Day 31: Acknowledge the Corn

    When I look back at how this month has progressed, I have to acknowledge the corn. I often feel like I didn’t give you enough.  I should have provided my favorite shrimp over onions and tomatoes recipe. I should have come clean with the pulled pork recipe that people can’t believe I make at home, or my waffles from scratch that the kids take on the train everyday.  Maybe it’s enchiladas you wanted. Or potato and chorizo tacos. Patatas bravas, perhaps? Buttermilk pancakes. Tacos al pastor. Maybe the glaze I used for grilled duck breasts last week. The maple pecan butter I plan to emulate from a meal I had recently.  Japanese egg salad sandwiches. The huevos rancheros I made for a work breakfast. Mom’s Apple pie. There were so many good ones I didn’t get to. Maybe I should have spent more time on techniques. Or cookbooks. Or restaurants. No, not restaurants. You have to travel a lot more than I do to be an expert on amazing cuisine.  Many of you have probably gone to a lot more finer places than I have. To be honest, I didn’t plan any of this ahead of time, and while I usually paid for it in the furious scribble to get it done, the recipes were pulled from whatever loose connection my brain could make to the title or story.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  I’m no chef. Far from it. I’m probably not picky enough to be a really good one.  My appetite just outweighs my level of excellence, I suppose. I’m honest about food, but I don’t completely pick apart the meals I don’t cook myself, and I’m not above eating fish sticks and Kraft mac ‘n cheese with the kiddos when the moment calls for it.  But if you give me a chance or two, I can probably make you something memorable, and being in the kitchen or over the grill or tending the smoker is one of my favorite times to be me. That’s probably why I chose that theme this year. Most of our meals at home are simple.  My kids are little, and getting any kind of dinner on the table that has a starch, a fresh vegetable and protein is a winner in our house. While I love to tackle difficult dishes, the fact remains that most of the time I’m grilling pork chops or chicken that’s been brined in a simple flavored solution, and we’ll eat leftovers for the next two or three meals.  Or the Wife is furiously preparing something in the wok. On the weekends, on special occasions, these are the times I get to play.

    In the end, I’ve become a mixture of my father’s strictness to original recipes, and my mother’s improvisation.  One helps me attempt and execute a recipe, the second allows me the chance to improve it, if that’s something I’m interested in attempting.  The fact of the matter is that I just love to feed people. As I’ve repeated several times, my wife’s family is rather large, and when we all come together for my kids’ birthdays, or a major holiday, cooking for an enormous group is one of my favorite things.  Sure, I don’t always get to talk to the guests as much as everyone else, especially for those birthday parties where I’m often grilling for three straight hours. But in the words of Anthony Bourdain, “Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating…The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”  

    I love stories.  Most people who know anything about me know that.  And for me, there are so many stories attached to the act of cooking.  Perhaps it’s my father-in-law sharing his after-dinner stories about coming to America from Hong Kong and arriving in San Francisco, how he traveled to Chicago by bus, surviving on one hotdog and one Coke each day for a week.  About how he refused to use the bathrooms at the stops they made through the south because the signs only said ‘Colored’ or ‘Whites’ and he wasn’t sure which one would be less dangerous for him as a Chinese man. Perhaps it’s my grandmother telling stories after Easter dinner about the pickle barrel on her father’s farm, or stuffing Swedish sausage with a hollowed out bull’s horn when she was a kid.  Or maybe it’s all the stories that are generated from the act of cooking and eating, losing a thumb tip or a tooth or burning your first grilled cheese to a crisp. Because it’s just as important to the stories when things don’t go as planned. Perhaps it’s because smell is so closely tied our memories. Olfactory memory. That summer grill conjuring up picnics with the family or a charred Spiderman toy.  Cooking bacon bringing us back to forgotten memories of vacations at the family cabin and my grandmother trying to feed an army from a tiny kitchen. Whatever it is, it’s the thing that will keep me cooking, because good food brings good company, and the very best of stories.

    I was struggling for a recipe this morning, so my daughter decided for me in two words.

