pot.

fresh out of the marinade bag.

The reason you want to use a lot of oil when you’re frying is that it maintains temperature much better when it gets hit with the cold cheese sticks. Also, you need to be able to fully submerse the sticks or they won’t fry, they’ll just soak up grease.

To make your breading assembly line, mix the flour and corn meal on a plate or in a shallow

Floured.

bowl.

In another bowl, whisk the eggs and water together until they’re super smooth. Put the bread crumbs on a plate with about a teaspoon of cracked black pepper. Once the oil is hot, get out the cheese sticks and start breading.

Ordinarily, I like to fry stuff at 350-375 degrees, but for the cheese sticks I was aiming

Breaded.

to keep the oil right around 320. Because you want the cheese to start to melt before the

breading burns, it’s necessary to fry a little cooler than normal. I was frying 8-10 cheese sticks at a time and it worked wonderfully.

To bread your cheese sticks, first roll each stick around in the flour until it has a uniform light coating on it. Then give it a quick dunk in the egg wash and then coat it completely with panko bread crumbs. I used a small plate to transfer the breaded sticks into the frying oil, it worked out pretty well.

I've told you this before, but you should really invest in some cast iron cookware. It maintains temperatures for frying so, so well.

Once a flight of cheese sticks are ready for their hot oil bath, gently lay them into the oil from the plate. Surprisingly, I did not have any issues with these things sticking to each other in the oil, so don’t worry about perfect placement. They do not need to fry for very long, about a minute was plenty of time while I was cooking. You’re looking for a deep golden brown. When the sticks are ready to come out of the oil, use a set of tongs to pul them out individually, gently shake all the excess oil off, and lay them on some paper towels to absorb all the extra grease.

Using paper towels to drain is always a good idea. I was able to stack another set on top of these with a layer of towels in between with no sogginess issues.

This whole process is pretty messy. My assembly line was cheese to flour, flour to egg, egg to bread crumbs, into the fryer, wash hands while cheese is in fryer, pull cheese sticks out with tongs, and repeat. This means I rinsed my hands like 10 times.

Panko is a bizarre and wonderful substance that has an incredible ability to remain crispy and not greasy. That made these cheese sticks really pop. They were super delicious.

I served the Gouda sticks with a delicious chipotle aioli dipping sauce that really brought out the subtle chipotle flavor from the marinade. If you share this blog, I will send you the recipe for the aioli. You want to get the recipe for this aioli, I promise. These things were really, really good. I made what I thought was way too many, but I had no problem giving all the rest of them away.

Seriously, you want to repost or email this to people so you can get that aioli recipe.

Let’s Eat!

–N

Beer-Battered Onion Rings

19 Sep

The light through the window makes the onion rings look divine. They were almost that good.

So I’ve been a pretty terrible excuse for a blogger as I’ve gotten re-situated back in NYC. I have done a little bit of cooking/I’ve taken some pictures, so I do have stuff to blog about, I just haven’t done it. But I think I’ve got a schedule figured out now, so hopefully I will begin to suck less at updating.

Right. So a little while back we had a student activities potluck and I decided that I didn’t want to make ludefisk or green bean casserole. Even though most fried things don’t keep for more than a few minutes, I’ve always thought onion rings that had been sitting for a half hour or so were at least as good as the totally fresh kind. Also, since I just moved back up here, my dutch oven hadn’t been cooked in for like 4 months and needed me to fry in it to re-season it. So onion rings it was. They were a big hit at the potluck. If you decide to make these things as a side dish with a complete meal, send me pictures of how they turn out/what you pair them with! Down to business.

Stuff

Check out my sweet new butcher block table! Thank you Swedes for making furniture I can afford.

2 big yellow onions (or white onions if you enjoy wasting money)

Flour, +/- 1 cup

Yellow corn meal, +/- 1 cup

Lots of vegetable oil

1 egg

1 T. Worcestershire Sauce

Beer (I ended up using about a cup of beer, which was less than I thought I would need. Also, because this is a very simple recipe, do not use crappy beer. I bought a toasted lager that had enough flavor and color to really stand out. I’ve made beer batter with cheap domestic light beers, and it’s fine for some stuff, but definitely not for this. Use beer with character and color)

1 t. garlic powder

Pepper

Salt

Seasoned salt

Steps

My overwhelming affinity for cast iron is definitely one of my redneck tendencies.

First of all, a word about frying hardware (again, as we briefly discussed this with the fried chicken recipe). There is nothing in the world that has ever been better for frying things than cast iron. Really, there is nothing that is better for cooking almost anything in than well-seasoned cast iron. I live in a hotel room sized studio apartment and I have 5 pans: a nonstick sauce pot, a cast iron skillet, a cast iron dutch oven, a wok, and a cast aluminum (I think) grill pan. That’s a long way of saying you can make almost anything in a cast iron skillet or dutch oven if you learn to take care of them right. I fear I’ve lost you on this rant though. Back to making onion rings.

So the general idea for frying onion rings is to fry in relatively hot oil (375 or so) that is deep enough to maintain an even temperature and allow you to fry several rings at once. It can get expensive to use a lot of oil, but there are lots of ways to strain and reuse oil that has been used for deep frying. So go ahead and use a lot of oil (I had 3-4″ of it in there) and put it on medium high heat. If you’re still not comfortable with estimating oil temperature by the way it looks/how things sizzle, get a candy thermometer to use until you are. If the oil gets above 400, turn it down, it can get dangerous; if it gets below 350, turn it up or you’ll be eating soggy greasy fried goods.

I put my liquid in before I put my egg in. I don't know why, but it worked out fine.

While your oil is heating up, make your beer batter. Start by putting a cup of flour, a cup of cornmeal, 2 T. of salt, 1 t. of garlic powder and a full T. of black pepper in a big mixing bowl. Use a whisk to mix this up, and then it’s time to start adding wet ingredients.

There are not exact numbers on this batter recipe because you are aiming at a certain consistency. start by adding enough beer (and your egg) to start to make a dough. Whisk your batter until it’s smooth, but not so much that all of the delicious bubbles from the delicious beer escape. Beer batter is good because it’s light and fluffy. The consistency you should be aiming for with this stuff is thinner than pancake batter but thicker than crepe batter. if it’s too thin, it won’t stick to the onions, it’s too thick, it will all stick to  a couple of onions. If you make it too thin, there is a really easy fix. Instead of panicking or eating onion rings that are really just greasy onions with some goo on them, add a little bit more flour and cornmeal.

So now you have hot oil and batter. That means it’s time to cut your onions into rings. When you’re at the store, buy the really big onions. Like huge. Then do this:

Remember to be gentle when you’re separating out rings from the onions. Also remember that sections of a sphere like an onion have an iceberg-like shape, so be sure you aren’t trying to push the wide part up through the narrower part of the thing. And don’t worry too much about getting every single ring; a little bit of wasted onion is not the end of the world/you can always chop them up and use them in anything else.

I used a 2 fork method: one for the batter side and dropping them into oil, one for moving them around in the oil and pulling them out.

I was actually surprised how many rings I was getting out of each of the onions I bought. I thought I’d need 5 or 6 of them at least, and I just used 2. Once I’d cut about 2/3 of an onion into slices, I started battering and frying. I was able to fry about 5 rings at a time. It may take a few tries to get the right level of batter on them — I would shake them on the fork a little bit to get an even but not overly gloppy coating.

Gently lay the rings into hot oil and cook them for about 2 minutes apiece or until they are golden brown. This batter came out a little bit lighter colored than traditional onion rings, and they were freaking beautiful.

As you pull the rings out of the fryer, shake the excess oil of of them, put them on a plate lined with paper towels and sprinkle them with some seasoned salt.

Sizzle sizzle!

Make sure you season them while they’re still hot. If you season stuff right after it comes out of the fryer it absorbs the seasoning and tastes much better.

