Thursday, October 29, 2009
You're hungry. It's dark outside. The house is cold. You open the freezer and stare at the frozen dinner you bought two months ago but never nuked. A can of chicken noodle soup in the pantry holds the promise of a warm meal but a quick read of the label tells you that the salt content is high enough to brine a Thanksgiving turkey.
Your mind tries to convince you that you aren't all that hungry. Maybe all you really want is a glass of wine and a bowl of dry cereal.
But you are hungry and you'd feel a lot better if you had a home cooked meal.
The truth is all it takes is a little planning and a couple of easy-to-make recipes and you'll actually look forward to coming home and cooking dinner. Ok, maybe that's a little Pollyannaish, but you get the idea.
First things first.
Stop at a farmers' market or the grocery store and buy a few essentials: fresh fruit (maybe a bunch of grapes, a pear, an apple or stone fruit), a leafy green (romaine or arugula), carrots, a basket of tomatoes (if they're still in season), a bunch of Italian parsley, spinach or kale, a clove of garlic, a couple of onions, some fresh fish or organic meat, and whatever else looks good to you.
When you get home at night, don't go straight into the kitchen.
Get out of your work clothes, wash your face, and slip into something comfy. Now when you go into the kitchen, you'll be re-energized. Give yourself 30 minutes to make dinner.
Here are two ideas to help get you started.
Arugula Salad with Avocado and Croutons
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes
2 bunches farmers' market fresh arugula, washed, pat dried, stems removed
1 carrot, peeled, ends trimmed, cut into thin rounds
1 medium sized avocado, peeled, roughly chopped
1 scallion, washed, ends removed, green and white parts thinly sliced
1/4 cup croutons, preferably home made
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and pepper
In a small saucepan, over a very low flame, slowly reduce the balsamic vinegar to 2 teaspoons. 5-10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Tear the arugula into bite-sized pieces and put into the bottom of a salad bowl. Add the other vegetables and croutons. Toss well.
Drizzle with olive oil and the reduced balsamic vinegar. Season with sea salt and pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Add 1/4 cup chopped tomatoes
Add 4 pieces crispy bacon, chopped
Add 1/4 pound grilled shrimp, roughly chopped
Add 1/4 cup fresh grapefruit sections, peeled
Fish with a Spanish Accent
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes
2 pounds white fish--sole, swordfish, halibut, flounder--washed, deboned, skin removed
1 medium yellow onion or 4 shallots, washed, skins removed, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, roughly chopped
1/4 cup green or black Mediterranean olives, pitted, roughly chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley
1/4 cup fresh corn kernels
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon capers
1/4 teaspoon Spanish paprika
Sea salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
Cut the fish into squares roughly 2" by 2". Put half the olive oil on a plate, season with paprika, sea salt and pepper, dredge the pieces of fish in the oil and put aside.
In a large frying pan saute all the vegetables and herbs, except the tomatoes, with the remaining olive oil until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Because of the capers, additional salt may not be needed. Then, push them to one side of the pan to make room for the fish.
Pour the seasoned olive oil from the plate into the frying pan. Add the pieces of fish and saute until lightly browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Carefully turn over the pieces and spoon the saute over the top of the fish while the other side cooks.
Top with the chopped tomatoes and continue cooking another 4-5 minutes.
Serve hot with a salad or a side dish of sauteed vegetables--garlic spinach or steamed broccoli for example.
Substitute fresh cilantro for the Italian parsley
Add 1/4 teaspoon pepper flakes to the saute
Finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Friday, October 23, 2009
The truth is, if you don't recharge on the weekend, you're toast next week. You'll be in a bad mood. You won't look forward to work, school, or those never-ending errands.
So you owe it to your good humor, your health, productivity and the betterment of all your relationships to kick back and take it easy.
A cool refreshing drink is a great way to slow down and smell the roses, or, in this case, the fresh fruit.
These drinks are all about the quality of the fruit. The limes, oranges, and passion fruit need to be fresh and juicy. The rum must be white. The sugar powdered.
Besides that, you'll need a couple of ice cubes and a muddler or a spoon. Now you're set to entertain yourself or share the good times with friends.
