Friday, April 28, 2006

Speaking of rice...

Has anyone out there ever heard of pilafi? It seems that few, if any, of my friends in Utah valley have ever heard of it. I had to start talking to friends in Salt Lake about it, because most of them have not only heard of it, but indeed, even enjoyed it with me at many of the fine Greek restaurants in Salt Lake. There seems to be very few of those in Orem. Anyway, pilafi is a Greek rice pilaf. I've always wondered how it was made. It's kind of lemony and chickeny, and usually a pretty decent shade of yellow. We always assumed the color was from saffron. So the whole rice bit had me thinking about it yesterday, and I decided to look up some recipes.

Has ANYONE out there EVER heard of pilafi? Okay, so I found a few scattered recipes online. Most of them didn't look like they would create the same dish that I was looking for. In fact, only one did. Oddly, it was just about the only one that didn't include paprika. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the color was from the paprika, instead of the saffron. So I began to create my own version.

Start with our standard cup of rice, browned in a wee bit of Greek olive oil, and maybe a wee bit of butter too. When its' browned, stir in 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of paprika. Add 2 cups chicken stock, and bring to a boil. Cover, drop to low, let sit 20 minute, remove from heat, let sit 10 minutes. Wasn't that easy?

Well, it might have ended up a little too lemony, and not really chickeny enough. It also seemed a little bit bland. The commercial stock I use has salt, but not very much, so I'm thinking I might need to add a little more. In fact, I may try starting with closer to 2 1/3 to 3 cups of stock, reduce to 2 cups, and then add that. That would increase both the salt and the chicken content. Also, there was no color from the paprika. None! It was a pale shade of off-white. Maybe it's time to try out the saffron, or maybe just turmeric or something. Other than that, it was actually pretty good stuff.

If anyone out there happens to have a decent pilafi recipe, I wouldn't mind taking a look at it. I love the stuff, and would love to not have to drive to Salt Lake every time I want it.

Oh, right. Photo.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hawaii kara desu!

Maybe it's time to think about writing a book. A book about rice. "50 Easy Rice Dishes Your Family Will Love" or something. Because, guess what! That's right, I came up with another rice recipe last night! This one is very Hawaiian. I started with my standard cup of rice. Browned in a wee bit of oil, etc. Then I added 1 1/4 cups of chicken broth and 1/4 cup of Wingers Original Amazing Sauce.

For those of you that don't live in Utah, Wingers is a diner that makes killer chicken wings, using sauce that's more sweet than spicy, and still has a decent kick. And they sell it by the bottle too. If you can't get ahold of it, I bet sweet and sour sauce would work too, though it won't be nearly as spicy.

Anyway, then I added 1/2 cup of pineapple juice and 1/2 cup of pineapple tidbits, measured by displacement (add 1/2 cup pineapple juice to the measuring cup, and then add pineapple tidbits until you have a full cup of both). Then standard procedure, bring to a boil, cover, drop to low, let sit for 20 minutes, remove from the heat, let sit for 10 minutes, uncover and serve.

We ate it plain, and it was pretty good. But if I'd have had some thick-cut ham, I might have grilled it, diced it up, and stirred it in once the rice was finished. I bet this would also go well with some kind of chicken. But if you make the rice spicy, don't make the chicken spicy. That's just overkill. If it were me, I might make a dry rub of garlic powder, onion powder, some kind of mild chile like ancho or guajillo, and a pinch of allspice. Then I would oil the chicken, coat it liberally with said rub, and grill it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Big old slab of rock

So I've decided to try and get back into sugar and chocolate work. I played with it a little at school, and quite frankly, I was lousy at it. I know that I just need to practice, but who has the time? Not me. So I've decided to make the time, and to buy the equipment. But what I needed was a big old slab of rock. That's what the pros use, and the amateurs too: a big old slab of granite or marble. But where do I get such a thing? I started with Froogle. It quickly became obvious that I didn't know how to look for slabs of rock. So I walked over to Pete and said, "hey Pete, you know stuff, right?"

Pete recommended I call up Artesan Water Jet, in Orem (UT). You see, when you decide to install marble countertops in your kitchen, you have to buy the whole slab, and then have it cut to fit. And one of the things that needs to get cut out is a space for the sink. That's what these people do; they cut the countertops for you, and then hang on to a bunch of the scraps. When I drove down there and told the guy I needed to buy a sink cutout to do chocolate work, he said "oh, you need a candy board! Yeah, come on back, I'll show you what we have." Apparently, I'm not the first person to do this.