I did not serve these rings with any ketchup or anything because I wanted people to taste the beer batter. Between the beer and the garlic powder and the copious amounts of black pepper, ketchup really would have just gotten in the way.

Rings anyone?

Let’s Eat!

–N

Campechana

29 Aug

What's better than shrimp or crab? Shrimp and crab.

This meal was made on South Padre Island, Texas! I was on an end of the summer family vacation, and so I had to make something with local seafood while I was down there, so shrimp and crab campechana was the best choice. Also, my mom has a big garden and I brought some of her home-grown produce, and that made the campechana even better. It is the perfect delicious summer beach meal.

For those of you who don’t know, campechana is a combination of pico de gallo, shellfish and avocado that is a lot like ceviche.  It is delicious, and the next time you have enough money to buy a bunch of crabmeat and shrimp (which does not happen for me very often) you should make it. Therefore, I’ll go ahead and tell you how.

Stuff

Home grown vegetables look cooler.

1 1/2 lb. shrimp

1/2 lb. lump crabmeat

3 avocados

3 tomatoes (or 8-10 small homegrown tomatoes)

1 large red onion

5 jalapeños

1/2 a bunch of cilantro

6 cloves garlic, plus one head

2 limes

one small yellow onion

1 t. cumin seeds

2 T. mayo

salt

pepper

Steps

The water boiled up like this, and ended up boiling out of the pot, onto the stove, and requiring a massive cleaning.

Take a pretty big pot, put in a couple quarts of water and set it on a burner to boil. While you’re waiting on water to boil, take all of the pico ingredients listed above (tomato, red onion, 4/5 jalapeños, 6 cloves garlic, 1 lime, 1 t. salt, 1 t. pepper, and 1 t. cumin seeds) and make pico de gallo. I didn’t pull all the seeds out of the tomatoes in this pico, but I was using those delicious little homegrown ones and did not want to waste any of them. I did, however, make sure to seed all of the peppers, because these homegrown jalapeños I used are HOT. At some point while you’re chopping things, the water on the stove will boil. When it does, throw in 2 tablespoons of salt, a head of garlic with the top cut off, a jalapeño sliced in half, an onion cut into quarters, and some cracked black pepper and let it keep boiling until it’s at a screaming rolling boil. I say screaming because shrimp taste funny if they poach instead of boil, so you want your water to be hot enough that it gets back to a boil quickly when you add shrimp.

Boiled shrimp. You should probably go ahead and eat a couple to make sure they're good.

Throw the shrimp in the pot, and once it comes back up to a boil let them cook for 3 minutes. Pull them and throw them into a colander full of ice to stop the cooking, and then go back to making your pico. Once you’ve made the pico, it’s time to peel and de-vein the shrimp.

A word about de-veining: it really, really does not matter. Some people are convinced that the little vein in shrimp that is full of mud and “such” is disgusting, but most of those people won’t eat seafood anyways, so whatever. If you must de-vein, my word of advice is to use a small knife. I never use small knives for anything, but you kind of need to feel the point of the blade along the top of a shrimp here, and so you’re going to need a knife small enough to handle with one hand while you do that. You know what, I’m done trying to explain this process, look at the picture:Once you’ve peeled your shrimp, throw them into the bucket with the pico. Sadly, I didn’t have any serving buckets, so I just used a pyrex dish. Once the shrimp and the pico are hanging out together, add the lump crab meat, lime juice, cumin seeds, about a teaspoon of salt, pepper and mayo, mix well, and let it sit for 5-10 minutes. I don’t know why, but that mayonnaise is completely necessary to get everything to marry together properly. Once you’ve mixed everything up you can let it sit for awhile (even in the fridge for a couple hours if you’re not ready to eat it just yet). When you are ready to serve is when to add the avocado, as brown avocado is not as good as not brown avocado. I have some cool pictures of how to cut avocados up into little pieces, but I’ll save those for those of you who repost. Serve this stuff with chips, and you’ll have an appetizer that’s really a meal. If you have leftovers, you can do some pretty cool stuff with them (salads, omelets, sandwiches). Yum.

Beach-front seafood bliss.

Let’s Eat!

–N

Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese Vinaigrette

28 Jul

The finished product, with marinated grilled tempeh on top. Hint: grilled tempeh might be the bonus recipe.

So my last post most certainly held up the redneck part of the name, but it was severely lacking in the fresh department. I decided I really needed to do something that focused on fresh veggies and big flavors. I have recently rediscovered how good arugula is, and wanted to take on the challenge of making an arugula salad.

Also, I have a brilliant idea here to enhance my readership. If you repost the link to this page, I’ll email you a bonus recipe! Every week, we’ll have the same deal: you repost, I email you a recipe that compliments the week’s blog entry. Just leave your email address as a comment, I’ll leave it pending so that nobody else sees it, and then you’ll get a delicious bonus recipe. Anyways, back to the salad.

While I’ll go into particulars when I get into the breakdown, the key to making a good salad that has a lot of different ingredients is balancing amounts and flavors. Also, don’t feel compelled to scour the earth for every single thing in this salad, it’s a salad: the point is to use the stuff that looks fresh and delicious when you go buy groceries. Let’s get on with it.

Stuff

This salad served three hungry adults 

Salad

Someday, I'll take a good ingredient picture. Today is not that day.

1 tub of baby arugula

2 carrots

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

2 cups sliced mushrooms

1/2 red onion

1 ripe tomato (I used the on-the-vine kind)

6-8 fresh strawberries, sliced

1/2 c. chopped walnuts

1/4 c. (more or less, I kept adding more) grated parmesan

1 T. olive oil

1 t. balsamic vinegar

Vinaigrette

1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil

4 T. goat cheese

1 lemon

1/4 c. white wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic

1/3 serrano pepper

1 t. fresh rosemary

1 t. fresh oregano

1/2 t. cumin seeds

1/2 t. black pepper

1/2 t. white pepper

1 t. salt

Steps

For steps, I’m going to break this down into 3 parts: roasting the peppers, making the vinaigrette and assembling the salad. I also used roasted red peppers in the  grilled pizza entry, so if you haven’t made that yet, you can use this there, too.

Roasted Peppers

I used one red and one yellow pepper to make the salad more colorful.

Aside from the peppers themselves, y0u will need a plastic sack for this. If you like wasting money, you can use a ziplock bag; if you don’t like wasting money, a normal produce sack from the grocery store will do just as well. Roasting peppers intimidates people for some reason, but it’s actually crazy easy, and makes peppers sweet and delicious.

If you’re using a grill to roast peppers, kick it up to high heat. If you don’t have a grill or don’t want to waste a bunch of charcoal, you can use your gas cooktop (on high). If you don’t have a gas cooktop, you can use the broiler function (on high) in the oven. If you don’t have an oven, you can buy roasted red peppers at the store.

Seriously, burn the crap out of them. These aren't quite done yet. The grill wasn't super hot, so it took me like 20 minutes.

Anyways, roasting peppers: put pepper over heat and burn the crap out of it. Really, that’s what you do. If it’s on a grill, keep turning the pepper until all of the outer skin is blistered and black; if it’s on a gas stove, set the pepper directly on the pot guard on your stove and turn (with tongs) often until all of the skin is blistered and black; if it’s in the oven, put the pepper directly under the broiler, close to the heating element (with something underneath it to catch any runaway pepper juice) turning ever 3-4 minutes until it’s blistered and black.

You can almost see that steam doing work on those peppers.

Once you have blistered all of the skin on the bell peppers, pull them from the heat into a plastic sack and tie it closed for 10-15 minutes. Try to get most of the extra air out of the bag before you seal it. The heat in the peppers will continue to steam the insides, and the steam will also cause the blistered and blackened outer skin to peel off of the delicious roasted inside of the pepper way more easily. While my peppers were steaming, I went inside and grated carrots and made the salad dressing, but you can do whatever you’d like, I suppose.

