Monday, July 31, 2006


I grilled up some chicken last night, and of course I had to brine it. The recipe for the brine was as follows:

1 cup pineapple juice
2 tablespoons tamari
1 teaspoon worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke
1 teaspoon chipotle Tabasco

Now, tamari is kind of like soy sauce, but a lot more. It's thicker, richer, has a deeper flavor, and way more salt. And believe me, soy sauce is salty enough as it is. If you weren't planning on using such a salty ingredient, you would dissolve a little salt in here instead. A couple of tablespoons of Kosher salt would be fine, but you would have to heat up the liquid in order to get the salt to dissolve. As it was, I probably should have added a little more salt to this. Problem is, then I would have to cool the brine again before using it.

Since my salt content was so low (for a brine), I figured a good amount of time would be about an hour to an hour and a half. I put two chicken breats in it and put it in the bottom of the fridge.
When it was time to grill, I pulled the meat out and tossed it in just enough oil to cover, along with a generous sprinkle of chile powder and smoked paprika. Why use liquid smoke and smoked parika if I'm going to be grilling it? Because I was using my indoor grill. I got some good looking grill marks going on the meat, and then finished it in the toaster oven. I cooked it to an internal temp of 162F, and then let it rest, which carried the heat up to 165F.

I also grilled up some pineapple chunks, just enough to get grill marks, and then sliced up the chicken. It was juicy and flavorful, just as expected. See what brining does? Since the spices I added will only affect the flavor on the outside, I used the brine to infuse flavors on the inside. I added the chicken and pineapple to some whole grain tortillas with some cheddar, and then closed it up like a quesadilla and grilled just long enough to melt the cheese. I served with some kind of Hawaiian-like BBQ sauce I had in the fridge, and a sprinkling of a little more cheese and smoked paprika.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lavender: A Little Goes a Long Way

...And a lot goes way too far. I decided to try out lavender ice cream. A recipe search on Google revealed that a lot of people have actually made quite a few variations of honey lavender ice cream. It sounded like a good idea, so I decided to try it out, even though I'm not a really huge fan of honey.

Now, for the amount of ice cream I usually make, it looked like people were using 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup of lavender. I was going to go with 1/4 cup, and at the last minute, I bumped it up to 1/2 cup. Cold masks flavor, and I wasn't planning on lavender having a huge amount of flavor, so I decided the extra amount would be needed. I also noticed that instead of my 3/4 cup sugar, people were going with 1/4 cup sugar plus 1/3 cup honey. Makes sense to me: honey is more dense than granulated sugar, so the smaller amount would probably just about even out. So, ingredients were as follows:

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
2 tablespoons stabilizer
4 oz cream cheese, softened
6 egg yolks
pinch salt
1/2 cup dried lavender

I put it together via the curd method that I've grown so fond of, and let it chill. It tasted pretty good so far. A good bit of lavender flavor, with a strong honey finish. A couple of hours later, Daphne called. She's a good friend from cooking school that I've managed to keep in touch with. I told her about my creation that was currently aging in the fridge, and she warned me that too much lavender could get bitter. Um. Oops.

Today I strained out the lavender petals and churned it in the ice cream maker. As I was putting it in the freezer, I couldn't resist a taste. Whoa! It was such a lavender overload, that it did actually taste bitter, especially the aftertaste. Where I was a little worried from the initial taste that the honey would overpower the lavender, there was no honey flavor left.

I think that if I dropped the lavender flavor down to 1/4 cup or less, it would be a pretty good ice cream. I'm guessing at the moment that 3 tablespoons would be a good compromise. But now you and I have both been warned, go easy on the lavender.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Salt, Water and Phosphates

Welcome to my 100th post! To celebrate, I'm going to defend McDonalds for once. Okay, not exactly. But I couldn't help but notice Arby's current advertising campaign. It features a guy in a room with what looks like a bunch of executives, with the golden arches logo on the wall. The guy is trying to convince the execs that McDonalds needs to stop putting salt, water and phosphates into their chicken and start serving all-natural chicken.

Well, I'm all for all-natural. And I'm not saying I'm a big fan of phosphates. But the salt and water, I'm not exactly complaining about. See, there's this beautiful thing that was all the rage in the culinary world a couple of years ago called "brining". The biggest proponent was and still is Alton Brown, who uses it all the time. What is brining? Well, a brine refers to salt water. Technically, those are the only two ingredients necessary. But there's a lot more to it than that.

If you salt meat and let it sit for a while, what happens? Depending on how much salt and time you have, the salt will eventually start to pull moisture out of the meat. But that's not the whole story. In order for salt to pull out that moisture, it actually has to penetrate the meat. And it doesn't all come out when it's done. In contrast, if you were to stick a hunk of meat in some water, some of the water would likely get into the meat, but not a whole lot of it. It might get waterlogged, but there wouldn't be anything there to keep the water in.

Now, if you mix salt with water and then dunk some meat in it, something interesting happens. The salt gets into the meat like before, but it takes some of the water with it, and doesn't let go of it very easily. You see, now there's more moisture on the outside than the inside. There's also more salt on the outside than the inside, mostly because there's basically no salt on the inside. Now, all the poor meat wants to do is achieve equilibrium. It wants to be the same inside and out. So it lets salt in, along with as much liquid as the salt can take with it. If you leave the meat in there long enough, it would probably take in as high of a concentration as the water around it.

The advantage of this is that when the meat cooks, the salt will still want to hang onto that water. I have actually had pork cooked almost to the texture of shoe leather (not quite, but you know what I mean), that was still moist because it had been properly brined, if not properly cooked. Another really cool byproduct is that since the meat now has a decent amount of salt, and salt is known for its preservative powers, the meat has just a little bit better shelf life. If one were to add phosphates, also known for preservative powers, then you would have a hunk of meat that was moist, even when overcooked, and had a killer shelf life. No wonder McDonalds adds salt, water and phosphates! I doubt they brine their meat, though. With the 30% salt, water and phosphates the commercial claims, they probably inject it. But that's for another post.

Back to brining. Let's say you take that brining solution and make some changes. First of all, no phosphates. If they add any flavor, then I'm sure it's not the best. And instead of using water, let's use a more flavorful liquid. Let's say vegetable broth. Now a humble hunk of chicken is moist, well seasoned, and has just a little extra flavor, as if it had been roasted on a bed of vegetables. If you want more flavor, use a more highly concentrated flavorful liquid. If you want more salt, leave your meat in the brine longer.

I'm not saying that I'm going to head down to the clown shop and pick up a McChicken sandwich. But I'm also definitely not heading to Arbys for one anytime soon either. I'm going to buy my own chicken, brine it myself, cook it myself, and enjoy it myself or with friends. But I will have a little more salt and water than Arbys "100% natural chicken". And it'll taste 100 times better too.

Emeril's Fish House

Well, our stay in Vegas has ended, and we're back home. But I feel it my duty to report on our final meal in town: Emeril's Fish House. Now, it seems everyone's heard of Emeril. Even the Sopranos have mentioned him on their show. He has several restaurants now, and is supposed to be one of the greatest chefs ever. Following the success of our visit to Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, I knew we had to check out Emeril.

Emeril's Fish House was located at the MGM Grand Studio walk, which is an odd sort of food court. There's the actual food court area, with McIcky's, Haagan Daas, Nathan's Hot Dogs and, of course, Starbucks. And then all around it are restaurants which look like they won't even talk to you unless you're dressed up. Most, if not all of them have a view of the hallway, behind the glass walls that surround them. I called the concierge from our room and made reservations, and two and a half hours later, showed up in my Oingo Boingo tshirt, frayed jeans and sandals. The first thing I noticed was that almost everyone we saw on the staff looked like transplants from Boston. You know how certain areas just have something about the people, a timelessness about the way they dress that never really changes, no matter how many styles, fads and decades pass? These people looked like they were from Boston. I felt a little homesick for New England.

When we were seated, I noticed that the plates had a big old Emeril's Fish House logo on them. As soon as our drinks (water) were brought, those plates were removed, as they were apparently only for show. We were seated at a table for two, right between two other tables for two that both looked like they had couples there for special occassions. They were casual dressy, just like everyone else, and trying not to look at us or the way we were dressed, just like everyone else. It made me laugh inside.

My wife ordered New England clam chowder and a BLT salad, and I ordered a lobster bisque and crab cakes. The waiter seemed surprised that we would only be ordering soups and salads for our entire meals, but let's face it, Emeril's is not cheap and well, we were still kind of full from the Mesa grill. My wife told me that the clam chowder was good, but she's had better in Price, Utah (not the best review, I suppose). My lobster bisque was in fact the best bisque I've ever had, but then, I've not had many bisques. It was smooth and velvety, had a very complex flavor, and was of course pretty spicy. Maybe just a tad too spicy for bisque, but I enjoyed it.