He showed me a few stacks of the stuff. I grabbed the top piece of granite from a stack, and said "how much?" $15 later, he was helping me load it into my back seat, and explaining to me how I needed to carry it on its side, so that it didn't buckle from its own weight. This thing is about 17"x30", give or take, and about 3/4" thick. Heavy, but perfect! Now I just need to wash off all the dust and I've got me a candy board! All I need now is an infrared thermometer. Fortunately, they sell them at CostCo.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Open Recipe Format

Well, I suppose after all my ranting and raving, it's time to start putting my money where my mouth is. Since I'm sick of existing "standards" for computer recipe storage formats, I've decided to go and create my own, doing it the right way. And since so many of my friends would argue that the open source is the right way (and I certainly agree on this project), that's how I'm doing it.

So, to all those people who might be interested in getting serious with kitchen software, head on over to and send me an email. Hopefully we'll have a mailing list going soon enough, and more of a website than the message I have up there now. I have a few professional chefs that I'm trying to recruit for the project, so that we can get input from the people that would really use the software in a professional setting.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Okay, so I end up looking at a lot of weird things from time to time. Yesterday, I happened across an article on the Wikipedia about herbalism. Two sentences in this article caught my eye: "Physicians may not be the best sources of information because most have no knowledge of herbal medicine. There is little known about interactions of herbal remedies with pharmaceuticals because, contrary to pharmaceutical medicine, there is no official system, database, or hotline to report and publish adverse interactions, so even herbalists may not be aware of adverse interactions."

It got me to thinking about things. How many efforts end up like this because two concepts are so seemingly different that the few who dare to find correlation end up so horribly wrong? I'm going back to open-source here. Personally, I love the concept of open source. I also love cooking. And as previously stated, I'm not the first person to consider a combination of the two. Keeping the above quote in mind, I started thinking about the Open Source Cookbook again. This was quite the undertaking, started by an individual who is very knowledgeable about open source, but possibly only a hobbiest in cooking. He stated to me at one point that much of the information came from a well-known tome of cookery which I had personally long-since written off as a collection of half-true and largely unresearched wives' tales.

I also started thinking about recipe software. When was the last time you used a recipe program that wasn't absolutely painful to use, at least on a regular basis? The interface is either obtuse (at least for entering recipes) or largely featureless. And rarely does it take everything into account that you feel is necessary. No wonder Food Network offers on option on their site for printing recipe cards, but not for RecipeML export. I once had a chef tell me that while his company had purchased a high-end recipe management program, he never used it because it was ultimately a waste of time. Every recipe in that restaurant was kept in sheet protectors in binders, and most of them were still hand-written.

My theory is that chefs and programmers are not the same people. A good number of chefs would not consider themselves computer savvy, and the majority of programmers have never schooled in culinary arts, nor spent any significant time (if any) working in restaurants without drive-thru windows. Yet, having been a programmer and having been studied in culinary arts, I've found several similarities between the two. For instance, both tend to be used to long days. A chef may be the first to arrive at the restaurant before it opens, and not be surprised if he does not find time to go home (or even take a break) until well after closing. And doing this 6 days in a row, while possibly annoying, will also not surprise him. Let's compare to a serious debugging session, or an upcoming project deadline that may find a programmer working late for consecutive weeks, with more caffeine than blood in his veins. Between my brief forays into catering and some 14-hour Perl sessions I've involved myself in, I don't think I could personally tell you which left me feeling more exhasted and fulfilled.

I suppose this explains why Alton Brown has become so popular in geek circles of late. The man is not a programmer. He's a film major that happened to go to culinary school, and used the two talents and passions to build himself a professional career on Food Network. But he dissects food, he explains it in terms that programmers love. Cooking with Alton is almost like coding in C++; you understand a lot of the foundations that are causing your code to work (be it memory registers or brining), yet you have the advantage of working in a little bit higher-level language. It makes me wonder if a more complete combination of food and programming is emergent. Will we start to see more projects like the Open Source Cookbook and RecipeML in the near future?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Hollandaise vs Curd

So the mother-in-law calls today asking about asparagus. We were having dinner at my wife's parents' place this evening, and she wanted to know how to cook asparagus. She had never made it herself before. So I recommended steaming and hung up. And I started thinking, if they're gonna have asparagus, what would be more perfect than hollandaise, right? I figured I would just put something together when I got there.