Step 1: peel.

Once your peppers have been sitting for awhile, open up the bag and pull one out and set it on your board. Starting from the bottom of the pepper, peel off the blistered and nasty external skin to reveal the sweet and well cooked peppery goodness on the inside. when you get up close to the stem, don’t worry too much about

Step 2: clean.

getting every bit of skin off; you’re going to cut or pull out the stem and seeds anyway. once peeled, run either a knife or your finger up the side of the pepper to open it up, and then tear out the stem and wipe out any seeds you can. Then lay the pepper flat on  your board and cut it into little delicious strips. Also, the pictures to the right are

Step 3: cut.

better at illustrating this than my verbose ramblings. I left my peppers in pretty big pieces, I think I probably should have made the strips about half the thickness and length that they ended up. So do that instead. Alright, now, let’s learn how to make goat cheese vinaigrette.

Goat Cheese Vinaigrette

This is the kind of goat cheese I used. Please don't sue me, goat cheese manufacturer.

This is a relatively easy and super delicious salad dressing with a little bit of sneaky heat to it. Because it’s goat cheese instead of mayonnaise that makes it creamy, it’s also not particularly bad for you. You’ll need a blender to make it, though; if you can figure out a way to do this without a blender, you are way more dedicated than I am.

Take the goat cheese, olive oil, vinegar and the juice from the lemon and put them in the blender. Add all of your dry ingredients (salt,  black and white pepper, cumin seeds), and then add the herbs.

If you also have an herb garden, make sure to wash the herbs and squeeze the water out of them before they go into the blender.

I used oregano and rosemary because that’s what we had in the garden; I pulled the rosemary leaves off of the stem, same with the oregano, and then put the little leaves into the blender whole. Rough chop your serrano pepper (don’t add any seeds, it’s plenty hot as is) and smash your garlic cloves with your knife before you throw them into the blender. Now, blend on liquify (or whatever your high setting is) until the entire combination is, well, liquified and all the chunks of things are completely gone. This recipe actually makes enough dressing for two salads this size, but making any less would be difficult in a normal-sized blender. My dressing ended up sitting out for about 45 minutes, and I think that helped it to develop a more consistent flavor. Also, if your dressing starts to separate back into oil and not-oil while it’s sitting out, that means you didn’t blend enough. Scrape the sides of the blender down and whir that puppy again.

Salad

Baby arugula is a little bit milder than mamma arugula or daddy arugula. If you used regular arugula, you'd probably want to add another carrot.

One thing anybody that cooks for more people than themselves on a somewhat regular basis should own is a decent looking, pretty big salad bowl. Tossing a salad in a bowl that is small is usually messy. I was pushing the limit with this bowl, and narrowly avoided a couple of blowouts.

Throw all the arugula into your salad bowl. Wash, peel, and grate (on the larger-gauge grater holes) your carrot into the bowl too. I know a fair number of people who don’t love carrots and would probably skip them if they made this salad. This is a cry not to, and here is why: Arugula being the only leafy thing in a salad is overpowering. Arugula has a delicious, peppery spicy taste as far as greens go, and that’s great, but it’s too much on its own. Carrots are a low-volume way to temper that arugula flavor with some sweetness. Since carrots are sweeter than actual greens, you can use less carrot for the same effect on flavor as cutting arugula with romaine or some other boring kind of lettuce. Because of this, I say to you spare the carrot, spoil the salad.

Confession: Right after I snapped this picture, pieces of onion shot out from under the knife and all over the floor. Cut onions with both hands.

After your carrot and arugula are in the bowl, add your onion slices. I cut my onion the way this picture shows me cutting my onion because short slices of onion are my favorite fork-sized morsels. If you’re partial to thinner slices or chopped onion, by all means, go to town. After I cut onions into 1/4 moon slices, I broke the layers up with my hands as I put them into the bowl.

This is a good picture of how I cut up the strawberries.

Throw the peppers you roasted into the bowl, and then slice your strawberries. Don’t get so obsessed with using all of the strawberry that you end up putting some of the white stuff from up near the top of the berry into the salad, nobody likes that stuff.

I cut the medium-size vine-ripe tomato I put into my salad into twelfths, I think. It worked out well. Add your nuts and parmesan, and now it’s time to dress and toss. If I had been in Texas, I would have used pecans instead of walnuts, because pecans are cheap in Texas and delicious everywhere, but walnuts are cheaper most places, so I used them instead.

Before I put my mushrooms in the salad (I used sliced baby portabellas), I sautéed them for 5 minutes over medium-high heat in a tablespoon of olive oil. Right as they finished, I splashed a little bit of balsamic vinegar on them to get them to caramelize a little bit, and then I let them sit and cool for five minutes so that they didn’t wilt any lettuce.

I put about 1/3 of my dressing in to start, then after the first toss I added a little bit more.

When you’re dressing and tossing a salad, you have to pay attention to what you’re doing and how everything looks. Also, I have a friend that claims that you should never dress salad and always serve dressing on the side: He is wrong. If you toss a salad with salad dressing, you get a nice even coating on everything, and you can pair your dressing with your salad properly for it to be really delicious. Also, while you’re tossing your salad, pay attention to how it looks and what it might be missing. I had to add more walnuts and parmesan than I originally had in there

This is a pretty good shot of the sweet salad tongs.

because they all disappeared comparative to the volume of everything else. Start with between 1/4 and 1/3 of the dressing you have, then toss thoroughly, taste a piece of lettuce, and decide if you need to add more dressing. It is much easier to add more salad dressing than to take some away. I used these sweet, bear-paw style salad tongs to toss and serve — make sure to get way down to the bottom of the bowl and mix everything up throughly. Like I said at the beginning of the post, I served this salad with grilled tempeh on top, and it paired great. If you’re feeling more carnivorous, this would go great with a sliced grilled steak served on top, or maybe some grilled pork tenderloin. I don’t think I would pair this salad with chicken, though: the chicken doesn’t have a strong enough flavor profile to add anything to a meal with a salad like this one.

Some salads are weak meal replacements. This is not one of those salads.

Let’s Eat!

–N

Buttermilk Ranch Fried Chicken

21 Jul

Every good piece of homemade chicken I've ever had is significantly darker colored than the stuff you buy at a restaurant, but I don't know why.

As time marches on and the posts start to pile up here at Redneck Fresh, you will quickly learn that I really, really love chicken. To be a little more specific, I love chicken that is still on-the-bone and, when I can get them, whole chickens. If cooked right, there are very few proteins that are juicier or more flavorful than bone-in chicken. Especially bone-in fried chicken.

Crunchy and juicy, flavorful and somehow not even greasy? Yes, you’ve just bitten into well-made fried chicken. I’ve been on a quest to perfect my fried chicken recipe for a couple of years now, and I’m getting pretty close. This recipe, while delicious, is definitely on the more redneck end of the “redneck fresh” spectrum: there are no vegetables of any kind. However, I made some awesome fried mushrooms and green beans with the chicken that were definitely fresh. I’ll include those recipes, too, but I’ll try to keep them shorter.

I fried in a deep, straight-sided skillet because that’s what I had available; if I had my kitchen stuff, I would use either my cast iron skillet or cast iron dutch oven. If you have cast iron, it is the best possible vessel in which to fry because of how evenly it distributes heat and how long it takes it to cool off. Make sure you have a lid, though, because this recipe calls for covering your chicken while it fries. Alright, let’s get to it.

Buttermilk Ranch Fried Chicken

Stuff

So I'm missing some things in this picture. Also I didn't use garlic. Oops.

2 whole chickens

3 c. buttermilk

2-3 c. four

2-3 c. cornmeal

2 packets ranch dressing seasoning

1 T. Sriracha sauce

cinnamon

salt

pepper

a lot of oil (I used peanut and vegetable)

Steps

This is the least appetizing picture you ever see at RNF.