Our salads came, and I was glad we were still so full from Bobby's place. The salads were small. My wife's was served on a rectangle plate, partitioned into two spaces. On one side was a baby spinach salad tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette. The top leaf had a layer of garlic under it. The other side looked like a cream cheese (probably goat cheese) terrine with bacon and tomato on it. She said it was pretty okay. My salad included a few bitter baby greens and goat cheese crumbles, and two crab cakes. Oh, and three orange segments. The crab cakes were good, and again, pretty spicy. They were better when eated with the orange segments. The salad wasn't worth more than a bite. It was all very pretty though, and nobody seemed surprised when they saw my flash go off. It almost seemed expected.

My wife informed me a couple of times during the meal that she thought that Bobby's place was much better. I'd have to agree with her. Still, the staff was polite, if not friendly, and service was fast. I also noticed that when they served a table, all the plates not only arrived at the same time, but were placed in front of the people all at the same time. It almost looked choreographed when I saw it happen at other tables, as well as our own. I had heard about this, and was most impressed when I saw it in action. Unfortunately, good service does not make up for a so-so meal, especially when said meal ends up costing $50. Fortunately, this was the meal that we applied the hotel's $25 discount to. I felt much better to only pay $25 for our food, even if that still seemed like a little much.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Mesa Grill

Apparently, I have confused some people. Yes, my wife and I are in Vegas at the moment. Call it a belated honeymoon. Still, I'm excited to be able to eat at some of the restaurants that I've been reading about, and I feel it my intrinsic duty to report on them.

My wife wanted to visit the Forum Shops at Ceasar's Palace, so we hopped the monorail and headed on over. On our way to the monorail, I saw something that I had seen on TV, on a show that I even went so far as to tape: Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill. I informed my wife that we had to go there for lunch, as soon as we were done at the Forum Shops. Sometime around noon, we headed on over.

Now, this is a nice looking place. Unlike the seating at Wolfy's place, which was open to the casino and thus extremely loud, this place is mostly enclosed with clear and colored panels. As we walked in, the hostess asked if we would be dining with them for lunch. We said yes, and she asked if we needed a table for two. This impressed my wife. Normally when we eat out, the host or hostess starts the conversation by asking "table for two?" Prefacing that with "will you be dining with us?" seemed much more elagant to her.

As we walked to our table, we passed a row of waiters eagerly awaiting the chance to serve. They were well-dressed and clean. As we sat down, our waiter approached to ask for our drink order. He excitedly asked if we had seen Bobby Flay on TV. Dear readers, I should tell you now: I am a jerk. I feigned ignorance. I asked who he was, acted surprised that he was a TV chef, the whole bit. I felt kind of bad, because the waiter seemed a little deflated by that. When he came back, my wife asked him more about this "Bobby, um, what was it? Flay?" That seemed to cheer him up a little, and I told us about some of the people that had come because they had seen Bobby on TV.

The menu was very Southwestern, so of course, I wanted to order at least half of it. It was also very reasonably priced, at least for the area, with appetizers hanging around the $10-15 range, and entrees not much above that. My wife ordered a spicy pork sandwich while I ordered black bean chicken quesadillas. Those of you that know me know that I generally hate avocados, which were advertised as part of my dish, but I managed to stop myself just in time from asking to have them left out. Why would I not ask them to leave off an ingredient that I know I'm probably not going to like? I believe that part of the experience of dining out at a nice place involves trusting the chef to take care of you. That's their job, after all.

We were brought bread and butter, just like at Wolfy's place. Why did I not mention that in my review of Wolfy's place? Because Wolfy's bread was largely flavorless. It looked like it would be interesting, but the texture was boring and there was so little flavor, I couldn't tell you what kind at actually was. This was not the case with Bobby's bread. When they gave it to us, they took the time to explain to us that we had a ciabatta and a raisin bread with sesame seeds. We soon discovered that we also had spicy corn muffins, half yellow corn, half blue corn. They were all fabulous. The ciabatta had a fantastic sourdough flavor, a nice hard chewy crust and a nice soft chewy inside. The raisin sesame bread was a little more flavorful than I expected, much better than its visual doppleganger from last night. The corn muffins were spicy, and if they had any gluten at all, it wasn't much. They were crumbly and tasty, and I was a little frustrated that I couldn't get the whole thing in my mouth without half of it falling out in crumbs.

When the food arrived, it looked awesome. I had my camera out to take photos, and the waiter asked if we wanted our picture taken from the second story of the rotisserie. I handed him my camera and he went up and took our picture. I liked that my wife's and my plates were different. Her sandwich arrived on a long, textured glass tray, complete with fries stacked inside a monkey dish. My quesadilla was a little smaller than I expected, just about a perfect size for an appetizer. It arrived on a round, white plate. I love using different plates for different dishes. I think that properly done, they can really enhance the appearance of the dish, and overall impression of the meal. I tasted one of my wife's fries, and they were awesome. Not much different than your standard fry, except that they were spiced with some kind of chile powder, and seemed to have some sort of chopped green herb on them as well. She let me take a bit of her sandwich, and it was stellar. Spicy, but not so much that it distracted from the flavor of everything else. It seemed to have little fingers of pork, rather than a huge flavorless hunk of meat, or pulled pork, which might not have added the right texture for this sandwich.

My quesadilla was killer. It was made with smallish tortillas, maybe 6 or 7 inches across, and cut into quarters. Each slice had a mound of some sort of avocado mixture on top, with what looked like a small piece of fried plantain on top. The tortillas were spiced like the fries, not so much that it distraced, but enough that it added to the appearace, and made the flavor seem to dance on my tongue. There seemed to be a couple of lined of habanero sauce across the sides, which were flavorful, but not at all hot. In fact, like the avocado, the orange pepper sauce was full of flavor, and seemed to taste more like itself than one would expect. The filling was equally amazing, and I ended up eating everything, using the tortilla pieces to mop up any flavor that might have fallen away.

Even though we were pretty full, I had to see what Bobby's dessert menu was like. One dish immediately caught my eye: Roasted Strawberry Shortcake. I had to try it. Well before it arrived, the waiter brought us long spoons and forks. Did I mention that we saw the waiter a lot? He took good care of us. Our water was refilled several times, and they were prompt and friendly about it. When they brought our dessert, it looked amazing. It had some sort of strawberry crisp thing that tasted a little cooked, but not bad. It has a pinot noir sorbet with a kind of grainy texture that actually worked really well. The whipped cream had cream cheese in it, and tasted amazing with the strawberries.

The bill for all this was only about $40, which I thought was a really killer deal. As we were preparing to leave, a sharp looking man in a suit came over and talked to us for a moment, making sure we enjoyed the meal and had a good time. We assured him that it was a fabulous meal, and as we left, every employee that we had had contact with made sure to wave goodbye to us, and wish us a good day.

Now, I know a lot of people don't like Bobby Flay. In fact, I know a lot of people that read my blog really don't like him. I've been watching him cook for years now, and like him or not, I've always maintained that his dishes look really good. I can now tell you for a fact that his food is nothing short of astounding. Don't be slagging on Bobby Flay anymore. The man really can cook, and he really knows how to run a restaurant. If you ever get a chance, I think it would be criminal of you to not try his food out.

Wolfgang Puck's Bar and Grill

It's difficult these days for anyone not to have heard of Wolfgang Puck. He has been through several shows on Food Network, has several lines of food products, and has been said by many to be the Chef of the Stars. If the rumors are true, Wolfy might as well have invented California Cuisine. One might consider any of these a good reason for one to visit one of his many restaurants, especially if one hasn't before. Our reason was much simpler: it seemed to be the only one in our hotel that we could afford.

To tell you the truth, I have been wanting to try out Wolfy's food first-hand for some time. The man is a legend in his field. But by the time I got to his place, I was almost willing to McEat at the first McCheap place I could McFind. I was tired, I was hungry, I was thirsty and I was getting cranky. Fortunately, the menu posted outside Chez Wolfy looked to be in my price range.

The dishes were, well, kind of disappointing. Truffle potato chips with bleu cheese? What's that all about? Eventually, I decided that the only thing that looked worthwhile was a burger. My wife ordered some kind of "farmer's ravioli", which seemed to be complete with a balsamic reduction. I don't know how many farmers keep a balsamic reduction in their pantry, but I suppose Wolfy is older, wiser and better travelled than myself.

Now, the burger I ordered was pretty good. And why not? They used enough of the cow to make it that it couldn't all be bad. It came with a cute little bottle of ketchup and a cute little bottle of mustard. Sadly, the mustard was decicedly Dijon, and I prefer Big Yellow. Since they are apparently too good for Big Yellow, I got them to bring me more ketchup.

Speaking of "them", I should tell you about our waiter. I'm sure he was a nice enough guy, but he didn't spend enough time with us for us to know. After we were seated, he popped over just long enough to drop off menus and let us know that he'd be right back with us. Several minutes later he was, and we were just ready to order. Eventually, he came back to check on us, and then we saw him not at our table again until the end of the meal, except for a couple of times when he came back to fill our water, making sure to stand behind me where I couldn't see him. Actually, it was usually the bus boy that filled our water.

Now, our hotel had given us a $25 credit to use on food at any of its restaurants. Wolfy's was one of these. The way they do this is interesting. When you check in, you can give them your credit card number to have extras charged to your room. I opted not to give them my card. As it turns out, to use the $25 credit, you have to charge your meal to your room, and no, they can't set up your card at the restaurant. So we had to pay the full price, and then go back and have the front desk scan my card so that we can attempt to get our $25 credit later. Our waiter explain this to us, and expressed that it happens all the time and that he thought they should be a little clearer about it. This was the most discussion we'd had with him, and it turns out he was a pretty nice guy. Too bad we didn't see more of him.