I grabbed a lemon and some unsalted butter and headed over. When we got there, I set up a double boiler and seperated 3 eggs. I added the juice of the lemon and the 3 yolks to a metal bowl and started whisking. This is kind of delicate stuff, so I had to keep moving the bowl on the heat and off the heat again. Believe me, this stuff scrambles pretty quick. When it started to thicken, I started adding butter. And in a move that would make every one of my chefs cringe and make Alton Brown proud, I started adding whole, unmelted butter, a little at a time. When one piece was dissolved, I added another. I probably ended up adding about two Tablespoons altogether. I seasoned with a little salt, a little white pepper, and a little ground chipotle. It was a big hit.

And then I started thinking... replace the seasonings with a Tablespoon or two of sugar, add a little lemon zest, and I have lemon curd! But there is more of a difference. When hollandaise is usually made, it requires the cook to slowly drizzle in melted clarified butter. Oh, and there's a little water and/or white wine in with the lemon juice. And unlike curd, it pretty much has to be done a la minute... meaning, at the last minute. Because this stuff doesn't set up very well at all. Or rather, once set it, it doesn't stay set up for long. I wonder why they (the French, of course) decided to do hollandaise like that, and still make lemon curd in a way that will actually stay set up?

Very interesting.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sweet Taters

Never played with 'em before. Thought I'd give it a shot. According to Alton Brown, "anything a white potato can do, a sweet potato can do." So I thought I'd give it a shot. He went for mashers. I went for hash browns. We both decided to start by cubing (1/2" cubes) and steaming (if you check my Red Butter post). Ingredients were simple, 1 long sweet potato, 1/2 large red bell pepper, 5 strips of bacon. While the potatoes steamed, I cut the bacon into about 3/4" pieces and fried till crispy. I drained most of the fat, moved the bacon pieces to a towel to drain, and added the sweet potatoes, the red bell pepper (1/4" cubes) and a couple pinches of salt. I kept tossing them on high heat, adding a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a couple of teaspoons of chipotle Tobasco. When they started to get nice and crusty on the outside, I added a shake of garlic powder, a couple of shakes each of onion powder and chile powder and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Finally I added the bacon back in to warm it up, and a couple of ounces of chicken stock. It was absorbed into the pototoes pretty quick. I served, of course, with with a sprinkle of cheddar. Okay, lots of cheddar. I like cheddar.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Lemon Curd

Ever feel like your vascular system is just too healthy? Well, I have the solution! This is one of many, but the one that I went with this weekend. I had three extra egg yolks, and I would have felt bad just throwing them away. So I prepared a double boiler and an ice water bath. I put the three egg yolks in a bowl with about an ounce of butter, the juice and zest of one lemon, and probably about 2 to 3 Tablespoons worth of baker's (superfine) sugar. I'm sure regular granulated sugar would be fine, you'll just have to keep an eye on the flavor like I did. Put the bowl over water at a rolling boil and start whisking. Don't stop! As soon as that bowl hits the heat, you're committed. Make sure you keep it all moving so that it doesn't scramble on you, and keep scraping the sides especially with the whisk. When it starts to tighten up into a nice little gel, move that bowl into another bowl full of ice water. You can slow down, but I wouldn't stop until it reaches about room temperature. Keep in mind that it will thicken as it cools. Refrigerate and use within a few days. My favorite is still toast, but hey, do what you want. Toast, crepes, it's all good.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Food Myths

Okay, this is the sort of thing that really just burns me up (no pun intended). It's not that his information is incorrect. Some of it actually is correct. What gets me is that he claims that "all of the information on this page has been carefully researched". Let's cover a few points that could have been a little bit more carefully researched; possibly by somebody that's actually spend some reasonable amount of time in a kitchen, such as a chef or maybe even a cooking school student.

Gas stoves are better than electric

Nice little blanket statement there. I do appreciate that he breaks it down. However, I have a bone to pick on the whole simmering bit. Unless you have a heat diffuser, electric coils (yes, even the new ones) are lousy at even heat distribution. Gas ain't perfect either, but I've found that as long as your stove is working reasonably close to how it was intended, gas does seem to provide a more even heat source. Not perfect, and if you need low and slow heat, possibly not as easy... but certainly more even. For the record, as a cook who has spend considerable amounts of time with gas, electric and induction burners, given the choice, i would go with the gas stove 9 times out of 10. And that 1 out of 10? Only because induction burners are more popular with the fire marshall for cooking demos than their gas cousins. Plus, I've made a really killer beurre rouge with an induction burner.