The day before you’re going to actually fry chicken, you’ll have to get it soaking in buttermilk. First, go ahead and make the buttermilk marinate in a pyrex dish or a bowl of some kind. Don’t marinate in a zipper bag, you’ll end up  getting buttermilk everywhere and it will be gross. Combine the buttermilk, about half a packet of ranch dressing seasoning, about a teaspoon of black pepper and the Sriracha sauce. Mix well. If you want spicier chicken, put in a lot more Sriracha. Like four times more. While your marinate will have an unappetizing pinkish glow to it, your chicken will be spicy and delicious.

Get your chickens out and see if they feel a little bit slimy or not. If they’re slimy, rinse them off (gently though,  you don’t want to separate the skin from the flesh). If you want to, you can buy your chicken pre-cut into pieces, usually for free. I, however, have an odd affinity for cutting up chicken, so I did it myself and made a video, in case you also like to butcher your own poultry:

As you cut the chicken, lay it into the buttermilk and turn it over to ensure that you have a good thorough coating. Cover the dish with plastic and put it in your fridge until tomorrow, when it’s chicken frying time.

The ideal temperature for frying chicken is between 350-375. Make sure you leave a couple of inches of space so that your pan doesn't overflow.

Before I start talking about frying chicken, let’s discuss frying in general for a little while. The key to frying things that come out crispy and delicious is to fry hot enough. There are two parts to frying things at the right temperature: First, be sure you wait long enough for it to reach the proper temperature before you start cooking. Second, make sure you don’t put too many things in the pan at the same time. Everything you add to a pan of oil drops the temperature; oil that’s too cold makes for greasy, soggy food.

You want to fry chicken between 350-375, which means that when you put chicken in the pan you should be closer to 375 because of the temperature drop that occurs when cold things, like chicken, go into hot things, like oil. Once you have fried a lot of things, you will start to get a feel for what oil temperatures are based on how much sizzle you get when you drop things in the pan; until you get there, use a meat thermometer, a candy thermometer or one of those really cool surface temp instant read infared contraptions. On the electric stove I was using, I was bouncing the temperature between 6-10 the whole time I was cooking. Alright, back to frying chicken.

I fried my chicken in about two-thirds peanut oil and one-third vegetable oil, mostly because I was too cheap to buy more than one 12 ounce container of peanut oil. Peanut oil is awesome for frying because of the flavor it imparts onto food. Also, although I have no scientific backing for this, I feel like food fried in peanut oil comes out crispier and less likely to be soggy. Pull your chicken out of the fridge and start heating up the oil, because it takes awhile.

Use one hand for dry things and the other for wet.

To bread the chicken, you’ll need a dish in which to apply breading and a rack to set pieces on while you wait to fry them. Only batter a few pieces at a time; it doesn’t do the chicken any good to sit with breading on it before it’s fried.

Mix up the breading for your chicken about two cups at a time. Take a cup of flour and a cup of cornmeal, and add about half a packet of ranch dressing, a tablespoon of salt, a little bit of pepper, and half a teaspoon of cinnamon to it.

Bready and waiting.

You’ll end up needing a couple of batches at least if you fry two whole chickens. Pull a piece of chicken out of the marinade, but make sure it still has a good coating of buttermilk on it. Set it down in the flour and push it down. Using the same hand you used to pull the chicken out of the buttermilk pan, carefully turn it over and repeat the process on the back side. Pile some of the breading up on top of the chicken using your other hand. The idea is to get a good coating of flour on the piece of

chicken while keeping one hand wet and the other hand dry. If you succeed, washing your hands will not be particularly difficult. If you fail, you’ll be washing dough off your hands every few minutes. Once a piece has a good layer of breading on it, put it on the waiting rack. Flour about 3-4 pieces at a time, you’ll have time while the pieces cook to batter the other pieces.

The oil will make lots of noise and splash a little bit. This is normal.

Make sure your oil is hot enough, and turn your oven on to as low a temperature as you can. A “warm” setting is ideal, but anything under 180° is fine. Put a cookie tray and a baking rack in the oven, it’s where you’ll store pieces while you fry other ones. When you’re frying chicken, try to fry similarly sized pieces at the same time. Start with drumsticks, they’re the easiest piece to do right. My pan could hold 3 drumsticks easily without over-crowding. Lay the chicken in the pan carefully, if you hover too long you’ll burn your hand, if you drop too quickly you’ll splash oil everywhere and burn whatever it hits. Now, put a lid on the pan and ignore it for 3-4 minutes. I fry with a lid on because the lid catches steam and helps the chicken to cook a little bit more evenly, but be careful — when you take the lid off the pan, don’t tilt it, or the condensed steam will fall in the oil and splatter a lot. My legs and thighs took about four minutes on the first side, then I flipped them, cooked them four minutes on the second side, then I flipped them one more time and cooked them an additional two minutes, for 10 minutes total. Breasts took about 12 minutes total: 5-5-2. For all the different kinds of chicken, I kept a lid on the pan for about 80% of the cook time.

Here's the first couple pieces, on a rack, in the oven, waiting on their friends.

If it’s your first time frying chicken, you may have to cut into a piece or two to see if they are done. This is not indicative of you being a failure or not good at cooking, it’s because you can’t really tell from how chicken looks on the outside if it’s cooked through. You could also use a meat thermometer and cook your chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 160° at the bone. Anyways, once your first few pieces are done, use a pair of tongs to pick them up, let them drain back into the grease, and put them in the oven on the racks. The reason you’re using a rack instead of paper towels is that your breading will get soggy if it sits on a paper towel. Racks keep fried things away from moisture, and moisture=soggy chicken.

I mentioned in an early caption that homemade fried chicken is always a little bit darker than store-bought. I still don’t know why that is, but it’s definitely true.

Who needs a bucket-o-chicken when you can have a tower-o-chicken you made yourself?

Once you’ve pulled your first couple of pieces out of the oil, wait for a couple of minutes to let the grease come back to temperature before you start the next batch. Also, do not forget that your stove has an adjustment knob on it — when the chicken isn’t sizzling enough, turn it up, when it’s splattering too much, turn it down. Remember to bread pieces while other pieces fry, and try to bread similar-sized pieces, so that they can go in together. Frying chicken is time-consuming, so plan accordingly. We had some hungry children running around, so I ended up not cooking the wing pieces because they would have taken an extra few minutes. However, I wasn’t about to let all that high-dollar hot grease go to waste, so I fried up some green beans and mushrooms, too. I did not take any pictures of that process, but I will tell you how I did it.

Beer Battered Green Beans and ‘Shrooms

Stuff

1/2 c. flour

1/2 c. corn meal

1 beer (cheap is fine, but make sure it’s something you would drink)

1/2 packet ranch dressing seasoning (again)

1/2 t. cayenne

1 T. salt

1 t. pepper

1/2 lb. fresh green beans, broken in half (if they’re long; you can leave the short ones whole)

1 carton of fresh mushrooms, whole (wipe them clean with a damp paper towel, never wash mushrooms)

Steps

Combine all your ingredients that aren’t vegetables in a medium sized mixing bowl, and whisk them together thoroughly. You want this to be smooth. You’re looking for a consistency just a little bit thinner than cake batter, if it’s too thin, add a little bit more flour and corn meal. Once you’ve got your batter lump-free and the right consistency, dump your mushrooms into the bowl and gently stir them around. Walk over to your grease (still between 350-375°) and use either a fork or a toothpick to pull them out of the batter and gently drop them into the pan. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring them around and turning them a couple of times. Once your batter gets to golden brown, pull them out and set them next to the chicken on the drying rack. Again, fried food belongs on racks, not paper towels. Sprinkle the mushrooms with some salt and pepper (or some cajun seasoning if you’re feeling cocky) while they’re still hot.