Back to the food. My wife loved her ravioli. She told me that it was just the right size, and whereas certain restaurants back in Utah seem to like overusing balsamic, these people had it just right. I told her that they were using a balsamic reduction, which is one of my favorite things to play with. My burger, however, was not what you'd call just the right size. It was huge! It had to be a good half to three quarters of a pound! I'm sure that the cheese on it was "Vermont Cheddar", as advertised, but I didn't see whatever that relish was that the menu talked about. It looked mostly like a big hunk of medium-well beef (I had ordered medium) with a piece of cheese on it, served on a huge toasted, buttered bun. Fortunately, it came with a massive leaf of lettuce, a couple of tomato slices and a couple of pickle slices. I'm glad Wolfy has figured out the burger.

So that was our experience with Wolfgang Puck's Bar and Grill. It's actually not bad, but when you hear so much about a chef and then it turns out to be little more than your neighborhood Applebees, well, it's just a little disappointing.

An Open Letter to Las Vegas

Dear Las Vegas,

No, I am not interested in a time share. I have never been interested in a time share, nor will I ever be interested in a time share. I don't know why a minimum of two timeshare booths per hotel, plus a number of them on the street, seem to think that I will be interested in a time share. I walked around today in sandals, frayed jeans and a worn out concert t-shirt from a local band in Salt Lake that broke up years ago. What is it, exactly, that makes me look like I have the money to spend on a time share?

I also don't need any call girls. As you may have noticed, I have a beautiful woman (my wife) attached to my arm as I walk by the groups of people trying to pretend they're not handing out flyers for call girls. Their services are not needed.

Other than these two observations, I might note that I have had a lovely vacation in your town so far.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Cake Decorating Class: Part 3

Tonight was the third night of my cake decorating class. The cool lady that sits across from me with her daughters used shopping carts to bring their supplies in from the parking lot. This time they decided to bring cupcakes, which are supposed to be a little easier to deal with afterwards.

We talked about making faces, piping out clown bodies, making shells and hearts. We also covered part 2 of the Wilton Rose, and just because our teacher likes us, we covered part 3 as well. Fortunately, we'll have a chance to practice again next week, because I still suck at it.

Eventually, we were given time to decorate our own cakes. I sallied forth, using none of the techniques we had just talked about. Those of you who know me know that I love paisleys. I never wear ties, except under duress, but all of the ties that I do own have paisleys. I even have a completely white tie with a paisley design on it. So I decided to go for a paisley kind of design.

I didn't give you a shot of the whole cake, because the design didn't actually look as nice as I had hoped. This shot was a little more dramatic. However, my cake was not the best in the class. The quiet girl next to me once again was set to stun the rest of us. I'm not kidding, she had vision. All of us are planning on moving on to the second and third level classes, but this girl is going to go so much further. Most of my readers are in Utah, so don't be offended when I say this, but I really hope this girl doesn't waste her talent hanging out in Utah. There are a lot of other markets where she would do well, far better than in Utah, once her talents are truly honed. Her cake:

Her designs are simple, elegant and beautiful. Yes, I do believe she'll go far. Colette Peters, look out!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Hats off to Tristan!

Over the weekend, Tristan Rhodes posted about meals with only three ingredients. The only part of his post that I don't agree with is his suggestion that such a thing is culinary blasphemy. Nonsense! If there was something wrong with creating a dish with only three ingredients, would peanut butter and jelly sandwiches have been a staple for so long? What about tossing pasta in alfredo sauce and adding chicken to it? It's one of my all-time favorite dishes. What's more, I truly believe that the ability to compose a meal that is enjoyable and edifying is truly a great talent. So maybe you won't be making the cover of Art Culinaire anytime soon. Who cares? If the stomachs and tastebuds of you and/or your guests are happy, that's the important thing.

So hats off to Tristan. There are more than just a few days when I look in my pantry and wonder just what the heck I'm going to feed myself. That's because I have all sorts of ideas running through my mind about presentation and flavor profiles and making up new recipes. From the sounds of it, Tristan could just walk in, grab three cans or boxes, and come up with something really good while I stood there and wondered whether black or pinto beans would better fit some kind of arbitrary regionality or something. There's something to be said for that.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Problem with Health Food

I visited a place yesterday called The Herb Shop, in Orem. It's a quaint little place right next door to a Nickelcade. I believe I may have mentioned this place briefly in my search for lemongrass. I walked in and immediately navigated to the book area. I love cookbooks. It's an illness, I know. As I looked over the cookbooks, a smallish woman walked up and asked if she could help with anything. I told her that I would need her help in just a moment, and continued to look at the cookbooks. There were a lot of books on raw foods. But I'll leave that discussion for another day.

When I finished looking at the cookbooks, I found the woman and let her know what I was looking for. I told her that my current obsession was frozen desserts, and following the recent success of my ginger and lemongrass ice cream, I was interested in all sorts of other herbal flavor infusions, and what better place to find them than an herb shop? I was hoping she would lead me to a few herbs that she thought made excellent teas. Instead, she led me to the oils and extracts. She told me that she recommended these because they were designed for cooking. I told her that they weren't quite what I was looking for. She suggested that perhaps one of the many books they had might have some good suggestions. We looked through a "raw foods" book, which seemed to have several recipes that didn't look the least bit raw, and many, many recipes which called for vanilla extract, which is definitely not raw in commercial form.

I told her that I would really love to see some herbs that made great teas. Finally, she led me to the expansive wall of herbs and started pointing out several that she thought I might be interested in. I would ask what each one tasted like, and she would go into detail on what medicinal uses they were good for. This one is good for the heart, this one is good for the liver, this one is good for pregnancies. It wasn't long before I noticed a pattern: she knew what the health properties of each one was, but she didn't seem to know what any of them tasted like, or perhaps was unable to describe the tastes to me. That seemed odd. At one point we had a discussion about sassafras and sarsaparilla, and how they were used to make root beer (FYI: root beer means it's made using either or both of those. Don't worry, she didn't know either).

It seemed so strange to me that she would be so completely unfamiliar with the flavors of these herbs and spices. As a chef, I'm used to using a variety of herbs and spices, and in some cases, basing an entire dish (such as curry) off of those instead of what one might consider to be "primary ingredints" (such as chicken or veggies). To spend so much time around so many herbs and spices, and not know anything about their flavor seems a completely foreign concept to me. I'm all for health benefits, but I'm more about flavor. The most important thing is that something tastes good. If it happens to have health benefits as well, bonus! In fact, said health benefits make it just that much more likely for me to used them.

And that's when it occurred to me: the problem with health food. Those who formulate health food are going about it all wrong. They focus on health benefits first, and if flavor ever becomes a consideration, its priority is never more than second. And then they wonder why so many people stick with their fried foods and such. Fried food tastes good! Why would they choose to munch on a few bland pieces of spinach instead? Especially when the spinach has some lousy "salad dressing" that's less flavorful and healthy than a chicken fried steak. Or even worse, the spinach has the life cooked out of it, along with any nutrients that ever existed.

I'm not saying that the health benefits of a food should be ignored, of course. I think they're extremely important. But if flavor doesn't come first, I won't feel bad when the guy chowing the 20 oz sirloin is laughing at you. But maybe you should take a different approach. Find a dish that you like (entirely for the flavor) and look at it. Is there a different method of preparing it that is perhaps a little healthier? Are there any ingredients that can be swapped out without lowering the quality of the dish? Take chicken cordon bleu, for example. Most of the time when I see it, it's being pan fried. Why not bake it in the oven instead?

You could do the same thing with chicken fingers. Instead of dipping them in that batter and then into the fry oil, try this: dredge them in flour, shaking off the excess, coat in an egg wash, then dip into crumbled up croutons and bake in the oven. You just upped the healthiness, and it still tastes pretty dang good. In fact, I like it even better. It's not hard, people. After a while, you'll get the hang of it. And maybe, just maybe you'll be able to start converting more of the world to healthier food, if not health food.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Lemongrass: The search has ended

That's right, I found my beloved lemongrass. Any guesses where I found it? Yes, you over there, with the bad haircut. Er. I mean blue shirt. That's right! I found it in Salt Lake City! I knew that the Oriental Food Market on 7th East in Salt Lake city, just south of Trolley Corners, would have it. They always have it. I've never been there when they didn't. They do stock it differently now than they used to, though.

Yes, that's right. They keep it in the freezer. And look at it all! Do I have a problem with this? Not really. This means that they can order a lot at one time, and have plenty for me when I come to visit. It's a pretty hearty plant, not like lettuces and the like, and doesn't seem to mind the freezing temperatures. Bonus: they keep it on the top shelf, which means that is anything bad is going to drop onto it, then that's the least of your worries.

Jayce pointed out to me that a Brazilian market might also be a good place to find this beautiful ingredient. Apparently there's a very popular drink down there. If there were such a thing as a Thai market closer to home, then it would be the first place I'd look. Of course, the second place I'd look would have been a health food store. So, what does this stuff look like from the side?