Passion Fruit, Lime or Orange & White Rum
Pick either lime or orange, the choice is yours.
Yield: 1 serving
Time: 5 minutes
1/4 cup finely chopped lime or orange, with juice
1 teaspoon passion fruit pulp including seeds
1/4 cup white rum
1 heaping tablespoon powdered sugar
4 ice cubes
Crush the lime or orange in a glass with a wooden muddler or the back of a spoon, add the passion fruit, rum and sugar. Stir to mix well.
Add the ice cubes and serve with a small spoon, the better to sip and stir and sip some more.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Now we're trying to keep warm and dry as dark clouds matte out the sky and cold winds push thick rain drops against our bodies. At a time like this, happiness is a good parka and thick socks!
Wrapping up in a thick blanket or cozying up to a well-stoked fireplace fortifies body and soul against the chill. For internal weatherproofing, though, nothing beats the cold better than homemade soup.
Simple is often best and that is doubly true in soups. When I'm cold, I want my soup hot, fresh tasting, and flavorful.
Vegetable soup is easy-to-make and nourishing. Perfect any time of the day, but when the weather's cold and rainy, I like soup in the morning. It's better than a cup of coffee or tea to get me out the door.
8 Vegetable Soup
For visual appeal, the vegetables are all cut the same size as corn kernels.
Please check out the Variations below. The soup makes a good base for the addition of other flavors and ingredients.
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes
1 medium yellow onion, skin removed, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, skins removed, finely chopped
1 medium potato, peel on, washed, finely chopped
1 ear of corn, husks and silks removed, kernels cut off
2 carrots, washed, trimmed, peeled, finely chopped
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, dried, leaves and stems finely chopped
1 cup brown mushrooms, washed, pat dried, finely chopped
10 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
3 cups spinach leaves and stems, washed thoroughly, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 cups water
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Sea salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium flame. Saute the onions and garlic until lightly browned. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the other vegetables. Cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the water, bring to a light boil. Continue to simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. For a creamier texture, add the sweet butter.
Serve hot, topped with croutons, preferably homemade.
Use chicken or meat stock instead of water
Trade out any of the vegetables for broccoli, zucchini, leeks, squash, kale, or any vegetable you like
Use chopped arugula instead of the spinach
For a hearty soup, in the final 5 minutes, add 1 cup cooked pasta, like ziti, penne, fussili or 1 cup cooked rice or 1 cup cooked white beans
Add 1 cup cooked, shredded chicken meat
Add 1 cup roughly chopped sauteed sausage
Season with 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary or oregano added to the saute
Just before serving, sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
For a touch of heat, dust the saute with cayenne
Thursday, October 8, 2009
To get decent food I traveled to New York to buy ethnic ingredients, read cook books and taught myself how to cook.
Recently I had the chance to return to Rhode Island to write a series of food and travel articles. I spent two weeks traveling around the state, eating in a great variety of settings, from diners and beach-side clam shacks to upscale bistros and fine dining restaurants.
I discovered a lot has changed in Rhode Island. The state is now home to dozens of passionate chefs with incredibly smart palates.
Johanne Killeen and George Germon (Al Forno), Brian Kingsford (Bacaro) Kevin Thiele (One Bellvue in the Hotel Viking), Kyle Ketchum (Spiced Pear in the Chanler Hotel), Champe Spiegle (Persimmon), Matt and Kate Jennings (Farmstead and La Laiterie), Ed Reposa (Thee "Red" Fez), Matt Gennuso (Chez Pascal), Ross Audino (Hotel Manisses), Bruce Tillinghast and Beau Vestal (New Rivers) to name a few.
Whether they're running a 10 or a 50 table restaurant, they want their customers to have the most satisfying experience possible. They care deeply about finding the best ingredients. They are constantly innovating and changing their menus. Good food is taken seriously in Rhode Island.
These are chefs with extraordinary energy. Like Derek Wagner, chef/owner of Nick's On Broadway. He is in the kitchen from the breakfast service at 7:00am until the restaurant closes at night. His energy, focus, and attention to details is mesmerizing. His food, delicious.