Do the same thing you did with the mushrooms with the green beans, only use your hands instead of a fork to pull the beans out of the batter, because it’s much easier due to their shape. Stir the beans around the pan, making sure they don’t stick to each other. After 2-3 minutes, the green beans should be done. Just like with the mushrooms, pull ’em, rack ’em, and salt ’em. If you don’t overcook the green beans, they’ll have just a little bit of fresh snap to go with the battery crunch, and people will think you are a culinary genius. Now it’s time to plate all this food you just made (we also had some southern-style kale and some delicious mashed potatoes) and sit down to a delicious, although not exactly healthy, dinner.

If you want to know how to make kale delicious, repost this entry and leave me a comment and I'll email you two different kale recipes.

Let’s Eat!

-N

Fish Tacos

15 Jul

Red cabbage makes everything look gourmet.

Hello friends! So as I’ve mentioned in the past, I live with vegetarians — this has shaped the early entries here at RNF. Here’s the good news, though: the vegetarians eat fish! Enter fish tacos.

Big props to my friend Laura for recommending fish tacos when I asked my Google+ friends what I should cook this go around. In Phoenix something light and refreshing like a nice fish taco with cool cabbage slaw and cilantro-cream sauce is the perfect dinner on a hot summer evening. We had some friends over, and the tacos were definitely a hit!

Before we get started, a note/rant about fish: I used farm-raised bass for these things because the price was great at the grocery store and bass is a light and flaky white fish that doesn’t have an overpowering flavor. Doesn’t have an overpowering flavor is NOT the same thing as doesn’t have any flavor. Please don’t use tilapia for these tacos, or if you do have the decency not to tell me about it. Yes, tilapia is cheap and a lot of people “like” it, but this is because a lot of people do not like fish. If the only fish you like is tilapia, I don’t know how to break it to you, but you don’t like fish. Make these tacos with tofu. They’d be just as good, if not better.

Sorry about the rant. Really, the only point of it was to say that you should pick a fish that’s relatively light. Mahi mahi or snapper would be great, so would trout or a lot of other things. I’d stay away from salmon, cod or catfish — they’re a little too strong for this recipe. Alright, enough about fish, let’s get cooking. I made this recipe for 5 grown ups and a 4 year old, and we had enough to feed 6 or 7 hungry adults.

Stuff

for the cabbage slaw:

1/2 a head of red cabbage

1 yellow onion

1 jalapeño

2 limes

1/4 c. olive oil

1/2 c. white vinegar

The tub on the bottom left is Mexican crema. If you can't get crema, substitute 2 c. sour cream and 1/2 c. milk. Really try to find the real deal, though, it's magically delicious.

2 T. whole cumin seeds

1 T. sugar

1 T. salt

pepper

for the fish:

2.5 lbs fish filets (make sure the fish monger gives you boneless filets, or at least make sure you know how to debone filets yourself)

1/2 a bunch of cilantro

4 cloves garlic

2 limes

1 jalapeño

1 t. cumin

3 T. chipotle adobo sauce (from a can of chipotles in adobo)

1/2 c. olive oil

1/4 c. water

1 T. salt

1 T. black pepper

for the sauce:

2 1/2 c. “crema” (Mexican table cream, it’s a thinner, less sour version of sour cream. It’s delicious.)

1 1/2 bunches of cilantro

1 jalapeño

1 t. salt

the other things you need:

Corn tortillas, the fresher the better. 2 per taco.

lime wedges

That looks like a lot of ingredients, but it’s really not, I just repeated a bunch of stuff in multiple sections.

Steps

Slaw

The slaw needs to marinate for longer than the fish does, so start with that. First, cut up some cabbage. If you’ve never cut red cabbage before, my handy diagram will help you learn how to do it in a few easy steps. Oh, I forgot to take a picture of me pulling the outside 3-4 leaves off, so make sure you do that part first.

Make sure to pull the core, or stem out of the cabbage, unless you like eating sticks.

I’m not sure how clear the picture makes it, but once you’ve cored and sliced the cabbage, cut perpendicularly to your slicing pattern to chop the cabbage into pieces that will be about a quarter inch square. There is no test here, so if your pieces are a little bigger or smaller, it’s fine. Most people who put cabbage in fish tacos use shredded cabbage, but I like the texture of a chopped slaw better, and the chopped stuff doesn’t do that annoying thing where it gets strung together like a dream run in barrel o’ monkeys. While it’s great when fifteen monkeys link together in a steady chain, when all the slaw in your fish taco links together, it falls out onto your plate, and you are sad.

Once your cabbage is chopped, throw it in a mixing bowl. Chop an onion (medium)  and de-seed and chop a jalapeño (fine), and add them to the bowl too. (Don’t remember how to chop onions or jalapeños?)  Now it’s time to make your dressing.

Your slaw should look just like this. Maybe minus the baby.

Put a skillet over medium and add the oil and cumin seeds. Once you start to smell cumin and hear a few seeds starting to make popping sounds, add the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper and stir till dissolved. WARNING: If the oil is pretty hot when the vinegar goes in, it will hiss and pop at you, and you could burn yourself. If this happens, turn the stove off and wait to add the sugar etc. till it stops making loud noises. It’s not worth a nasty burn. Anyways, once you’ve stirred the pot enough to dissolve the sugar, dump the contents over your vegetables. Juice your two limes into the slaw, give it a stir, and set it aside to start marinating. If you wanted to, you could do this as early as the day before.

Fish

First, make sure your filets are fully thawed and clean. If there’s any sliminess on the fish, wash it off. Yes, in the sink. No, it won’t do anything to mess up the fish, it’s fish and water, they don’t exactly hurt one another.

The marinade is particularly chunky. This actually ends up enhancing the flavor, as steam from the 'peño and cilantro flavor the fish on the grill.

Now that your fish is clean and thawed, it’s time to make some marinade. Start by deseeding and chopping a jalapeño (if you like it hot, you don’t have to deseed). Follow this up with some rough chopped cilantro, and combine these in a bowl with the rest of the marinade ingredients. To get the adobo sauce out of the can of chipotles, use a spoon to smoosh the peppers up a little bit and spoon out the resulting liquid. Yes, smoosh is a technical term. Mix your marinade up thoroughly and then coat the fish completely with it. Set it aside for 30 minutes or an hour so the flavor can soak in. Do not let it marinade for more than an hour or so, though, because the lime juice will start to cook the fish and it will come out with a kind of rubbery texture that will make you say “I can’t cook fish, I’ve never been able to cook fish.”

If you don't have a grill brush, you can cut an onion in half and use it to clean gunk off of grill grates.

So set your fish aside and then make the cilantro cream sauce (directions follow). First, let’s discuss grilling fish.

I like to grill fish at temperature just a little higher than medium on a gas grill, or what is more or less a 6 second fire on a charcoal grill. So fire your grill up to between 375-400 degrees, and then gently lay your fish on the grates. Remember, fish is significantly more delicate than most other proteins, so gently is the imperative word here. If you don’t have a high heat tolerance in your hands, invest in some grill gloves or something, because you’ll use your hands to help turn and position fish during the cooking process.

Bonus points if you can pour with this kind of mad flourish.

Once you have your fish on the grill, pour the rest of your marinade, chunks and all, over the top of it. I pretty much always do that when I’m grilling stuff, but it’s actually important in this case, because the amount of flavor you get out of the green stuff as it cooks is huge. Now, you have to do the thing that I’m the worst at as a cook: wait. If you get really impatient with fish and flip it more than a couple of times, you’ll rip it to shreds and then you’ll say, “I can’t cook fish, I’ve never been able to cook fish.”

I'm not going to put a picture in of how I used the spatula to cut the fish up as I pulled it off, but I did. Also, see how there are still bits of cilantro and jalapeño on the fish? Delicious.