It looks nothing like wheat grass, does it? I suppose in the photo it might look like something halfway between green onions and leeks. Closer inspection shows a thick base, and a thin woody stem on top. Plus, these things are a good 18 to 20 inches long. Well, mine are. Something you'll notice when cooking with lemongrass is that you plug your nose and try something infused with it, you don't really taste it at all. This is a very aromatic ingredient. I had to use a lot of it in my Fresh Ginger and Lemongrass Ice Cream, because cold masks flavor and aroma, and fat coats the tongue, making it even that much more difficult to taste it. Were you to use it for a tea or a soup, I think that you would need to use a lot less to be able to pick it up.

So head on down to Salt Lake (or wherever your closest Asian market is) and grab a few stalks. I think you'll find at least a couple of recipes in my archives that call for it. I think you'll be happy with it.

Ice Cream Stabilizer - The Results

Man, it's been a busy week. I had planned to make this ice cream base on Wednesday, but I ended up being so sick that day that I just went to bed when I got home from work. I did finally make the ice cream base on Thursday, and froze it on Friday. Let me tell you about it.

Before starting anything, I decided to do something that I had failed to do so far: actually look at the ingredient list on the stabilizer. It appears to be made from a delightful blend of sugar, gelifying agents, pectin and carob flour. Now, I already knew that sugar helps keep ice crystals small. I'm not sure what was meant by "gelifying agent", but I was ready to guess some sort of gelatin base. And pectin? What would pectin do for ice cream? And carob flour. Yet another mystery.

It decided it was time to consult The Great Book, aka On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. I also looked at Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed, by Shirley Corriher (whom you may recognize as the mad food scientist on Good Eats). These are two books that you need sitting next to all of your cookbooks. It seems to me, reading these two tomes, that pectin is to plants what collagen (from whence gelatin is extracted) is to animals. These are connective tissues, fibers that help mantain the structural integrity of plant walls and muscle fibers, respectively. What's interesting is that by themselves, they're actually kind of hard. But when heated, they loosen up. In the presence of water, they loosen up a lot. When the water is cooled, they form a matrix, trapping some of the water inside. What's truly interesting is that unlike proteins, they can be reheated and cooled over and over again.

I also discovered that fat plays a similar role in ice cream production. It turns out the fat molecules actually coat water molecules, creating sort of an insulator which keeps the water liquid, even at freezing temperatures. This tells me that it's important to have emulsifiers present in the ice cream, to help the water and fat stay together. Also interesting is the role of salt in the ice cream itself. When you add that pinch of salt to the ice cream base, it lowers the freezing temperature of the water. Other chemicals in the milk and cream seem to do that as well. What results from this is a mixture that, even at temperatures of 0F or so, still contains quite a bit of liquid (not solid) water. In fact, about 20% of the water remains liquid. Were it not for this, the ice cream would not be scoopable.

And so, some of the secrets of the stabilizer are unlocked. With this in mind, I sallied forth with a somewhat new ice cream base: Fresh Ginger and Lemongrass Ice Cream. First, I had to decide how much stabilizer to use. The container tells me to add 5 to 10 grams of stabilizer for every 100 grams of sugar. Sadly, even if my kitchen scale was reliable, it doesn't seem to have that fine of a reading. I knew that I was going to use 3/4 cup of sugar. According to the sugar bag, 1 tsp sugar is about 4 grams. So 3/4 cup would be about 144 grams. This gives me a conversion factor of 1.44. That means that I would want between 7.2 and 14.4 grams of stabilizer. Now, looking at the granularity of the stabilizer, I decided it felt like a hard flour. I looked at several of my flours and alternative flours and found that they ranged from 28 to 33 grams per 1/4, with most of them at 30 grams. Since there are 4 tablespoons per 1/4 cup, this tells me that I needed about 1 to 2 tablespoons of stabilizer. Bearing this in mind, I formulated my ingredient list:

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely grated
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons stabilizer
4 oz cream cheese, softened
6 egg yolks
pinch salt
1 stalk of lemongrass, roughly chopped

No candied ginger on this one. I just wasn't that impressed with it last time. And yes, I know that's a lot of lemongrass. I wanted a lot of lemongrass flavor in this. You could cut back by half if you wanted.

I decided to try the curd method on this one again. However, you should note that there is no lime juice this time. Instead, I decided to use a little heavy cream as my liquid, since I knew the fat would help insulate the egg yolks and help keep them from scrambling. I added the sugar, stablizer, salt, egg yolks and a little of the cream to a double boiler on high heat. I whisked constantly to keep it moving. After a minute or two, I added my ginger and a little more cream. I had about half of the cream in there by this point. At this point, I began to whisk in the cream cheese, just a little chunk at a time, until it was all incorporated. When it began to thicken, I whisked in the rest of the cream and the milk. After a minute, I added the lemongrass. Now, the lemon grass was roughly chopped for two reasons: first, I wanted to increase surface area, for maximum flavor extraction. Second, I wanted to keep the pieces big enough to be able to strain later.

When it was obvious it wasn't going to thicken much more, I moved the bowl to an ice water bath and whisked to cool it down. It was pretty much the same viscosity as my previous ice cream bases. I then moved the mixture to a plastic container and moved it to the fridge to cool overnight. Yes, with the lemongrass still in it. Remember our talk about infusing flavor? This would give the lemongrass plenty of time to get to know the rest of the mixture.

Now, I let this chill overnight, and then checked it in the morning. It had thickened considerably! This was new. The other ice cream bases I had made had kept the same consistency right up until I froze them. Very interesting indeed. I put the mixture back in the fridge and went to work. When I got home, it was pretty much the same thickness still. I strained out the lemongrass and moved the mixture to the ice cream maker and promptly forgot about it for the next 40 minutes. Fortunately, that extra 10 minutes didn't seem to cause any problems. I moved it into containers, and moved those into the freezer. A couple of hours later I checked on them.

Now in the past, a couple of hours wouldn't have been enough time to harden the ice cream. The outside might have been hardened a little, but the inside would still be at softserve consistency. This was not the case! It was almost to the perfect consistency already! I was intrigued. I took a taste and it was smooth, creamy and flavorful. I put it back to let it chill overnight. This morning, I checked up on it. Oh man! It had hardened, but was still very scoopable. The flavor was still dead on. And the texture? Smooth and creamy. Not the least bit grainy. In fact, they reminded me of a certain ice cream smoothie bar that you can buy at the store. Success!

So if you can get your mitts on some ice cream stabilizer, I say do it. Here's the stuff I used. Yes, it's an additive. But it's a darn handy one. My next step is to see if I can simulate it with a few more common ingredients.

Friday, July 21, 2006


I take a lot of pictures. And I mean, a lot of pictures. Occassionally, I get lucky and get a really good shot. I mean, wallpaper quality. I've been meaning to post a few of them for a while and I just haven't gotten around to it until now. For your viewing pleasure, I now have a wallpaper area up. I only have a few photos at the moment, at 1024 x 768 and 800 x 600 resolutions. I'll put up more as I find them or take them, but I think there's some pretty good ones up there now. Enjoy!

Update: By request, I have now also posted 1600 x 1200 versions. Anything above that will probably be a little too grainy, and you should be able to make anything smaller easily enough.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Poll For The Guys: Romantic Dinner

Okay guys, this one is for you. Imagine that your wife/girlfriend/etc has decided to cook you a nice, romantic dinner. You can ask for anything you want, so long as it's not too extravegant. What would you ask your sweetie to make for you?

You see, I've been asked to teach a cooking class to a church group of women. They're looking for quick and simple romantic meals to cook for their hubbies. My plan is to show them how to make a reasonably quick and simple meal, and give them a handout with recipes for the meal, and maybe a few other recipe suggestions as well. After going through and making up a menu that I would personally enjoy, I showed it to a friend who thought it looked pretty dang gross. He would rather have plain old steak and potaotes. I asked another friend, and he agreed that he would love steak and potatoes too.

Now, I know every guy is different. While I do enjoy steak on occassion, it's really not a favorite of mine. My protein of choice is chicken. I know another guy who is fairly vegetarian, but enjoys salmon on occassion. So I'm looking for all sorts of answers from all sorts of guys. I figure that if a guy is making a romantic dinner for a woman, that's one thing. For instance, vegetables seem to be a much higher priority for them. But if a woman is making a romantic dinner for a guy, that's something else entirely. I suspect that most guys just want meat and potatoes. And this class does seem to be geared towards women cooking for their husbands.

So guys, back to the first question: what would you like your sweetie to make for you? Leave me your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I Got Quoted!

Oh man. The second I saw it, I had shivers running up and down my spine. Check out this page. Or this one. Scroll down a bit. Use that find feature in your browser (usually CTRL-F, unless you're on a Mac). It's kind of a big page. You'll see me. You'll see a big old quote from me. You may even notice that they liked some parts of it enough to bold them. You may even notice that they quoted more from me than from the New York Times Magazine (top right corner of the page).