He is one of many.
The chefs know each other. They eat in one another's restaurants. They share ideas. They shop together. They help one another when needed. This is a community in the best sense of the word.
When I lived in Providence I had to fend for myself and that was good for my cooking. If I lived in Rhode Island today I might not have learned how to cook, but I probably wouldn't miss it. I'd be eating too well to notice.
Monday, October 5, 2009
On either side of a long street, booths are set up with sellers hawking their wares. You'll hear laughter and a hundred conversations as people walk down the crowded street or stand in line at the booths.
Imagine a midway that looks very much like a county fair only instead of having rides, baking contests, and pens with animals, at a rib rib-cook, everyone is selling meat.
Pork ribs, beef ribs, brisket, turkey drumsticks, barbecue chicken, pulled pork, and hot links.
Ok, that's a slight exaggeration. Not everyone is selling meat.
You can buy sides that go with meat: cole slaw and baked beans and you can buy lots of fried things--thick fried onion rings, zucchini strips, hush puppies, garlic fries, and potato chips piled high on a plate looking very much like a small mountain.
For those watching their diets, there is fresh fruit on a stick and freshly squeezed lemonade. If you want something sweet, there are booths selling fennel cakes, shaved ice and chocolate dipped fruit on sticks.
But you don't come to a rib-cook because you want to eat all that other stuff. You come to a cook-off because you love to eat meat and you love barbecue.
You might see people in PETA t-shirts and you'd scratch your head wondering why animal rights advocates would be here, but then you read the fine print and you'd understand. At a rib cook-off, PETA means "People for the Eating of Tasty Animals."
In early September I was on assignment for Peter Greenberg to be a judge at John Ascuaga's Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off, my second year and the Cook-Off's 21st.
Over six days, the Nugget's rib-cook attracts over 500,000 people, who come together for a celebration of good times and good food.
There are families everywhere you turn. Toddlers in strollers. Babes in arms. Teenagers who might not otherwise hang out with their parents are happily comparing notes about a favorite rib cooker or fiery barbecue sauces, like Johnson BBQ's ThermoNuclear or Rasta Joe's Island Fire sauce.
The Nugget adds to the fun with bands playing day and night. The sound of rock and country music drifts through the air, combining with the sweet smoke that pours off the wood burning grills as the racks of ribs are coated with thick brush-strokes of barbecue sauce.
People find space on the picnic benches that have been set up in the shade. Mostly though, impromptu picnics happen as soon as the people get their ribs. They can't wait. The ribs are that good.
People who come to a rib cook-off don't just come to have a quick bite to eat. Not a chance. They've come to sample and compare.
If you strike up a conversation with people as they eat their ribs, you'll find out that this isn't their first cook-off. Odds are they've attended the Best of the West before and they've come back to enjoy the ribs from their favorite cookers.
They'll eat a basket of ribs. Lick their fingers. Grab an ice cold lemonade. Walk around a bit. Listen to the music, maybe gamble a bit, then they're back out to the midway to try another cooker's ribs.
The conversations you'll hear as you walk down the midway are all about ribs and sauce. If there's inside-baseball talk, then at a cook-off, you'll hear inside-barbecue talk.
Which cookers are at the top of their game. Whose meat has the best balance of smoke and tenderness. Which rib has just the right edge of heat. There are comparisons between old favorites and new ones. Which sauces hit flavor out of the ballpark.
In addition to the judges ranking of the Best Ribs and Best Sauce, there's also a People's Choice award. People have their favorites and they lobby one another to promote the cookers they like.
Butch of Smack Your Lips BBQ is a favorite because he beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network's rib Throwdown. There are long lines in front of Rasta Joe's because who can resist barbecue with Jamaican flavors and heat? Last year's winner for best ribs, Bone Daddy's Bill Wall, has so many fans, they've started a Facebook page and he tweets to let people back home know what's happening each day at the cook-off.
The cookers are as enthusiastic about ribs as are the fans. They literally live, breath, and sleep dry rubs, sauces, and quality of meat. Of the 24 cookers in competition, 23 are on the road 4 months of the year.