When I made this stuff last night, I ended up cooking the filets for 6 minutes on the first side, 6 minutes on the second side, and then an additional 3 minutes on the first side in order to achieve pesca-perfection. Over-cooked fish makes everybody sad, because it takes something delicious and turns it into something sawdusty. The easiest way to tell if fish is done is to flake off a piece of it, taste it, and see if it’s cooked through; if you still don’t know, pull a whole filet off to the side and cut it in half. If it’s opaque all the way through, it’s done. If it’s still translucent in the middle, throw it back on the grill for a couple more minutes.

Once the fish is cooked, start pulling it off the grill. The picture shows how I used my hand along with the spatula to make sure that I didn’t lose any valuable bass. I cut up the filets into 2-4″ pieces with the spatula as I pulled them off, which also allowed me to give the bigger pieces/pieces from the cooler parts of the grill an extra minute or two of cook time. After I pulled the fish I took it inside and started assembling tacos. However, you have to learn how to make the cilantro-cream sauce first. So on to that.

Sauce

gratuitious in-process section photo.

This sauce is very simple, this post is already pretty long, this section will be very short.

Step one, cut the stems off of the cilantro you have left over from the fish marinate and throw it in your blender. Step two, get another whole bunch of cilantro, cut the stems and throw it in your blender. By “cut the stems off,” I mean literally the bottom 3-5 inches of just stems, not all the stemmy stuff. You don’t need to have exclusively leaves for this, because you’ll be liquifying in the blender anyways.

Next, remove the seeds and stem from a jalapeño, cut it into a few big pieces, and throw it in the blender. Add your salt and Mexican crema (or your substituted sour cream and milk), and blend until fully liquified and a cool looking green color. Remember to pulse a few times so your blender mixes things up completely. Pour your sauce into a squeeze bottle of some kind (we had to use a mustard bottle, it worked just fine), or, if you’re not into making your food pretty, just set it aside.

Now, let’s assemble some tacos!

Tacos

You use two tortillas because one has a tendency to break when you're eating them. Also, look how cool the sauce looks coming out of a mustard bottle.

Take your corn tortillas and microwave them, four at a time on high for 15-20 seconds; you’ll need two tortillas a taco. Put the tortillas on a plate in an upside-down T shape so that you can make both tacos easily.

Give the bowl of slaw a good stir and taste it to make sure it doesn’t need any more salt. Put about half a cup of slaw on each taco, and follow that up with 3-4 pieces of fish. Run a zigzag drizzle of cilantro-cream sauce down each taco (about 1/2 a tablespoon’s worth, more if you really like deliciousness). Garnish by sticking a lime wedge between the two tacos, and you’re ready to serve.

I served my fish tacos with some chipotle-soy sauteed broccoli, and they complimented each other nicely. I got lucky and the cabbage was really vibrantly colored and fresh, which made the whole dish really pop. I hope yours turn out great, too, and I’m sure they will.

 

Wardrobe provided by Hanes.

Let’s Eat!

–N

Pico de Gallo

6 Jul

Not only is pico de gallo delicious, it's also beautiful.

First of all, this post will be shorter than the last one, I promise. I got really excited to actually write my first entry about food, and pizza has a lot of moving parts, and before I knew it I was up to like 2500 words. Woops. Anyways, some of you may be wondering why right around the 4th of July I decided to make pico de gallo, which is Mexican. First and foremost, pico is particularly delicious, especially in the summer time. Secondly, when you’re from Texas, Mexican food is every bit as American as any other kind of cuisine.

If you’re feeling really cocky, you can make some homemade tortilla chips to have with this pico. Also, if you have a lot left over, it is freaking magical mixed with scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Alright, let’s go ahead and get started. Because the ingredients themselves are really simple, I’m going to use pico to teach you how I cut different things. I’ve developed/stolen some pretty cool knife tricks, and I like sharing them with people. Does that mean that my way of cutting onions is the only way to do it? Of course not. But it’s probably faster than yours.

Stuff

I forgot to put one ingredient in this picture. Do you know which one?

8 medium roma tomatoes (romas are still crazy cheap here, so I’m using them. Again, use whatever tomatoes make you happy)

2 yellow onions

3 medium jalapeños

4 cloves of garlic

3 limes

1 bunch of cilantro

1 t. cumin

1 T. salt

1 t. pepper

Steps

Wash everything that isn’t salt pepper or cumin. I don’t wash garlic, but apparently some people do, so to each his or her own. Really, making pico isn’t cooking at all, but an adventure in chopping stuff, so I’m going to break down my post vegetable by vegetable.

Tomatoes

It's way easier to core a tomato that's quartered than one that's halved.

Cutting tomatoes requires either a very sharp knife or, if you’re lazy and don’t keep your knifes sharp, a serrated knife. I really recommend knives that work, though: people who have decent knives like cooking way more than people that don’t, and that’s not a coincidence.

For pico, I pull the seeds and cores out of tomatoes, but leave the skins on. (If you read my grilled pizza blog, you know I do the opposite for spaghetti sauce.) If you don’t take the seeds out of the tomatoes, your pico will be slimy and gross.

To get the core and the seeds out of a tomato, first, cut it into quarters; once you’ve done that, run the knife from the butt end of the tomato up to the stem. Cut under the stem to make sure that you get all of the core out. Remove the core section and use your fingers to clean whatever seed goo is left off of the good tomato flesh. Set the quarter aside and move on to the next one — you’ll save yourself a bunch of time if you core first and dice them all together.

Slicin' and dicin'.

Now that you have a nice set of cored and deseeded tomatoes, it’s time to dice. Take each section and cut it into thin strips. After you have stacked up a bunch of tomato strips, turn them and dice them. Put your diced tomatoes into the big bowl. Oh yeah, you’ll need a big bowl. It’s where you’ll mix everything.

Cutting tomatoes can be surprisingly frustrating, and sometimes you end up smushing more than cutting. If that’s happening, drag the point of the knife across your board, or switch to a serrated knife. If you switch to a serrated knife, buy a knife sharpening kit or put a decent chef’s knife on your birthday list.

 Onions

So, there are apparently a couple ways that people who cook for a living cut onions. My friend Lucas is partial to one, and I’m partial to the other, and it’s the source of several of our arguments. I’m going to teach you the better one.

Seriously, leave the skin on

Start with a whole onion, skin on and everything. Cut it in half, just like I did in that picture there. I just realized that continuing to try to type through how to cut up this onion would take a lot of time and just annoy you, so instead I’m going to limit  my typing to captions and just put some pictures in here.

 

Peel the skin back from the top of the onion to the root end. Always peel 1 layer deeper than you think you need to.

Once you have the skin off (but with the root still on), cut the top off of the onion, then turn it 90 degrees and cut down through all the layers, making straight and evenly spaced cuts. The root holds it all together.

So this step is optional because it's dangerous and not that important, but i like to put a few slices this direction into my onions too. It makes for a more uniform sized dice.

Now, cut your onions the most logical direction, and the pieces that fall off should be relatively uniform diced onion. Amazing, right?

So that’s how I chop onions. If you want your onions a little bit finer, run the knife over the diced onion a few times and you’ll have minced onions. Throw them in the bowl with the tomatoes, and now it’s pepper time.

Jalapeños

I love spicy food, and I sneak some kind of peppers into almost everything I cook. As such, if you’re going to cook things I do, it’s important you learn how to cut peppers. If you don’t like spicy food, use milder peppers in small amounts (don’t go totally without, they’re usually an important part of the flavor balance). Also, please, please, please do not touch your eyes or go to the bathroom while cutting jalapeños without washing your hands THOROUGHLY, or you will  be woefully sad. I have had a few really great meals ruined by the fact that I was crying or…crying because I had touched my eyes or my… with pepper oils still on my hands. Some sensitive skinned people or people dealing with large quantities of peppers even wear surgical gloves while cutting them to help prevent irritation.

I made a chart for cutting up jalapeños, because it’s way easier to show you how I cut them than to tell you. As you look at the pictures, you’ll notice I left the stems on until I deseeded the peppers. This is because having the stem to hold onto makes it easier to pull out the white middle section, which you only want to save if you want to make food that’s really spicy. Also, it doesn’t taste good raw, so just leave it out of your pico de gallo.