Even better, this is the site of the authors of the book that I reviewed. And yes, I still love the book. In fact, I have a beautiful copy of Becoming a Chef (same authors) waiting for me to have enogh time to read. These folks actually have a lot of books out that are fascinating for the truly driven culinarian. Is that even a word? Back in school, our guy in charge of helping us get internships told us that his favorite phrase to use on a resume was "evolving culinarian". I love buzzwords.

Anyway, I'm wicked excited, and I thought I'd share. We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, already in progress.

Tapas and Cheese

Okay, so I'm a slacker. I haven't posted for days, except for this morning's review of my most recent cake decorating class. So it's time to repent and tell you about Saturday.

On Saturday, we had a few friends over for a Tapas and Cheese Party. Now, when I say tapas, I unfortunately am not referring to the version in Spain. Our goal was more of an appetizer party. Our house is pretty small, so we only had three other families over, one of which opted to leave the kids with a sitter. I told everybody to bring an appetizer or two, and some kind of unusual cheese. We ended up having a pretty impressive spread.

I'm not going to get into what the other people brought. I figure that's up to them to post on their own blogs. I know that at least one of them is on the Utah Open Source Planet. I will, however, cover what I made.

Lamb Phyllo Cups

Now, I wish I had room in this post to write up a tutorial on using phyllo dough, but I don't. I'll make you a deal: you just trust me on this one, and I'll post a tutorial as soon as I can (probably this weekend). Suffice it to say that I had a bunch of phyllo cups. I diced up a red bell pepper and sauteed it in olive oil with a little salt. After it had been going a bit, I added a minced garlic clove and some chopped green onion (because it's what I had). I then added some diced lamb and a little more salt, and browned it up. I finished with a chiffonade of fresh mint, and then spooned it into my little phyllo cups.

Chinese Pork Trumpets

I keep all sorts of weird kitchen tools around. I have little metal cone molds hanging around just for this type of thing. I took some round wonton wrappers, brushed both sides with butter, wrapped them around the cone molds, and baked at about 350F for 8 to 10 minutes, and then allowed them to cool. While they were cooling, I diced up a green chile (an Anaheim, but don't tell anyone) and sauteed it in a mixture of peanut oil and sesame oil, with a little salt. After a couple of minutes, I added a minced garlic clove and a little minced fresh ginger. Then I added some diced pork and and little salt got it started browning. I might have splashed it with a little Worcestershire sauce too. I finished with some more chopped green onion, and allowed to cool before stuffing it into the cones that I'd made.

Dessert Wontons

I had some square wonton wrappers too, and a little fresh fruit hanging around. First, I took a couple of bananas, diced 'em up, and sauteed them in a little butter. After a minute I added some brown sugar, got it all coated and cooked, and let it cool down. Then I took a few fresh strawberries, diced 'em up, and tried to sauteed them in butter. D'oh! I forgot that strawberries contain so much water! I added a few extra strawberries and just cooked out as much of the water as I could. I also added some honey to give them some sweet. I let them cool down too. Then I took some square wonton wrappers, brushed both sides in butter and a little dab of fruit in the centers. The I would take opposite corners, bring them up together, then bring in the other two corners, and pinch them at the seams. I took these and baked them on parchment at 350F for about 15 to 20 minutes.

There was also cheese to be had. I brought some Spanish stuff called Pimento cheese, some (Californian?) stuff with a cocoa powder rind called Vella Jack or something like that, and some English Stilton with Mango and Ginger. All were good, but I really liked the Stilton. This version of it reminded me of some Wensleydale with Cranberries that I had once in New Hampshire. So, that was our "Tapas" party. It was nice to have so much variety, and in such small portions. Rather than just having something like a big old burger and no room left in the stomach for the sides like potato salad or something, we could each try everything, and not feel bad about going back for seconds. It was a good time had by all.

Cake Decorating Class: Part 2

Well, my second cake decorating class was last night. I believe I told you how the first class was mostly demo time by the instructor. Well, this week it was all us. She would demo a particular technique, and then give us a few minutes to practice it ourselves. But I'll get to that.

The book that we were given had a long list of things to bring with us. Some made sense, such as plastic bags to carry home tools covered in icing, because we didn't really have a way to clean things there. Some seemed to make less sense, such as a bath-sized towel. What use could we have for a bath towel at a cake class? When I arrived, the instructor asked me if I'd brought a towel, giving me a look that said she hoped I had, but wasn't really expecting it. I told her that I don't know why, but I did bring a towel. Heck, if it's good for Ford Prefect I reasoned, it must be good for me. As it turns out, the towel was to keep our workspace clean. Apparently, most people see it on the list, decide it sounds silly, and don't bring it. In this particular class, I was the only one that brought one. But that was because I was also apparently the only one that looked in to book to see what to bring.

The book said to bring a cake, iced with medium consistency icing. It also said to bring various amounts of stiff, medium and thin consistency icing. It was time to make my own icing. I decided to go with the recipe in the book because it's actually formulated physically for this type of thing. The consistency is governed entirely by the amount of water added. I decided it was best to make a double batch, in order to have enough. The teacher told me that I couldn't make a double batch with a hand mixer, that I would have to use a stand mixer. Too bad I don't have a stand mixer. As it turns out, you can use a hand mixer to make a double batch, you just need a big enough bowl. When I had made all of my icing, I took a taste. The book claims that not only is this the only icing designed for piping (not true), but it's also the best tasting.

I should point out a couple more things about the icing. The book calls it "buttercream icing", even though there is neither butter nor cream. In fact, it's little more than vegetable shortening and powdered sugar. As I took a taste, I was reminded of something Alton Brown said in the Good Eats episode, The Icing Man Cometh: "heck, these things could all be filled with sawdust, and I'd still want to eat every single one of them." Wilton apparently took this to heart. Their recipe for "buttercream icing" is just about the most disgusting thing I've ever tasted. I immediately deemed it unfit for human consumption. This stuff is only good for practicing. If you attempt to actually serve it, you should be ashamed of yourself. In fact, I feel bad for using it on a real cake for practice, because the real cake that I baked actually tasted good before I applied this death paste. I immediately decided that I would go out and buy a styrofoam cake round to use and reuse for all future classes. For a buttercream recipe that actually tastes good, refer to Alton Brown's.

Back to the class. We practiced a few things with the star tip, which is actually not that uncommon a tool outside of the bakery too. In fact, we used to use it at the restaurant in school to pipe compound butters into ramekins for the bread course. In cake decorating, it apparently gets frequent use in decorating those silly character cakes that you see a lot at kids' birthday parties. We also practiced writing, and did step one of The Wilton Rose (TM). Towards the end, we did an interesting technique with piping gel, which is a clear gel used for things like adjusting icing consistency. In our case, we put a piece of parchment over a line art design, trace it with thin lines of piping gel, and then flip it over onto the cake, apply soft pressure with a brush, and then pull it away to reveal a template to use as a guide for piping.

Unfortunately, I was the only one that knew to bring piping gel. I also had a decent supply of parchment paper, which I always have on hand at home. So I was the only one that got to try this step out. Now, apparently coloring books are a great place to find simple line art to use. I didn't have a coloring book, I only had the class book. The design in the class book was a very simple four-color rainbow. I figured, what the heck, it's just for class right? And I could use the tracing practice, especially with a piping bag. What I should have done was traced it out, and then given it to one of the girls that actually wanted a rainbow on her cake. But no, I put it on my cake, everyone was happy to see the technique presented, and then the teacher gave us the rest of the time to practice decorating our cakes.

So there I am, with a rainbow template on my cake, wondering how the heck I'm going to decorate it. I look at the other cakes in the room, and most of them already have the beginnings of "Happy Birthday" written on them. What am I supposed to write underneath my rainbow? "Celebrate Diversity"? I suddenly realized that I had the gayest cake in the room. Even worse, it turns out it's near impossible to get enough red color into your own icing to make it anything other than pink. I was not going to have a manly cake. My only option was to shoot for comedy. I wrote, "'sup, yo" under my rainbow, and then continued to practice piping techniques learned in class. The teacher was impressed that I was using all of the techniques taught that day, and some of the girls told me they liked my rainbow. Well, you girls can have my rainbow, I don't want it anymore. And then I heard one of the girls across from me tell the girl next to me that she liked her cake. I glanced at it and did a double-take. Hers was good! I mean, really good! Like, "what the heck are you doing in this class?" good! So, rather than ending with a photo of what I am convinced is currently the gayest cake in the world, I will end with a photo of hers.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Score One for the Health Nuts!

The search for lemongrass continues. Today after work I stopped by Harvest Fresh Natural Foods, on State Street in Orem. Yes, this is the place mentioned in my previous post. When I walked in, I noticed something different. There were customers! Lots of customers! I had never seen such a thing in there before! As I walked around, I noticed that the deli counter was properly stocked, and somebody was actually behind the counter! This was new. In fact, the whole store seemed to be stocked! Every shelf was filled. The produce area was full of fresh fruits and veggies that actually looked pretty good! I was impressed. Somebody really got their act together at that store and it shows. They even sell bison meat. They sell it ground, in steaks, you can even buy a bison t-bone there. Still, no lemongrass.