You must scald milk before using it in certain recipes

Apparently, he's referring to killing bacteria. And as far as that point goes, it would have been nice if he'd been a little more accurate on his heading. Look, if you're willing to drink it from the carton like that, I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to cook like that. As far as scalding other dairy products, have you ever tried to make chocolate ganache without scalding the cream? It's a very simple procedure: you scald the cream, you pour it on the chocolate, you let it sit so that the heat can work its way into the chocolate, and then you stir it all together.

Myths about dried beans

The key phrase here is: "There's no reason not to start cooking dry beans directly as long as you have the time to simmer them long enough." That's a tricky sentence. And in a sense, it comes down to preferences. Unless you've spent your whole life eating garbage and don't know any better (this is par for much of America), you will probably prefer the quality of beans that have been properly soaked first. For most people, there is a noticeable difference.

Stock is made from bones, broth is made from meat

The point that he eventually makes is that the terms "stock" and "broth" are interchangeable. If he tried to tell any serious chef that, he would doubtless end up unhappy (and probably injured, chefs can be touchy sometimes) with the results. Let's get something straight: broth is usually made from stock. You can use meat in making either one, but stock does rely on the presence of bones. Without bones, you can't get collagen. Without collagen, you don't have stock. And unless you're buying it from the store, stock is going to be unseasoned. Unsalted. Bland. It's a base, used for making things like soups, stews, broths, and a world of other foods. Now, if you buy your stock from the store in a box or a can, you've really entered an entirely different world. The manufacturers have to add salt in order to preserve it. At this point, what you're really buying is a broth that (probably) hasn't been oversalted for once. It might even be undersalted, for a broth. It's made from stock, but it's not really stock anymore. Woe unto he (or she) that actually believes these two are completely interchangeable. Try this little experiment: go to the store, buy a box/can of broth and a box/can of stock. Heat up a bowl of each and do a little taste test. You might be able to eat/drink the broth as a soup. I don't think you'd be happy doing the same with the stock.

It's hard to decide upon a favorite part of this page, but one candidate would be the blanket "False" logos splattered all over the page. No logos that say "True", or maybe even "Part True/Part False", as many of his myths end up being. Another candidate can be found at the top of the page: "I certainly do not claim to be infallible but I do try hard to present accurate, verifiable information."

Well, I'm sorry, but you need to try a little harder next time.

Easiest Spanish Rice... Ever.

I don't know how authentic it is, but it's dang good. Dang good. Start with a wee bit of veggie oil, maybe a teaspoon or so, just enough to coat a cup of long-grain rice. Cook together on medium-high heat until it gets a little toasty, and add a cup of salsa and a cup and a half of chicken broth. Don't bother salting it, the broth and the salsa have plenty of salt already. Crank it to high and bring it to a boil. Give it one last stir, cover (a tight lid is best, but I've used foil in a pinch), and drop to low. Let it sit for 20 minutes, and then turn off the heat. Leave it for another 10 minutes before you open it up. Fluff and serve.

Bonus tips! Instead of cooking in oil, go ahead and use butter. Or, for an other-worldly flavor, slice 3 or 4 strips of bacon into smallish pieces (1/2" or so), fry till almost crispy, drain a little of the fat, and then add the rice. The rice should be ready for the liquids about the same time the bacon really gets crispy. And if you're really looking for a treat, stir in a little shredded cheddar while it's still hot.

The standard ratio for cooking long-grain rice is 1 part rice (by volume) to 2 parts liquid, by volume. If I were making a classic pilaf in cooking school, I might sweat a few veggies in butter before adding the rice. And instead of adding water, I would probably add chicken stock, and maybe even a couple of threads of saffron just for that last bit of elegance. It would make a pretty decent, if somewhat boring pilaf.

Well, it turns out you can't skimp on the water. You might be able to cook rice perfectly well in a smaller amount, but I'm willing to be it just won't be as good. But why did I only use 1 1/2 cups of chicken broth? Because the cup of salsa was really just already cooked veggies, suspended in a really flavorful liquid. I figure in the end it really comes out to 2 cups of liquid, plus maybe a 1/2 cup of veggies.

As for the fat, this is one of those cases where fat is fat. As far as the physics are concerned, you can use whatever fat you want. I understand pork fat might be a little more traditional where they actually make things like Spanish rice, and with the bacon you've got that covered. But butter tastes pretty good too. I'm trying to keep things a little bit healthier, so I just use a nice, neutral veggie oil. And then I like to ruin the health benefits and add a little cheddar. Hey, you have your comfort foods, and I have mine.

Friday, April 7, 2006

Is Open Source right for everything?