From just before Memorial Day to just after Labor Day, the cookers criss-cross the United States in big rigs, pulling their mammoth smokers and barbecue grills. They move from competition to competition, selling their meats and sauces, going up again long-time competitors, and (hopefully) picking up more trophies along the way.
But even if they don't win, this is big business. Only a few of the cookers have restaurants. Most make their living doing catering and traveling the competitive barbecue circuit. In a down economy, where their catering business might be off because corporations don't have as much to celebrate and they've cut back on events, the cook-off business is as good as ever. Virginia Beach's Dan Johnson of Johnson's BBQ says, "People are staying local, enjoying themselves. The cook-offs are good for families. There are things for dads to do, moms too, and the kids get to play. There's lots to do."
The Nugget's Best of the West is a great example why business is so good. Where else can a family have so much fun for so little money?
There's no admission fee. The entertainment is free. Everyone is welcome to stop and listen to the bands that play day and night. A large crafts fair is set up nearby where you can shop for clothing, hand-made jewelry, household decorations, and toys. There's plenty to eat and drink. The most expensive plate of food is under $15.00. You're hanging out with family and friends.
So where do the big guys like to eat when they’re on the road?
Butch eats ribs from old friend Ray “Red” Allen Gill’s Razorback, stopping by Red’s place in Arkansas and when they’re at events competing against one another.
Peter and Roberta Rathmann of BJ's Nevada Barbecue Company--the only Sparks barbecue restaurant at the competition—-try small, family operations when they travel because they want to see what people like themselves are doing.
Joe Alexander of Rasta Joe’s likes Corky’s in Memphis, Tennessee for the pulled pork and ribs.
But surprisingly, what most cookers recommend isn’t what you’d think.
Most agree with Bill Wall who says, “The honest truth is I don’t eat a lot of barbecue. I love to visit and see barbecue places [when he’s traveling]. But when I’m going out to eat, I like Caesar salads and shrimp, a good pasta or a great piece of meat.”
Unlike Bill and the other cookers, I rarely get the chance to eat great ribs and I love them. So being a judge at the Best of the West is a great treat.
The tough part, though, is the waiting. The first rule of the contest is that no judge may eat a rib until the judging.
Walking past all those cookers, their grills ablaze, the smell of barbecue sauce and smoke in the air, is pure torture. Watching crowds of people eating baskets of ribs and licking thick, sweet sauce off their fingers, it takes all my self-control so I don't just reach over and grab one of those ribs and devour it on the spot.
But I’m true to my judge’s oath and I wait.
The tasting begins in hushed silence. The second rule of judging is “No talking.” In 40 minutes, each judge has to evaluate either 12 (the preliminary round) or 10 (the final round) ribs. Walking around the chafing dishes we solemnly nibble on a bone, evaluating each rib for appearance, tenderness, mouth feel, and taste (salty, sweet, and heat).
Some ribs I like right away. Others I’m convinced aren’t good. But in fairness I know that a cooker shouldn’t be judged on one rib alone. So it’s back around the table for a second tasting. I score each one. Then I go back a third time to confirm my favorites. I’m dying to know who I like, but all I know is a number.
After the judging we’re invited to a special area where the cookers bring their ribs to a large tent so it’s easier to try everyone’s ribs and sauces. Now I have the chance to put a face to a rib, so I methodically take one rib from each serving dish (if you’re keeping track that’s 24 ribs) and carefully write on the Styrofoam plate the name of the cooker. I take a bite out of each one but only eat the whole rib if it’s great.
By the end I think I have a pretty good idea which cookers made my favorite ribs. I keep it to myself because the results of the contest aren't announced until tomorrow.
When I go to bed that night, I go to sleep happy and very full. In four hours, I’ve eaten 30 ribs.
After about an hour, I wake up with terrible chest pains so bad I am convinced I am dying. I know I should call the front desk and ask them to call an ambulance, but the pain is intense, I can’t move a muscle.
Then I realize I'm not having a heart attack. It is heartburn. You can’t eat that many ribs and not pay the price.
But it was worth it