I hopped back into my trusty Ferolla and continued south down State Street. I had only gone a couple of blocks before my eyes spied a sign for The Herb Shop, right next to Nickelcade. Surely a place like that mujst have lemongrass! I walked in and was promptly ignored by the woman at the counter, who was on the phone. I walked back through the shop and saw and impressive wall of dried herbs. I also noted a seemingly impressive array of books on herbs, natural healing, that sort of thing. And there was a very friendly woman in the back who instantly greeted me and asked if she could help me. "What are the chances if you having fresh lemongrass," I inquired. "About nil," she replied. "Are you looking for a whole plant?" "Well," I said, "I'm just looking for a couple of stalks." "You're probably going to want to try a nursery," she offered helpfully. I informed her that in Salt Lake, I could easily find lemongrass in certain markets, but that it didn't seem to exist in Utah County. Just for the heck of it, she checked for dried lemongrass in her array of herbage, and none was to be found. I thanked her for her help and continued on.

About half a mile south of there, about 500 south and State, I found Good Earth Natural Foods, and its brother, the Junkies Cafe. I walked in and discovered a very interesting store indeed. It was much, much smaller than Harvest Fresh, and yet almost seemed to have as much. They didn't, of course, but it certainly was a little more tightly packed. They have beautiful produce which I wanted to buy based on its beauty alone. Sadly, no fresh lemongrass. I perused the store and found the obligatory book section, a well-stocked grain section and even a small room full of bulk food items, lining the walls. This was my first visit to this store, and I knew instantly it wouldn't be my last. I even found a dried herb wall which stocked dried lemongrass leaves. Sadly, what I needed was fresh lemongrass stalks.

You'll be glad to know that my experience impressed me so much that I did not stop and grab and artery-hardening burger on the way home. No, I stopped by Subway. Okay, so they're not the best sandwich shop in the world, but they're not bad either. The health food situation in Utah County isn't as bad as it had once seemed. It's not that I think that tofu, eggplant and sprouts are any way to live. But these stores are a treasure trove of interesting alternative ingredients. If you truly are interested in playing with your food, I suggest you check one of these places out. Don't buy the premade stuff. Processed food is still processed food, health claims or no. But check out the flours, check out the grains. Check out the things that can only be classified as ingredients. I'm happy to say that you won't be disappointed, even around here. Still, the search for fresh lemongrass continues.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Freaky Utah Casserole

Listen! Do you want to know a secret? Chefs love casseroles. I base this on two sources: Emeril Lagasse and Alton Brown, both of whom have claimed a love of casseroles. Try making up a few of your own, and I think you'll see why they love them so much. Over the years, I've become a big fan. They're quick and easy to make, you get to make them how you want, and when they're done you just toss 'em in the fridge and have lunch covered at work for the next few days. Every so often, I just have to put one together.

This one was kind of fun. At the same time, it was also pretty odd. You're probably gonna scratch your head a lot as I describe it, but that's okay. First, I started a box of pasta boiling. This was a whole wheat rotini that I stocked up on a while back. While that was happening, I made quick work of dicing a hot link sausage and a red bell pepper. Then I sauteed the sausage on high heat (for color and flavor) and then dropped the heat to medium to render out some of the fat. Then I moved the sausage to a stack of paper towels to drain and sauteed the bell pepper in the fat that had rendered out. I poured those out over the sausage and grabbed a little can of pineapple tidbits. Yes! Pineapple tidbits! For those of you who don't believe in the combination of fruit and savory foods, leave 'em out.

I first added the pineapple tidbits to the pan, sans juice, to give 'em a little color. This is when I also added a little Worcestershire sauce and some chipotle Tabasco. When those had a nice color, I deglazed with the pineapple juice and let it reduce until most of the liquid was gone. By this time, the pasta was fully cooked (whole wheat takes a little longer than regular pasta) so I drained it out and added it back to the pot it was cooking in (with the heat turned off). I added the sausage, bell pepper and pineapple. Normally at this point, I would add a jar of some kind of red sauce. But my wife has never been a fan, and I think she especially couldn't handle it right now, so I added a jar of alfredo sauce instead. Has it gotten weird enough for you yet? I stirred to combine, and comtemplated where I was. By this time things had cooled a bit, so I added a cup of shredded cheddar and stirred it up. I poured it all into a greased 13 x 9 glass baking dish, and topped with another cup of shredded cheddar.

But I wasn't done yet! No! I took about 1 1/2 cups of croutons, smashed them up a little bit with my rolling pin, and sprikled them on top. Then I finished up with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. This I baked for about 20 minutes at 350F, covered with foil for the first 10 minutes to keep the top from burning. Then I let it sit for a good half hour (an hour would be better) before serving. This was so that when I cut into it, it would stay set up into nice little squares, which were still plenty warm.

Now, you could easily have used red sauce in this, and it would have still been stellar. And you can leave out the pineapple if you want, but I actually liked the contrast. But I'm the sort that likes pineapple on his pizza. Don't cringe, half the country loves pineapple on their pizza and half hate it. I probably would have been happy with another hot link sausage, but the amount of bell pepper was about perfect. Try it! You'll like it!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Health Food

All I want is a little lemongrass. It's a fabulous Thai ingredient that's a lot of fun to play with. It's fragrant, it's light, if you get a good stalk, it actually smells more like lemon than lemon. Normally I pick it up at the Oriental Food Market in Salt Lake. It's a wonderful Asian market with (so I'm told) a butcher that only speaks Japanese. They have all sorts of fresh, frozen and dried ingredients from all over Asia. Unfortunately (for more reasons than this), Salt Lake is about an hour away from here. So I wait until the weekends and make a pilgrimage, hitting all sorts of fine shops that are in that area: Liberty Heights Fresh, Oriental Food Market, South East Asia Market (they stock frozen banana leaves that I've been dying to play with), and all sorts of other places.

But I thought I'd look around town here. There's some lame health food store on State Street in Orem that I visit on occasion. I call them lame because they really do have a poor selection, especially of produce. There have been times when I've wandered in there and wondered if they were going out of business, because they do such a bad job at keeping shelves stocked. So I asked around at work, and discovered that there were a couple more health food stores in the area. One is called Real Foods Market, on 800 North in Orem. For some reason, I thought it might be reasonable to find lemongrass at a health food store: a) It's exotic. b) It can taste really good in the hands of a good cook. c) It can be easily ruined by inexperienced health food nuts. Just like everything else they sell! You might note that "it's generally pretty healthful, or at least not bad for you" isn't on the list. There's a reason for that.

The store did not have lemongrass. But I did look around at the rest of the store, as I usually do when I encounter a potential new favorite place to shop. It was smaller on the inside than it looked on the outside. They did have fresh produce, which generally looked like it had been picked a month or two early and then left in the sun for a week. Okay, so it wasn't all that bad. But some of it wasn't that great. About par for a health food store. I ended up buying some wild rices which were about a dollar a bag cheaper than most other places have that brand, and some agave syrup, which most of us know as tequila (when it's fermented). Agave is a big buzzword in the health food world right now because it's all-natural, completely vegan (honey may be plant-based, but it's still processed by bees), has an extremely low glycemic rating (which is a measurement of how much sugar the body registers), supposedly has all sorts of other health benefits, and supposedly tastes just like honey (I just tasted some, and it's pretty close).

At the register, I got to hear the cashier talk to the customer ahead of me about how healthy coconut oil is, and how much happier she's been since introducing it to her diet. Did I mention that coconut "oil"is almost completely saturated fat? From what I hear, the rest of the meat of the coconut helps counteract the fat, making it not really that bad of a food when consumed all together. Don't quote me on that, it's just what I hear. Then it was my turn, and I decided to ask the lady if she knew anyplace around here to get fresh lemongrass. She gave me an interested look and asked, "wow, lemongrass? Is that anything like wheat grass?"

Trying not to laugh, I took the time to explain to her that it was nothing like wheat grass, and that it was a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. Did I mention this particular store is next door to a Thai restaurant? She asked if it was something she should look into ordering, and I informed her that it was the very reason I visited her store in the first place. Feeling more than just a little disappointed, I left, put my food in the car, and walked over to Sonic Drive-In and ordered some kind of bacon burger that comes on Texas toast.

You'd think the story was over, but it's not! When I got back to work, my wife was waiting on instant messenger for me. She apparently met with some women this morning who felt it their duty to inform her of what she's doing wrong with her life. They told her that she should bring a bag lunch to work, because it's so much healthier. Have you seen what goes into bag lunches today? Processed granola bars that are almost more sugar than granola, non-carbonated and carbonated soft drinks with at least as much sugar, sandwiches made with bread comprised of mostly unpronounceable ingredients and filled with fatty mayonnaise and processed luncheon meats. And chips. I'm not saying that's what my wife would bring. I'm suggesting that's what these women would have her bring.

My wife talked to them about all the markets that we go to in Salt Lake, and they told here that there was nothing like that around here; just the one health food store on State Street and a place called Many Lands a few miles down the street from there. They continued to tell her how bad TV is because even commercials, apparently, are nothing but porn now. Something like that. I proceeded to inform my wife that she was not a horrible person for watching TV and not bagging lunch. I told her about the other two health food stores that I'd heard about, and informed her that if these women would put some shoes on and get out of the kitchen, maybe they would experience some more of the world, and maybe even get to know their own neighborhood.