Okay, for those less technical people who read my blog, let me give you a quick explanation. Open source is a concept that started with the software community. Usually, a developer (or group of developers) sees a need for a piece of software, and starts working on it. Then (s)he puts the source code up for other people to look at, so that they can use it and even offer improvements on their own. This has developed into a community that has released countless pieces of free software that if you're not happy with, you have the freedom to change it. Well, assuming you know how, of course. I have personally been a big fan of open source software for years, long before I dropped out of the tech world for cooking school, and then dropped out of that world to go tech again.

A few months ago, Harley introduced me to the Open Source Cookbook. Now, initially I liked the idea. It's a free cookbook that you can send to anyone for free, and you can do anything you want to any of the recipes, right? Wait a minute... don't we already have something like that? It's called... (drum roll...) The Internet. (Fanfare!) Seriously, there's thousands, no, millions of recipes out there. If you want to send one to somebody, you just shoot them off a link. If you want to make a change, guess what! Nobody cares! Unless of course it's a bad change and you try to feed the results to somebody.

Now, this cookbook doesn't just offer recipes. It also offers tips and tricks, and explains a few basics, such as flour and aluminum foil. It by no means offers a comprehensive discussion of any of these pieces of "equipment", and even has the occassional unverified wives' tale woven in. Now, if you really want a detailed discussion, you could head over to the Wikipedia and look up their article about flour. Boy howdy, it's detailed. And yet, as one who really likes to get inside things and tinker around, it seems to lack. I like to tinker around with the source code, in the kitchen as well as at the computer. I want to read about gluten formation, and how much regular flour I can swap out for another ingredient such as whole wheat flour, or maybe almond flour or amaranth flour. I want details.

Another favorite example of mine is lasagna. The Wikipedia article breaks it down nicely: alternating layers of sauce, cheese and noodles. It even offers some discussion, including a little bit of history, and links to lasagna recipes. That's not good enough for me. I want to know about the traditional methods, such as mixing mozarella, ricotta and Parmesan with a single chicken egg and a bit of parsley, and using that for the cheese layers. I want to know about the types of dishes that lasagna is usually baked in. I want to know about how the Italians love to use a good tomatoey meat sauce, but have been known in some areas to use pesto sauce over fresh, hot noodles, and completely abandon the bakeware altogether. I want to read about fusion versions, like using corn tortillas instead of noodles, beans and corn and salsa instead of meat sauce, and cheddar and jack cheeses instead of mozarella and such. I even had a crazy idea last night for a dessert pasta, mixing cocoa powder and confectioners sugar into fresh pasta dough, using cream cheese and/or maybe mascarpone for the cheese, and maybe some kind of chocolate raspberry sauce instead of red sauce.

Is the Wikipedia really the right place for that kind of discussion? For that kind of detail? Is a simple Word document really big enough to cover everything in my desired level of detail? I'm thinking a wiki of some sort would be very appropriate, with some kind of discussion forums to decide what kinds of information is most appropriate for the article. But I'm also thinking I'm not the smartest guy in the world, and so I'm looking for opinions. In a rare act of opening myself to criticism, I'm going to turn on blog comments for this post. Please, let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Red Lobstah

Before I tell my story, I'm going to take a moment and, as the king of rash generalizations, divide the restaurant world into three categories: fast food, casual dining, and fine dining. Fast food involves places like Wendy's, Arbys and McEvil. If you order before you sit down, or from a window in the side of a building, we'll call it fast food. If you sit down, and then you order, from a real life waitor/waitress that expects a tip, then you've moved up to casual dining. When the kids' menu disappears, you have to make reservations, and the chef either has a TV show or cookbook out, or hangs out with chefs that do, then you've moved up to fine dining. Why am I tell you this? So that you don't try and rate Red Lobster and The Chef's Table on the same scale, or assume that I am doing so.

That said, my wife and I went to Red Lobster last night. Unless my parents know something I don't, I have never been there before, ever. The waitor was shocked. Shocked! I think my wife was a little surprised too. But it was a special occassion for her, and I wanted to take her someplace that I knew she would enjoy, even if it was seafood. It was an interesting experience.

When I was in cooking school, my fellow students had a certain disdain for restaurant chains. I'm not talking Wendys or McEvil, here. In fact, one guy was an assistant manager at McEvil for most of his school experience. I'm not sure of the logic here, but I'm going to take a stab at it. Fast food is fast food. They don't try to pretend to be anything else. I'm going to guess that my fellow cheflings see casual dining as trying to be fine dining, without really fooling anybody. These people were comparing Chile's to Blue Ginger, and Olive Garden to Babbo. Of course Blue Ginger is better than Chile's. Most appetizers at Blue Ginger cost more than most entrées at Chile's. And the chef at Blue Ginger has been on Food Network for years. It's not a fair comparison.