    “Rosemary Shortbread,” she said.  

    It’s one of her favorite desserts.  Pulled from the cookbook Flour by Joanne Chang, she requests it all the time when my wife bakes.  Also, if you ever get to Boston, go to her bakery/cafe. (same name as the book)..it’s wonderful.  When we threw a garage sale last year, my daughter wanted to have a Bake Sale. She has a pretty amazing mind for cooking and baking for a six year old.  So I did what any self-respecting father would do. I built her a Bake Sale stand out of scrap wood in the garage. She painted it herself, and made us all crazy proud when she decided that she wanted to donate half of her earnings to the charity headed by her favorite Cub, The Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, which raises money for families battling cancer.  It’s pretty humbling when a six year old is smarter than her daddy. Cheers to you, Emma, for letting us end with something a little sweet. Enjoy.

 

Rosemary Shortbread

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“Crumbly and delicate, these shortbread cookies are infused with subtle rosemary flavor. They are stealth cookies: They don’t look like much, they don’t sound fancy shmancy, and you probably don’t expect them to become your new favorite cookie.  But they will sneak up on you. I find that after I eat one, I keep going back again and again to have ‘just another bite,’ and before I know it, I’ve eaten three or four. They melt in your mouth, and they are especially appealing served with espresso after an Italian dinner. They are also nice to have on hand unbaked in the freezer for when guests drop by unexpectedly.”

 

Ingredients    

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature

½ cup packed light brown sugar

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ cornstarch

¾ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon baking powder

 

Directions

  1. Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a handheld mixer or a wooden spoon), cream the butter on medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until light and pale. (This step will take 3 to 4 minutes if using a handheld mixer and about 5 minutes if using a spoon.) Add the sugar and beat on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until light and fluffy.  Stop the mixer a few times and use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and the paddle to release any clinging butter or sugar. On low speed, add the egg yolk and rosemary and beat for about 1 minute, or until thoroughly combined.
  2. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder. On low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture and then mix just until the flour mixture is totally incorporated and the dough is evenly mixed. Stop the mixer several times to scrape the bowl and the paddle to free any trapped flour mixture.
  3. Scrape the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap, and wrap the dough in the plastic wrap, pressing down to form a disk about 8 inches in diameter and 1 inch thick. Refrigerate the dough for about 20 minutes, or until it is firm enough to roll out.
  4. Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  5. On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle about 12 by 10 inches and ¼ inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the dough into 12 to 15 uniform pieces-rectangles, triangles, or cookie-cutter shapes-and arrange them on a baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. (At this point, the cookies can be tightly wrapped and frozen for up to 2 weeks. Bake as directed directly from the freezer. You may need to add a few minutes to the baking time.)
  6. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the cookies are medium golden brown all the way through. Let cool on the baking sheet on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
  7. The cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Baker’s Bite: When I chop fresh rosemary, I use a trick I picked up from the savory side of the kitchen. I add a teaspoon of sugar to the rosemary leaves, which helps me chop them finer and prevents them from sticking to the knife.

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Day 30: The Meat of the Matter

    I really have to apologize for the typos, grammatical mistakes, and other nonsense in the blog posts this month.  That stuff drives me nuts usually, but it speaks to the sheer scramble to get these things done, and my absolute horror at having to post first drafts of my writing online for the world to see.  I don’t go back to read them for that very reason, as I would probably delete them, and spend another three hours trying to actually tell a coherent story. For this challenge I simply have to let them go, like baby birds falling out of the nest, although most of these have certainly fallen to their death.  Thanks to all of you for the positive comments along the way, and for not destroying me with replies about spelling.

    Yesterday’s post probably should have included some sort of lobster recipe, based on the title, but I don’t really have any.  Living near Chicago makes it difficult to locate good, fresh lobster at the market without paying a ridiculous price. You’re better off going out to a place like Glenn’s Diner on Montrose.  Please God, go there if you’re in that part of the city. The menu changes weekly, depending on what seafood they’ve had flown in, and I’ve enjoyed every single meal I’ve eaten from that kitchen. I fell in love with swordfish, and learned some good lessons on cooking scallops from the server.  Tuesdays are All-You-Can-Eat Alaskan king crab legs. The food is fresh and the prices are fair. It’s so worth your time.