Yes, I know I'm going to get in trouble for making comments about being barefoot in the kitchen. For those who get mad at me, I think you're missing the point. I'm not some wacko ultra-conservative jerk who believes that the old ways (if such a thing ever existed) are always the right ways. I'm saying you need to get out, experience the world, research things before you open your mouth, and stop trying to make my wife feel like a horrible person.

Thank you.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Cake Decorating Class

When I was at cooking school, I learned something very valuable: I'm a lousy cake decorator. When I did my externship at the Deer Valley bakeries, I learned this lesson time and time again. Fortunately, there was so much talent present in the other bakers there that it all came out in the end. But I'm not content with being a lousy cake decorater. Fortunately, there is a company called Wilton that offers cake decorating classes.

Now, for those of you not in the know, Wilton is the company who believes they own the cake decorating market. Even if they don't, the majority of home cake decorators do seem to believe it. And why not? I don't believe it's possible for one to enter a cake decorating store or area of a store and not find Wilton products. In fact, the majority of the cake decorating products you will see will be by Wilton. Now, I'm not going to slam on Wilton here. They're a good company and they make a good product. I have several of their products at home, and will likely buy several more in the future. But they're not the only company out there, and they certainly don't dominate my equipment drawers and shelves.

What's important is that they teach classes. In fact, they have an established curriculum. In speaking with the teacher, I found that there is a process to becoming a Wilton instructor. You have to have taken all the classes yourself, of course. Then you have to apply. Then they run checks on you to see how good you are, and decide from the available applicants who they want to teach. And when someplace wants to offer a Wilton class, they call them up and Wilton assigns them an instructor. It was actually pretty cool.

When it comes down to cake decorating, there are two, well, three things that one needs to do. First, they need to bake the cake, of course. This is touched on in the class, but not really covered (at least not so far). Then you need to fill and ice the cake. This is something I've never been good at. Filling isn't a problem, but getting that icing on the cake to look smooth and perfect can be tricky. The instructor demoed this, and I was relieved to see that I'm actually a little better than her. Or at least better than her demo. But once the cake is iced, step three is to decorate. This is everything from piping to, well, actually piping is most of it. And that's where I really need the help. And that seems to be the focus in this class.

Last night was the first of four classes. We, as students, didn't decorate yet. It was mostly a demo session. Next week we have to bring a cake, already iced, and various consistencies of buttercream. Wilton's buttercream recipe is vastly different from the one I'm used to. For instance, they don't actually use butter; they use shortening. Also, rather than pouring hot sugar into whipped egg whites, they just add powdered sugar and meringue powder. In fact, the whole recipe seemed to be formulated for ease of prep by the home cook. I doubt flavor was a huge factor in the recipe design. That's okay. When the class is over, I'm not likely to use the Wilton recipe anyway. My recipe is a little closer to Alton Brown's.

It is an interesting class. I'll let you know next week how it's been going.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Hard to Scoop Ice Cream

So, I have noticed something in my recent attempts to product creamy, delicious desserts in my ice cream maker. There's a couple of problems with homemade ice cream. First, when it's just coming out of the churn, it's soft and melty, and doesn't hold up too well. So as soon as it comes out of the churn, it needs to go in the freezer for a few hours. But when you pull it out the next day, it's hard as a rock. Now, I know that there are reasons for this, and there are ways to get around it. For instance, I actually have a bucket of ice cream stabalizer that I picked up a while back. I was told at the time that this was an essential ingredient for gelato, because it keeps crystal sizes small, which increases the smooth texture that gelato is known for. I haven't played with it much, and not at all since starting my blog, so the jury's still out on how well it works.

Keeping this in mind, I started looking around of Google for articles about how stabalizer works. At first, it seemed hopeless. Even the companies who were selling it were more excited to tell me how well their brand works than how it actually works. Then I hit paydirt. I came across an article in the Journal of Dairy Science on the Effect of Sweetener, Stabilizer, and Storage Temperature on Ice Recrystallization in Ice Cream. This is intense stuff. My brain started to hurt well before I finished page 1 (of 10), and I still haven't finished reading it.

Then I decided to look around at some more articles in that magazine. First I started seeing things like "Effect of Biopolymers on Structure and Ice Recrystallization in Dynamically Frozen Ice Cream Model Systems". Then there was "The Effect of Carbohydrate Source on Nitrogen Capture in Dairy Cows on Pasture" and the ever popular "Evaluation of Palm Kernel Meal and Corn Distillers Grains in Corn Silage-Based Diets for Lactating Dairy Cows".

This is when I realized something. First of all, the food industry is way more intense than I ever realized. Things like high-fructose corn syrup didn't come into being just because they're cheaper to produce than their consumer-preferred counterparts like cane sugar. There's some serious food science going on here. I still believe that most of the food science industry is based on food cost percentages and shelf stability. But there's some serious studies going on here. It's like a Stephen King novel. This stuff kind of scares me, but I just can't stop reading it. In fact, I daresay that Stephen King is less scary than the food scientists.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Strawberry Bruscetta

I didn't think of this as a bruscetta at first, but upon further consideration, I realized that it fit into the guidelines I previously laid out. It's kind of an odd one, because it involves the not-so-classic combination of strawberries and cheese, but it ended up pretty good.

I picked up a bag of short baguettes from CostCo yesterday morning, and a box of strawberries. Unlike the strawberries that inspired the sorbet a week ago, these were very ripe and very fresh. How is it that a warehouse like CostCo always seems to have the best produce? Anyway, I sliced the baguettes in half both ways and put the pieces in the toaster oven for a few minutes. When they were browned, I pulled them out, buttered them, added a few sliced strawberries, then sprinkled with finely grated Linconshire poacher cheese, and put them back in the toaster oven to melt the cheese.

When I pulled them out and took a bite, they were okay, but a little tart. I was afraid I had screwed it up with the cheese. Then, on a whim, I drizzled a little bit of honey on one and tried it out. It was nice, certainly much better, but when it comes down to it, I've never been a big fan of honey. So for the next bite, I tried a quick drizzle of real maple syrup. Perfect! Not only did it mellow the strawberries, it actually brought out the flavor of the cheese and complimented it. Not a bad way to start off the day.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Tropical Dinner

We had a couple of friends over this evening for dinner. The wife of the couple had a couple of food requests for me: first, she's a wuss. No hot food. Second, she wasn't so sure about eating dairy, so I had to avoid dairy. No worries. I'm a chef, right? At least, I like to think so sometimes.

So, for some reason, I've been on a tropical kick lately, so I decided to go with that, with a little bit of my usual southwestern flair. Most of the menu was actually pretty simple, which is one of the things I love about tropical food. So here goes.

Jicama Salad

I didn't even bother measuring ingredients on this one. I do know I used a red bell pepper. I also used most of a jicama, about the size of a red pepper. I also went with about half a pineapple and about half a mango. I would have used a whole mango, but I only had half of one left. I'll get to that. Anyway, I cut what I had into 1/4-inch x 1/4-inch x ~3-inch sticks and tossed with the juice of a lime. Very simple. Were it not for the spicy restriction, I would have added a couple of serrano chiles, sliced on the bias.

Coconut Shrimp

I have a bag of frozen, peeled, tail-on shrimp in the freezer that I've been dying to use. I thawed them in ice water for an hour, split them down the back to butterfly them, dried them with a paper towel, dredged them in flour, shook off the excess, dredged them in beaten egg, and then dredged them in shredded, sweetened coconut (nothing special, just a bag from the baking aisle at the store). Then I laid them on a sheet pan and baked them at 350F for about 20 minutes.

Pineapple Black Bean Enchiladas

This wasn't my idea. I was just looking around online and I ran across this recipe. I glanced at it, liked the idea, and then pretty much ignored the original recipe. First of all, it has onions. My wife can't do onions right now, so they're out. Second, it had cheese, because it's an enchilada, and those have cheese. Too bad cheese was out too. And by the time I got to the reduced-fat sour cream, well, I pretty much gave up on it. So here's what I did instead.

I did use whole grain tortillas, because I like them. Plain old flour tortillas are okay, but they get boring. Whole grain is a little more interesting. I don't care much for corn tortillas, so you don't see them in my kitchen. I poured extra mild salsa all over four of them (remember the spicy restriction?). Then I took a can of black beans that I had simmered for 15 minutes and drained, mixed it with half a pineapple cut into tidbits, and filled the tortillas with that. I rolled them up, put them in a glass baking dish, poured a little more salsa on top and topped them with half a mango, grated. See? That's why I only had half a mango for the salad. The flavor went well with everything else there, and it at least looked like it had grated cheddar on it. This went into a 350F oven for about 20 minutes, along with the shrimp, as it turns out.