Red Lobter has seafood. They have a lot of seafood. A good bit of it is breaded and deep fried. I don't care for most seafood, but I do know that a deep fryer can make just about anything taste good. In my case, it made 3 different kinds of shrimp taste really good. And of course, they had cocktail sauce standing by to make sure that it didn't taste too good. Let's face it, only once have I had cocktail sauce that wasn't absolutely wretched, and that was from a fellow chefling in cooking school that quite honestly, had a gift. If I can manage to wrestle his recipe from him, I'll post it here sometime. The stuff I had lasted two whole seconds before making its way to the other side of the table, to be ignored indefinitely. However, they did give me some kind of piña colada sauce that was actually pretty stellar. It was meant for the coconut shrimp, but it went well with everything else too.

Our dinners came with salads. We had a choice between a Ceasar salad and a house salad. My wife went with a little Ceasar, and I went for the house. Almost every time I order a salad, I am reminded of why I have hated salads for a good majority of my life, and why so many guys also hate salads. My salad consisted of a lump of iceberg lettuce, scattered with the occasional carrot or red cabbage sliver, topped with two slices of tomato, two slices of cucumber, a couple of rings of red onion, and a few croutons. There is no imagination at work here. There's barely even flavor. In the consumer's quest for actual flavor, salads like these are what fuel the salad dressing industry. In culinary terms alone, iceberg lettuce has only one thing going for it: crunch. You can't crunch into spinach. You can't crunch into leaf lettuce, unless you leave the stem in. But, by golly, you can crunch into iceberg lettuce! Bonus for restaurants: it's cheap, easy to work with, and that's what everybody expects. Scatter in some carrot and red cabbage slivers, and suddenly you can pretend you're gourmet! It's sad, really.

We also got some kind of cheesy New England biscuits. I'm not even going to try and think of anything bad to say about these. There isn't anything. They're soft, crumbly, cheesy, flavorful. In the unlikely event that they last long enough to get hard, I'm sure you could play hockey with them. And I like hockey, gosh darn it!

Our waitor was cool. He was on time with everything. He didn't pester us, but he catered to our needs. He was pretty friendly too, even if he probably did forget us the moment we left. The waitress I saw working our area as well looked like she was no different. Kudos to the wait staff! Let's face it, Red Lobster isn't going to be competing with Emeril anytime soon. But if you're looking for good service and above-average seafood (and below-average salad), and don't mind paying a little extra, I think you could certainly do much worse.

Monday, April 3, 2006

The World's Hottest Chile

...or "chilli", as the Brits apparently spell it. Dang Brits. It's like they think they invented the English language or something.

Just a quick review: the heat of chiles is rated via using Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Bell peppers are rated around 0 - 300 SHU. Jalapeños are closer to 2,500 SHU. The previously hottest chile on record was the Red Savina habañero, at 577,000 SHU. And the great Dorset Naga checks in at 923,000 SHU. Check out the article at:,,2-2113507,00.html

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Quick Snack

This is a quick one. Only took a few minutes, in fact. The ingredients: 4 wide slices of bread (we used a multigrain bread from CostCo), about 1/3 stick of butter, maybe 2 or 3 Tablespoons of finely grated hard cheese (we used Lincolnshire poacher, you may want to stick with Parmesan) and a few shakes of your seasoning of choice (we went out on a limb and used a couple shakes of cinnamon and a few shakes of chile powder).

Melt the butter in a frying pan. While that's happening, cut the crust off the bread, and then cut the bread into strips. Shake a bit of seasoning into the butter, swirl it around a little bit, just to mix it all together. Then dip one side of the bread strips into the butter, and quickly flip them over onto a baking sheet. You don't want to leave the bread in the butter for too long, or else the bread will soak up too much butter and get all greasy and nasty. Once you've got all your bread coated on one side, sprinkle with a bit of hard cheese and put it all under the broiler. Toast until golden, brown and delicious. Let cool for a moment before serving.

Now, I know my version sounds crazy. Cinnamon? Lincolnshire poacher? Yes, I have things like Lincolnshire poacher laying around. So sue me. Cinnamon? We went light on this one. It's just one of those things that you don't expect, and it kind of works with the chile powder. If you still think I'm crazy, take a look at the ingredients for Chinese five spice some time and wonder a moment about how such a thing would ever come together in the first place, much less find its way into a beef stir-fry.