Throw the ‘peños in the bowl with the onions and tomato. The last thing I’m going to show you how to cut up in any detail is garlic, and then we’ll move on to assembly.

Garlic

NATHAN SMASH! But in all seriousness, tilt the sharp part of your knife blade down, so you don't cut your hand when you smack the knife blade.

So I use the smash, remove peel, then chop method for garlic. I hate garlic presses, they’re just something else to clean, and I feel like the garlic out of them tastes more like metal than it should. Also, there are a million little gizmos designed to remove peels and stuff from garlic. Lame. Do this instead.

So over there in the picture you see me smashing a clove of garlic. When you smash garlic, don’t be afraid to really use some force. After you’ve done that, pick up the knife, and you’ll find that the peel has already started to separate from the part of the garlic you actually want to eat. Remove the peel, (check to make sure little flakes of it aren’t stuck to pieces of the clove of garlic that came off in the blast) and then you’ll notice the greatest thing about this method of garlic prep: Your garlic is already halfway chopped, and you haven’t really had to do anything yet! Now, go ahead and chop it up as fine as you’d like. I like to chop my garlic pretty dang small when I’m making pico de gallo, because I want the flavor to spread evenly around the bowl. Throw the garlic in with the tomatoes onion and peppers, and now we’re on to final assembly.

Putting it all together

Take your cilantro and pluck the leaves off of the stems. I ordinarily use the stems of cilantro, but since you don’t actually cook this stuff, they’d taste a little bit too much like, well, stems. Pile up all of the leaves, and chop them up until they’re about the size of really big pieces of glitter. Cilantro kind of is the glitter of pico de gallo, because it makes everything in the bowl look pretty. Throw the cilantro into the bowl and give everything a stir.

Rollin' a lime here boss.

While there’s nothing particularly special about how to juice a lime, I do have one trick to offer that I think I learned on TV, or from my mom, or that my mom learned on TV, or something like that. Before you cut a lime, roll it around on your cutting board pushing down on it pretty  hard. this makes getting the juices out of it way easier. If you’re using a juicer, cut your limes in half, if you’re juicing by hand, cut them into quarters, and then squeeze them into the bowl. If you have limes that have a lot of seeds in them, you may want to juice them into a smaller bowl first, pick the seeds out, and then pour the juice into your pico. Nobody likes biting down on a lime seed with their chips and salsa.

Add your salt, pepper and cumin, give everything a good stir, and set it in the fridge for an hour or two so that your flavors get a chance to intermingle. Because you put salt on it, it will be much more liquidy when it comes out of the fridge than when it went in. This is not a bad thing. It’s a delicious thing.

I served this pico with some homemade fajitas with a chipotle lime marinade.

So some of this pico did get served with fajitas, like the caption says, but most of it didn’t make it that long, as buzzards ate it while I was out by the grill. Maybe you have buzzards hanging around your house when you cook, too? Anyways, I would appreciate comment feedback as to what you liked or didn’t like about the post, or even suggestions for future posts. Hope you like the pico de gallo.

Let’s Eat!

–N

Grilled Pizza

1 Jul

Here's the finished product, cooked and ready to be cut.

I decided that for my first post, I needed to make something that I’ve never made before. Then, I decided I needed to make something that would impress all of you, and as such I thought that maybe I should make something I have experience making. This left me in a headache-inducing loop of back-and-forth, and then I came to a brilliant compromise: I could take something I’ve sort of made before, and do it in a way that’s new.

Enter grilled pizza. I’ve made pizza several times, I’ve grilled almost everything there is to grill, but in spite of that I had never put the two together. Then I decided that if I was going to make grilled pizza, I was going to do it RIGHT — no pre-packaged nothin’. When you’re making pizza from scratch, you’ve got to make your dough from scratch, too. After reading a few recipes, I decided that I generally liked this one the best, so I used it as a starting point and off I went.

 

The Dough

If you decide to follow this blog, you will quickly learn that, even if I credit a recipe like the one I started with for this dough, I will never, ever actually follow it. Let that be a lesson to you if you try to cook the things you see here: cooking is not science, it’s art. There’s plenty of food chemistry and science you should get a grasp of if you’re going to participate in the art, but never let somebody else’s recipe keep you from making stuff the way you want to make it. Okay, words of wisdom imparted. On to how I actually made my pizza dough.

Stuff

1 packet of dry yeast

2 T. honey

2 c. warm water

6 T. olive oil, plus extra

2 t. salt

5 c. flour (2/3 bleached, 1/3 whole wheat), plus extra

Steps

Stir up the yeast water and honey so they all get to know each other. I used a fork because they're easier to clean than whisks, and I hate doing dishes.

Take the yeast, water and honey and mix them together in a big mixing bowl and walk away and do something else for a couple minutes so that the yeast can wake up from its nap and start eating the delicious sugars in the honey. Why honey instead of sugar, like the original recipe called for? Because honey is way more delicious and exciting than plain old white sugar, that’s why.

Once a couple of minutes have passed, put the oil and salt into the yeast and water mixture, and then it’s time to start actually making dough. If you have a Kitchen Aid mixer, throw the dough hook attachment onto the end, put about half of your flour into the bowl, and let it mix on low until stuff is combined. If you don’t have a Kitchen Aid, do this by hand. It’s more fun anyways. I started with a mixer, but about 1/3 of the way through the process smoke started coming out the back of it and the kitchen started to smell like an electrical fire, so I switched to the mix-by-hand method. Cooking is all about going with the flow. Keep adding flour and mixing until the dough reaches a consistency that is definitely more solid than cake batter but still moister than cookie dough or most other bread doughs. I actually ended up using the 2 cups of water and 5 cups of flour ratio exactly.

Once you’ve mixed the dough pretty thoroughly, turn it out onto a floured board and knock it around for a few minutes. Something about the process of kneading dough, aside from being a good way to release pent-up aggression and frustration, makes gluten do crazy stuff that makes bread turn into bread, or something. Anyways, rinse out the gunk from your mixing bowl, rub some olive oil in it, and put the dough back into it. Cover it and let it rise for a couple hours. I went to a baseball game and came back. Check out the picture montage to see how much my dough actually rose in about 4 hours.

Some folks have fancy dough knives for separating into sections. I don't, so I just used a chef's knife.

Once you’ve been amazed by the dough, pull it out onto a floured board again and knead it around for a couple minutes and then make it into an oval shape. I made it into an oval because I’m going to be making 3 pizzas, and the oval was the easiest to cut into three equal sections. Take each section, make it into a round, and wrap it up in plastic wrap covered in oil. The oil will keep the dough from getting nasty crusts on the edge, like Play Dough gets when you don’t close the lid all the way. Put these bundles of gluteny joy into your refrigerator overnight for tomorrow’s pizza making extravaganza.

I made my dough ahead of time because I read somewhere that giving dough time to sit for a day or two makes it sour a little bit and therefore more delicious. I like things that are more delicious, so I followed this advice. When I actually ate the final product, I could definitely tell the crust had aged, and it made for a way more delicious end product.

The Sauce

If you have to pick between making your own dough or sauce, go ahead and make the dough. While I think that homemade sauce is 1000 times better than the stuff in a jar, it is pretty time-consuming and can be expensive. This sauce, however, was crazy cheap, because there’s a grocery store here in Phoenix (I live in Phoenix for the summer, by the way) that has insanely cheap produce prices. Like 50¢/pound tomato prices. It is my favorite place ever. 

While there’s a little bit of flexibility to the dough recipe above, there is a ton of flexibility to this sauce recipe. I like to sneak some extra heat into pizza sauce (I used at least a full teaspoon of cayenne in this one), some people like to sneak some extra sweet into theirs with sugar, carrots or even fruit juice. In terms of why I used some fresh herbs and some dried ones, it was purely based on what I had available/what was at the grocery store for reasonable prices.