    The truth is, I’ve only cooked lobster once.  And it was in Boston, where we were able to purchase lobster for $5 a pound.  I know. Three whole crazy fresh lobsters for $15. We were visiting my sister-in-law, and stopped by the local supermarket, deciding on a whim to purchase them.  Since they resemble large bugs, the Wife wasn’t having any of it, but I was excited to steam my first lobster. And there was no real need for a recipe.  Just a pot with a steamer basket, salt, water, and lots of butter. I will say, however, as excited as I was to do it, a little part of me died putting a live lobster into that pot.  Having never spent any time thinking about the process, about how I would be cooking him alive, it gave me a little pause as I lowered him in with the tongs. Make no mistake, I shed no tears ten minutes later while I was devouring the meat from its tail after dunking it in a small bowl of melted butter, but it was rather eerie to cook something for the first time while it was still alive.  Sorry to those of you who just shuddered. Oh, and it was pure heaven by the way, to add insult to injury. That bright red color, the natural sweetness, it was so much better than the processed stuff I’d eaten in my mac ‘n cheese, or tossed with fresh pasta at Italian restaurants I knew.

    Like sauces, the rest of my family doesn’t really do spicy either.  And yes, it breaks my heart. Over the years I have scorched my taste buds by indulging in spicy foods to the point where I can’t really taste heat in jalapenos anymore.  I love their flavor and texture, but they may as well be green peppers. There are, however, two instances where spicy foods were not my friend. The first was during a trip with the family to Nashville, where I had to try the hot chicken.  I’d already tried the best brisket I’ve ever had in my life at Jack’s Bar-B-Que, so I was prepared for greatness.

    The line was already out the door when we got to Hattie B’s, but we were patient, and found ourselves at the counter after about 20 minutes.  You’re provided several levels of heat choices at Hattie B’s, so I was careful, opting for a full level below the hottest for my tenders, choosing to go boneless at the recommendation of my wife’s cousin.  I wasn’t boastful about my ability to handle heat, but I was confident, and excited at what I expected to be the sheer deliciousness of a Nashville staple.

     It’s not often that spicy food actually looks spicy, but the chicken tenders they set down in front of me looked as though they’d been cooked in a dragon’s belly.  That was my first moment of pause.  There was a dark red hue to them, and I swear, for a second, I thought I saw smoke in the vague shape of a skull and crossbones rising up from their crispy edges.

    My only saving grace that day was the fact that we were sitting right next to the fountain drink machine.  It was so hot that I could barely appreciate the chicken itself, which was cooked perfectly beneath that blistered coating.  I’m sure I got up to refill my water no less than thirty-seven times in fifteen minutes. Sweat glistened on my temples. My lips smoldered with a flaming jazz.  It became a challenge by the time I finished my first one, wiping the sweat from my brow. I had to finish them.  Mephistopheles grinned a fiery sneer from somewhere in the bowels of the kitchen, and my stomach and head began arguing with one another.

    “C’mon, we can do this, stomach.”

    “How do people stand it?  Holy hell, there’s a hotter level than this.  This isn’t food.  It’s torture.  I’m sending it back up.”

    “No, no, don’t.  Hey, we’re halfway there.”

    “Are you wearing blue?  I’m pretty sure I can see your t-shirt through the hole that’s forming.”

    “Stop.  Don’t wimp out now.  You chose to get the ‘Damn Hot’ level.  Man up.”

    “The water isn’t helping.  It’s just boiling.”

    “C’mon.  Just one more.  Let’s do this.”

    “You know what?  Go for it. Don’t worry, I’ll pay you back later.”

   I managed to finish somehow, feeling like I was pregnant with a Tasmanian devil made of lava, when it occurred to me how much trouble I might actually be in.  And I’ll spare the details of the rest of my night, but my troubles were far from over.