Red Butter

No, not a new dairy fad. My new favorite potato! So far I've made oven fries, mashed potatoes, even used them in a gordita filling. This morning, I thought I'd try them out as hashbrowns (the cubed kind, not the shredded kind), using the opportunity to test drive my shiny new steamer basket.

See, here's the problem. Have you ever tried to make hashbrowns using real, fresh potatoes? The outside gets all crispy and tasty looking, while the inside stays all crispy and raw. Back when me pa used to teach me how to cook, we used good old frozen, southern style potatoes. Those always worked out really well. Why not fresh potatoes? Well, I'll tell ya. The frozen taters that we used to buy were par-cooked. They cooked 'em halfway, froze 'em, and shipped 'em. So by the time they got to our frying pan, they needed only to be thawed and crisped up.

So obviously, what I needed was a way to par-cook them, to get them to that point, before they even hit my frying pan. I could bake them, and that would dry them out, concentrate the flavors, and make them stick to the pan or the pan liner, plus they might still get browned. I could microwave 'em, that would certainly be a healthy solution that would get at least half of 'em, or I could just pan fry 'em on REALLY low heat for a while, hope they didn't overbrown, and well, be where I was at before. Or... OR! Or I could play with my new kitchen equipment, namely, my steamer basket.

Two small red butter potatoes, sliced into 1/4" cubes were placed in the basket in a pot with an inch or so of water on the bottom, and covered. I steamed until fork tender, about 10 minutes. In truth, they were just about ready to fall apart, but they didn't look it. I added to an lightly oiled non-stick frying pan on medium-high heat, added a pinch of Kosher salt, and tossed frequently, giving it a light spray with cooking spray on each toss. I tried not to stir; these things were on the verge of falling apart, and I wanted 'em to crisp up and get a little more stable before that happened. When they started looking a little browned, I crumbled in about 1/4 cup of ground beef, with another pinch of salt, and kept tossing. The idea was to keep everything moving so that it all got evenly browned. After a moment, I added a couple of splashes of Worcestershire sauce, a splash of chipotle Tobasco, a couple shakes of southwest seasoning, and a few grinds of black pepper. Keep tossing. I finished with about 1/3 cup of salsa and kept tossing, until the liquid was pretty much evaporated and what was left clung to everything like a tasty coat of latin goodness. Plated and topped with a bit of shredded cheddar, it was just about the perfect size for my wife and me.

The Chef's Table

"Don't make me go back to Utah! Have you seen what the culinary situation is like there?" Such was the cry of one worried cook in Fox's untimely cancelled television program, Kitchen Confidential.

On April 1, 2005, following a viewing of the John Cusack classic High Fidelity, I bent on one knee and asked my then girlfriend to marry me. A fortunate lapse in judgement caused her to say yes (maybe it's her kind of prolonged April Fools joke), and we have been happily married since September. Yesterday, to commemerate the occassion, we visited The Chef's Table, currently rated as one of Utah's top 10 dining establishments.

While I have dined there before, this was my wife's first visit. We parked my beautiful Toyota Ferrolla next to a shiny red Corvette and ambled past the Mercedes and Beemers into the restaurant. There was a woman holding the door open, who smiled us into the restaurant and offered to take our coats. The hostess found our reservation and we were led our table, the smiling woman congratulating us on our celebration and setting us up for a wonderful evening.

She pulled out my wife's chair for her and as we sat, a menu was promptly provided. A cornocopia of textbook selections awaited us, and she decided to go for a mushroom gorgonzola beef tenderloin, and I with a white marbled pork tenderloin. We started with crabcakes as an appetizer. I am reminded of Chef Holihan in culinary school decrying the overuse of balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. They seem to have become such staples amongst cooks now that they've become a culinary cliché. And the good chef that designed our dishes apparently loves clichés. My wife refused to eat more than one such endrenched crabcake, claiming that she could not taste anything over the balsamic. I finished them off, enjoying the soft texture, and mostly succeeding in ignoring the vinegary overload.

While I wish I could write off the appetizer as the only such dish, the arrival of my soup and her salad belied any such desire. Again, the chef's fondness for balsamic embraced my wife's otherwise enjoyable house salad. My french onion soup was intense, and I quickly overcame my disappointment in the already soggy cheese crouton floating in its murky depths. Unfortunately, the soup was as rich as the cars outside, and I was unable to finish it. We awaited our entrées anxiously.