Also, I made way more sauce than I needed for the 3 pizzas. We froze the extra to use next time. If you don’t like freezing stuff, cut this recipe by like 75%.

Stuff

My attempt at an artsy photo of the sauce ingredients

4 lbs. fresh roma tomatoes (or any other tomatoes that are in-season)

1 large yellow onion, rough chopped

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 c. olive oil

2-4 oz. tomato paste

1 T. dried oregano

1 T. dried thyme

2 T. fresh rosemary, rough chopped

2 T. fresh basil, chopped fine

2 bay leaves

cayenne pepper, to taste

salt

pepper

Steps

Take a big stock pot and fill it with enough water to easily cover the tomatoes. Bring the water to a boil, and then put the tomatoes in there, ideally without burning the crap out of yourself. After the water comes back to a boil, let the tomatoes boil for 5 minutes or so. The skins will start to split and come off — don’t panic, they’re supposed to do that. Using a slotted spoon or some similar utensil, move the tomatoes into a bowl of ice water. If you use tongs, tomatoes will explode and you will burn yourself. Anyways, the ice bath will stop the cooking and make the removal of the peels extremely easy. Dump the boiling water out of the big pot, put the pot back on the stove, and add the oil and onion. Cook on medium-high heat for 4-5 minutes, and then throw in the dried herbs. Let the dried herbs cook for a couple minutes, and right when your kitchen starts to smell magical, add the garlic and at least a teaspoon of salt.

Before you squish the tomato, poke a hole in it. Otherwise, it will explode and you will be messy.

While the onions are cooking, pull the tomatoes out of the ice bath one by one and remove their skins. For pizza sauce, I leave the seeds and ends on them, because I feel wasteful throwing that much tomato away. You’re going to end up cooking this stuff long enough that it all breaks down anyways.

Once the onion and garlic start to turn brown it’s time to add the peeled tomatoes. Wait until the onions really start to brown, as this caramelization is where a lot of the natural sweetness in the pizza sauce comes from. Adding the tomatoes is a lot of fun. Take each of the peeled tomatoes and squish it into the pot with the onions. Once all your tomatoes are in the pot, turn the temperature down to low, give it a good stir and throw a lid on it and walk away for 20 minutes or so. This will give everything time to start breaking down and let flavors start to marry.

Pull the lid off of the sauce and give it a good hard stir. While you’re stirring, try to break up the big pieces of tomato and onion with the spoon. At this point, add any fresh herbs, black pepper and cayenne. Put the lid back on and leave the pot alone for a few minutes again. After the sauce has been cooking for 30-45 minutes, add some tomato paste. The purpose of the paste is to thicken and smooth out the sauce, so use however much you need to do to achieve that goal. Cook the sauce for about an hour total, then turn it off: it’s time to make pizza.

 

 The Pizza

Once you’ve made your sauce and your dough, it’s time to make pizza. When I did this, I made the dough the day before and the sauce the day I was going to make pizza. I pulled the dough out of the fridge when I started making sauce so that it would be room temperature by the time I started cooking. I also pulled out my cheese and other toppings (roasted red peppers and artichokes). When you’re deciding how to top your pizza, remember that, for grilled pizza especially, less is more when it comes to toppings. If you over-top the pizza it will either be soggy or cold in the middle, and you will be sad. Right. Let’s get to it.

Stuff

pizza dough

pizza sauce

olive oil

mozzarella cheese (ideally fresh in water, but if that’s not an option, just go for the one at your local grocery store that’s the softest/has the most moisture)

flour

fresh basil,  chiffonaded

pepper

pizza toppings (again, less is more. Maybe some fancy pepperoni or italian sausage, or some good olives, mushrooms or a second kind of cheese)

Steps

Yes, I am wearing a chef's hat. My sister just bought it for me. It is awesome.

Grab one of your sections of pizza dough and put it on a floured board in front of you. Flour your hands, then shape the section of dough into a disc. Once your disc is nice and round and about as thin as you can get it without a rolling pin, it’s time to take it to the air! Set the disc on the back of your hands and throw it into the air with some rotation. This takes practice, and I am by no means an expert. If you can’t make it work, there’s only a little shame in resorting to a rolling pin instead. Also remember that grilled pizza is a rustic looking food anyways, so you certainly don’t have to get all the way to cracker thin.

I’m more than glad to admit that I had to start over more than once on the first pizza crust. If you punch a hole in the dough or it’s just too lumpy or misshapen to salvage, go ahead and ball it back up and start again. If you do this more than once or twice, though, you’ll have to let the dough sit for 10 or 15 minutes because the gluten will need time to relax.

Once you’ve got your pizza looking round and thin enough for your tastes, repeat with the other 2 (or however many you decided to make) sections of dough. Drizzle all your rounds with olive oil, and head out to the grill for a pre-grill. My friend Tom worked in a restaurant where they made really good grilled pizza, and he

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that you'll probably screw up even really round crusts flipping them on a grill. It's part of the rustic appeal.

said that the secret was pre-grilling the pizza dough for just a little while to firm it up and make sure that it cooks through. I decided that I would heed this advice, and I’m glad I did. Get your grill to medium or medium-low heat and grill each round for about 1 minute a side. Flipping the amorphous mass of pizza dough on a grill can be challenging, 2 big spatulas make it way easier. If you mess up and the dough get’s folded over a little bit or off to the side, don’t panic, just use your utensils and fingers to fix the problem. Once you’ve pre-grilled all your crusts, decide which side is more done: this side will be the topping side of the pizza. Now it’s time to assemble your pizzas and grill for real.

Take each crust and drizzle the top with just a little bit of olive oil, then put a very light layer of sauce down, getting as close to the edges as you want. Make sure you do not put so much sauce on that it pools up anywhere, or your pizza will be soggy and you will be sad. For my  12-inch or so pizzas, I probably used half a cup of sauce apiece. Once you’ve got your crusts sauced, put your cheese on. I like hand-sliced pieces of mozzarella better than grated or pre-sliced because they look way prettier, but you could use shredded if you preferred.

Basil makes everything look gourmet.

Once you’ve got your sauce and cheese down, it’s time to add whatever else is going on to your pizza. My pictures should give you a pretty good idea of how lightly I topped mine, and I was really pleased with the final result. Yes, I realize I topped my pizza with red peppers and artichokes, and not pepperoni or sausage. I’m living with vegetarians for the summer, and I’m generally trying to cook food I don’t have to eat by myself. Also, roasted red peppers, which I will teach you how to make in a later post, are freaking delicious.

Once I had my peppers and artichokes on the pizza, I cracked some fresh pepper on top of everything, drizzled it with olive oil, and then threw on the fresh basil. Then, we were headed back out to the grill. The grill here is a gas grill with no lid, which made cooking the pizza a little bit more of an adventure. If I were in a perfect world, I would have been using a charcoal grill like a Weber or one of those Big Green Egg contraptions and would have been able to maintain something right in the ballpark of 400 degrees. Cook the pizza for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese is just starting to bubble and the edges of the crust are turning golden brown. At this point, hit the top with one more drizzle of olive oil, let it cook another 2-3 minutes, and then pull it off the grill.

See how thin the sauce is spread? Am I reinforcing the "don't over-top the pizza" motif enough?

Once your pizza is off the grill, cut it into whatever kind of pieces you deem fit (I used a chef’s knife to cut rectangles, because that fit the shape of my finished product best) and serve. We had a delicious green salad, some cold homebrew watermelon wheat beer (thanks Jay!) and a delightful Thursday night dinner. If you decide to try your hand at grilling pizza, I’d love to hear how it turned out, who you ate it with, and what you had on the side.

I really like the unique shapes and the rustic look of grilled pizza, don't you?

Let’s Eat!

–N