Melon and Mint Soup

This isn't quite tropical, but it's an old favorite. I made a version of this in my Soups and Sauces class in school. You need a musk melon (usually called cantelope in America), a honeydew melon and half a small, seedless watermelon. Use a melon baller to make as many melon balls as possible out of all three melons. Set them aside and puree the remaining melon in a food mill, food processor, maybe even a blender. Chop up the leaves of a few sprigs of fresh mint, and combine with the melon balls and melon puree. Chill for a couple of hours before serving. This makes a really light dessert, but be warned, it also makes a lot of it. Like a gallon or so, give or take. Even better, since cut melon doesn't keep as well as we'd like to think, you're going to have to use it within a few days.

It was a pretty good dinner. They brought a pasta salad with them that was pretty tasty, but I didn't get a chance to take a picture. I took all of my pictures just before they got there. I liked how simple it all was to make, and how well it all turned out. Most people would have deep fried the shrimp, but I can't do a lot of fried food these days. It didn't get as browned in the oven as it would have in the fryer, but it did taste a lot fresher. The enchiladas were pretty good too. I don't think I thought the whole time about the lack of cheese. Whoa. Did I just pull off a vegan dish that tastes good? Actually, I guess the melon soup was not only vegan, but raw too. That should make the raw foodies happy.

Friday, July 7, 2006

Mango Ice Cream

I love tropical fruit. And I love making ice cream. Why not combine the two? I'll tell you why not. It doesn't seem to work very well. In fact, I daresay tropical fruit has a hard time working well with dairy. On the plus side of things, I did learn a few things, and that can't be a bad thing, right?

Mango Ice Cream

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
juice of a lime
6 egg yolks
4 oz cream cheese, softened
pinch salt
1 mango, pureed (about 1 cup)
1 mango, cubed

Now, I want you to compare the above ingredient list with my ginger ice cream. Notice how the only difference is ginger vs mango? I decided to try a different technique this time around. Remember when I made lemon curd? Go back and read it. Okay, finished? First thing I did was put the milk and cream together over medium heat. I set up a double boiler over high heat, as with the curd. I added the sugar, lime juice and egg yolks, and even the salt, and whisked to combine. Then I added the cream cheese, cut into pieces, and continued to whisk. It started out lumpy and then evened out. This is when I added the mango puree. As I whisked, it began to tighten into a mango curd. Who woulda thunk? By that time the milk and cream had begun to simmer, so I slowly whisked it in. I didn't have to worry so much about tempering the eggs, since they were pretty much already tempered, but I still went slowly so as to integrate the dairy smoothly. When it was all combined, I continued to whisk until it was smooth, and voila: it was already the proper consistency! I moved the bowl to an ice water bath and whisked slowly until it cooled down, and then I moved the mixture to a plastic container and into the fridge, to sit overnight. When I was ready, I added the mixture to the churn along with the cubed mango, and froze according to directions.

I did notice a few things on this. First of all, when I pulled it out of the fridge and moved it to the churn, I noticed a funky smell. It tasted the same, but it smelled weird. Second, the mango flavor never really seemed to come through. That is, in fact, why I ended up adding the cubed mango at the end. It was an attempt to boost flavor. The resulting ice cream had perfect texture, as with the ginger ice cream, and it tasted good, but I really wanted a bigger, bolder mango flavor. I think next time I decide to go with mango, I'll either go for a sorbet, sherbet or maybe even gelato. Maybe it's the milk fat that's masking the flavor. Or maybe there's just some other secret waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

All-American Food

It's one of those things that keeps me up at night. Fortunately, I woke up with this one at 5:30am, and since my alarm goes off at 6am, I didn't lose as much sleep as I might have.

A couple of weeks ago I was watching Food Network, which I don't really suppose should come as a surprise to anyone. I don't remember what show I was watching, but a man stated that barbecue (real Southern 'cue, like smoked brisket and pulled pork and the like) was the only real American food, because everything else was imported into this big, great melting pot that we call the United States. Mexico and Canada don't count. No offense guys, but when somebody says America, they don't mean North America or even South America as a whole. They're referring to us, the US, and often our egotism. But I digress.

It got me to thinking, at 5:30 in the morning, is 'cue really the only American food? I laid there in bed and pondered other greats. Pizza? No good, it's Italian. Hamburgers? Supposedly German. Same with hot dogs, aka frankfurters. Chop Suey? While technically invented in Texas, it is still based on Chinese food. Same thing with fortune cookies. By the time my alarm went off at 6am, I had only thought of one other food: fudge. Legend has it this wonderful delight was invented by a student at Vassar College a hundred or so years ago. By the time I'd gotten out of the shower, I had added maple syrup to the list.

As I sat down at my desk at work, I realized that corn is indiginous to America (and not just the United States), and so various corn dishes might count. Potatoes too. But it's still a pretty short list. During this time, I also thought about a comment that I think I read in Culinary Artistry, about how Mexican food is technically a fusion food because it's really a combination of Spanish cuisine and Aztec cuisine. Even Mexico is low on truly Mexican dishes! Canada? Who knows, eh? They'll probably blame it all on the French. Or give credit to. Or something like that.

As I continued to ponder, I headed over to the Utah Open Source Planet for my daily fix. The top article was by Peter Abilla, and on the surface seemed to be about Krispy Kreme. Note: Donuts are said to be an invention of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Melting pot food. Anyway, he talked about the process a bit, and the free donut offer that pulled him and his family in there in the first place. The offer has never pulled me in because I'm assuming that the only free donut they hand out is the classic glazed donut, which is also the only donut they sell that I truly and utterly dislike. One day I will go in and actually find out. Anyway, after a while, a couple of things occurred to me. First, he wasn't really talking about donuts as I had hoped, he was actually talking about process. Enthralled, I read the whole article. Second, I noted the irony. He suggested that the free Krispy Kreme donut isn't truly free, because he felt obligated to buy something while he was there, in this case a $2.50 chocolate milk. Note the parallels between his visit to them, and my reading his article.

Back to process. It was truly interesting to me that he focused on things like waste. I'm not just talking about the candy bar wrapper left over after you eat the candy bar. I thought about when I was a baker, and learned that it's next to impossible to only do one thing at a time in the bakery and be successful. When I would walk in in the morning, I would turn on the ovens. As they heated, I would walk over to the coolers and unlock them, and then go down to the dressing room to get in uniform. By the time I got back, the ovens were heated, and I could put the morning's breakfast foods in, and start doing inventory and check the task list for the day. The rest of the day was like that. If something was baking, then I would use that time to mix something else. I always had several processes going at once, and was always trying to eliminate not just wasted time, but wasted steps. My boss would often catch me taking unnecessary steps, and try to help me learn to eliminate them. And I mean footsteps. Walking back and forth across the bakery wastes time. A successful baker learns what order to do things in, how to most efficiently walk across the kitchen. To this day, I cannot even ride an excercise bike without reading a cook book, or setting up my notebook on an ironing board across my handlebars, to slam out code. To just ride to bike is beyond me. I have to be doing something else at the same time, or else I will feel unproductive.

Even now, I'm not just typing up a blog entry. Part of my brain is still trying to figure out foods that are truly, 100% American. Another part wants to think about fudge. I finally found coconut cream, which is nearly an impossible task in Utah County. Another part is still thinking about last night's adventures in mango ice cream (expect an update on that sometime today or tomorrow). And yet, I still can't help but feel that I'm not doing everything as effectively as possible. Could I be listening to a foreign language tape right now, in an effort to finally learn Japanese? Would my brain be able to handle it, or would that cause mental saturation? The journey goes on. Maybe I'll figure it out.

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Ginger Ice Cream

So I decided to make ginger ice cream. Why? Who knows where thoughts come from? They just appear. But I do like ginger, and occassionally ice cream. Sadly, not all the cards were in my favor. I thought it would be really keen to add a hint of lemongrass, but alas, the lemongrass I had was no longer any good. I decided to go with lime instead, but just a hint of it. I looked at several ginger ice cream recipes online, and then decided to base mine off of the frozen desserts chapter of Professional Baking instead.

Ginger Ice Cream

1 pint milk
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely grated
3/4 cup sugar
4 oz cream cheese, softened
6 egg yolks
juice of half a lime
pinch salt
1 1/2 tablespoons crystalized ginger, finely chopped

The ginger should be grated on a microplane grater, if possible. Add it, along with the milk and heavy cream, to a sauce pan and bring to a simmer. While the milk mixture is heating, cream together the sugar and cream cheese in a metal bowl. When light and fluffy, mix in the egg yolks one at a time, scraping down the sides and the beaters every so often. Mix in the lime juice and the salt. When the milk reaches a simmer, temper it into the other mixture and move it to a double boiler. Whisk over the double boiler until it thickens slightly, and then move the bowl to an ice water bath. Whisk until it cools, and then strain into a plastic container. Refrigerate overnight, and then freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. When it reaches soft serve consistency, fold in the crystalized ginger and move to the freezer.

Okay, so I know it's kind of a complicated process. But hey, this is good ice cream. I just barely put mine in the freezer, making sure to taste test it first. I know that cold is supposed to mask flavor, but I daresay this stuff is actually more intense frozen than it is before giving it the chill. And wow, it's good. I didn't really catch any of the lime flavor, so I may add the rest of the lime next time. Then again, the lime may just be that thing that I don't taste right away, but would miss if it wasn't there.