As a possible homage to the few scattered trees in the desert Utah, our entrées were each graced with a sprig of rosemary rising from the otherwise simple, but creamily enjoyable mashed potatoes in the middle of our plates. While beautifully sauced meat lined one side of the plate, leaning against the starchy mound, overly crunchy par-cooked carrots and cucumber, and admittedly well-cooked asparagus adorned the other. My pork was amongst the best I've had, and my wife seemed to thoroughly enjoy what beef she did not have boxed to finish at home. Following what dishes they did, I expected my meat to exhibit the tough and dry texture so common in pork these days, and yet it was moist and flavorful. I can only imagine my wife's beef was also so well-attended to.

As a former baker, I admittedly have a passion for desserts. My wife's créme brulée and my hazelnut "dome" (really a pyramid) did not disappoint. I've oft decried America's love of a créme brulée that rather that being bruléed (French for "burned") is indeed only golden brown, the good chef ensured that his offering was indeed properly darkened to just the right degree. The satisfying snap of breaking the surface revealed to her a creamy interior which she claimed to be so light as to delightfully offset the rest of the meal. Indeed, my own dessert was inspirational, a smooth pyramid of chocolatey hazelnut goodness topping a round of chewy brownie, garnished simply with a blackberry and petite mint leaflet, and a wonderfully fruity raspberry sauce underneath that I could not get enough of. The bill was one to make a Rockefeller proud, and was fortunately offset by a gift certificate from a friend.

As we waited for my wife's coat, we met the chef chatting with the hostess. He was inordinately friendly, and I was torn between discussing the dishes of the evening and holding my peace. We bid him a good evening as he did us, as we exited to the much emptier parking lot, the Corvette's presence still graced my car's own. My dreams that night were graced by Chef Holihan in her usual splendor, running a combination auto part/gourmet drinks bar, frequented by old wannabe muscle cars driven by overzealous teenagers. While we did not discuss vinegars and oils, she did chide me good-heartedly over the Shirley Temples I ordered for my wife and me. Utah, I hope that one day we can make Chef Holihan proud. But I'm afraid that day is still forthcoming.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

The baklava saga continues

Those who know me know that I tend to make baklava for special occassions. And last night was certainly one of those. My dear friend Natalie (not my wife, different Natalie) was born on April Fools Day, so there was a surprise party for her. Plus, she just got accepted to a PhD program in South Carolina. And, as it turns out, one of her all-time favorite dishes is baklava. So one had to be made. Unfortunately, I ended up being in a hurry, but if there's one thing I've managed to figure out how to work fast, it's phyllo dough.

The Athens brand that's so common comes with two rolls of dough, and one roll has the perfect amount for a baklava in a 13x9 Pyrex dish. I made a crushed nut mixture of equal parts walnuts, pecans and almonds... for a total of probably about 2 1/2 to 3 cups of crushed nuts. I also made a spice mixture of probably about a cup of sugar, a Tablespoon of ground cinnamon, a quarter teaspoon of ground allspice, and a pinch each of ground cloves and ground nutmeg.

Without getting into the nitty gritty of working with phyllo, I did a bottom layer of 6 sheets, each brushed with a combination of melted butter and Greek extra virgin olive oil (normally, I would just use butter, one stick is usually the perfect amount). I sprinkled just enough of the spice mixture to lightly coat, and then about a third of the nut mixture. Then I did a layer of 5 phyllo sheets, and repeated, until I had 3 nut layers and a phyllo layer on top. Then I cut the unbaked baklava into 3 x 4 squares, and then cut the squares into triangles. Into a preheated 350F oven until GBD (golded, brown and delicious, about 30 minutes, turning once).

While that baked, I combined 3/4 cup of white sugar, 1/2 cup of water, the zest and juice of a lemon and an orange, a cinnamon stick and 6 whole cloves in a saucepan, and brought to a simmer. After about 10 minutes, I added about 1/3 cup of honey and let simmer for another 5 minutes. Then I strained into a bowl and waited for the baklava to finish baking. As soon as the baklava came out, I poured the liquid over it, until it just looked wet. When you do this, it sizzles. A lot. Don't worry, it's all good. I ended up with plenty of reserve, maybe I'll use it as a base for wassail. Let rest for at least half an hour before serving.

This recipe was a bit of a departure from my norm. I don't usually use the juice from the lemon and the orange, but what was I supposed to do after adding just the zest? Let them rot in my fridge? I also usually use more white sugar, more water, and less honey. But this ended up being probably my best baklava to date, so I'm happy with it.