    The second time spicy got the better of me was at a bar near my house, where Matt and I were having a few beers.  It was a warm summer night, the place was busy, and in walked three guys who’d clearly had a long day working outside. They radiated heat.  Covered in dirt and grass, sporting long sleeves and dusty blue jeans and baseball caps.  They sat next to us, and immediately started sucking down Bud Lights, their hands swollen and knotty, their shoulders tired, but eyes alert. After they ordered from the menu the waitress brought over a piece of paper and a pen and began reading something to them.  Their English wasn’t terribly strong so the conversation was clumsy, and I couldn’t help but do some ear hustling. I gathered that the paper was a waiver, a mandatory form attached to the spiciness of the ghost pepper wings they had ordered.  The three men shared a hearty laugh with one another before signing it.  A waiver? Yowsa.

    When the wings finally showed, I watched the three men dunk them in it over and over into the sauce, cleaning the bones easily.  And then one of them saw me watching.

    “You want to try?” he asked.  

     “Um,” I paused. Of course I did.  I really need to wash that ‘idiot’ sign off my forehead.

    Now before you roll your eyes at me, give me a little credit.  I took one french fry, and dipped just a half-inch or so into the sauce before I tried it.  Matt, like me, was hesitant at first, but did the same. The hell that set my throat on fire made me pray for death as it continued to get hotter and hotter and hotter.  Well, this…isn’t so…OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO DIE.  I understood the waiver.  Every time I thought the heat level was coming to an end, it laughed and went higher.

“Hot?” my new landscaping friend asked.

    “Not too bad,” I wheezed, after a long sip from my beer, doing everything I could to keep my eyeballs from sizzling out of their sockets.  

    I received a hearty laugh from the three men, and squeezed a sheepish smile around my flaming scowl.  They continued to dunk their whole wings in the stuff like it was ketchup. Matt whispered to me a few minutes later.  

    “Holy f***.  My throat is still burning.”  It was nearly a half hour and two more beers before the fire extinguished, all because of a couple drops of ghost pepper sauce.

    Those stories aside, I still like spicy, but I know my limits.  And since the Wife and kids don’t like it, I keep it pretty tame in the kitchen.  If I want a little kick, I just grab the Tabasco or sriracha.  One spicy recipe that I love, however, is for Jerk Rib-eyes. Once again, my buddy Matt is responsible for bringing these flavors into my life, raving about his experiences after a trip to Jamaica.  So often you only see Jerk seasoning attached to chicken or pork or fish. But it is amazing on steak as well. And I find rib-eyes to be the absolute best cut in the world of steak. Sorry to those of you who happen to live fat-free.  I can totally appreciate your journey. But fat-free sucks.

    Thanks to Nigel Spence, the chef who beat Bobby Flay in a jerk rib-eye throwdown, for this wonderful recipe.  It’s pure summer for me in the sweet, hot, tangy blend of bold spices, and even though it includes a scotch bonnet pepper, it’s not a burn-your-face-off kind of recipe.  Please only touch those while wearing gloves, by the way. They are not to be carelessly handled. This is an all time favorite. Enjoy.

 

“Big Ass” Jerk Rib-Eye Steak with Chadon Beni Sauce

 

INGREDIENTS636240609092817988-mv030117ripekitchen07

5 cloves garlic

1/2 cup coarsely chopped green onions (white and green parts)

1/2 cup whole ajicito peppers (optional)

1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper

1/4 cup fresh thyme leaves

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

1/3 cup ground allspice

1/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1/4 cup kosher salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup vegetable oil

4 (1-pound) boneless rib-eye steaks, each about 1 1/4 inches thick

Chadon Beni Sauce (recipe follows)

 

Chadon Beni Sauce

1 cup densely packed fresh chadon beni (see Note) or cilantro leaves

3/4 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 cup fresh lime juice, or more if needed

1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper

1/4 cup chopped green onions (white and green parts)

6 cloves garlic

1 tablespoon kosher salt

 

Instructions

To make Chadon Beni Sauce, combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Add a little extra lime juice if the puree is too thick to pour.

To make the rub, put the garlic cloves, green onions, ajicito (if desired), Scotch bonnet, and thyme in a food processor and pulse to make a paste. Add the ginger, allspice, brown sugar, 1/4 cup salt, 2 tablespoons black pepper, the white pepper, and the nutmeg and cinnamon. Pulse to incorporate. With the processor running, slowly stream in the vegetable oil, processing until the mixture is almost smooth.

Season one side of the steaks generously with salt and pepper. Flip the steaks over and smear each one with about 2 tablespoons jerk rub. Cover and refrigerate for 1 or up to 24 hours.

Remove the steaks from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.

Preheat a grill to high or a grill pan over high heat.

Place the steaks, rub side down, on the grill and cook for 7 minutes; the rub should form a nice crust. Flip and cook for about 6 more minutes for medium-rare. Let rest off the heat for 10 minutes.

Top with Chadon Beni Sauce, and serve.

Day 29: Die for the Want of Lobster Sauce

   Yet another idiom I hadn’t heard before I started writing this blog, and I love this one so much that I’m going to try to awkwardly work this into conversation this week, just to see who notices.  Essentially it means to be devastated by some minor inconvenience. This phrase is thought to date back to the reign of Louis XIV, who had a chef commit suicide when he realized he didn’t have the ingredients to make a proper lobster sauce before a large banquet.  

    As with most things, there may be little truth to this story, but, I’ll admit, cooking can often make us feel this way.  So much planning. So many steps. So easy to be derailed by something not going the way we hoped. Like the potatoes on my first date with my wife.  Like the brownies my friend Amanda attempted. Hell, like the Thanksgiving turkey I cooked last year. I look forward to Thanksgiving more than most holidays now, if only because I get to cook for several day in advance, trying to prepare the best meal I can for what can often be forty or fifty guests.  

    Roasting.  Deep-frying.  Grilling. Smoking.  I have tried cooking turkey just about every way you can think of.  But this past year I decided to try and spit roast it on the grill, and, Lord was I excited.  I’d done a whole duck that way last fall, and loved it. Why would turkey be any different?

    I brined it as usual and threw it on the rotisserie, expecting about 4 to 5 hours before it was done.  I tended to that thing like a newborn, checking it regularly, spraying it down with a delicious solution I’d concocted.  This was going to be something that made people ooh and aah. I couldn’t wait for my son to offer his usual ‘Mmmmmmm,’ from the sidelines when I uncovered it.  When I pulled it off five and a half hours later, it looked amazing. Honestly, it was magazine worthy. People gasped as it rested on the island countertop, just like I hoped.  And then I cut into it and realized the breast meat, deep inside, close to the breast bone, had barely even begun to cook. The bird was just too damn big for the rotisserie burner to penetrate that deep.  This was a huge problem. I had about four other dishes that needed tending, so I didn’t have time to sit around the fume about it. But I’ll be honest, for a couple seconds I felt like grabbing a whole turkey leg and a six pack of beer and spending the next hour or two outside crying half frozen tears into a Spotted Cow.  

    Thank God my wife’s family is always late to a party.  I threw the half-cooked carcass in a roasting pan, covered it with foil and shoved it in alongside someone’s mac ‘n cheese in the oven.  By the time the inside finished, that meant the outer meat was about 15 degrees overcooked, which I had anticipated, but the dry chew of that first sample of turkey throbbed somewhere behind my left eye as I ground it with my molars.  I didn’t serve the really dry stuff, although it was probably no worse than most people’s experience with dry turkey every year. I was just so bummed, seeing as how I spent days preparing that bird, and how stunning it looked, only to make such a rookie mistake.  Again, you live and you learn, and the rest of the meal was fine. Stupendous even. But I have to tip my cap to that chef and his lobster sauce, fictional or not. It can certainly feel pretty raw sometimes when things don’t go according to plan, no pun intended. In cooking.  In teaching. Hell, in everyday life. It isn’t about how we’ve planned things out ahead of time. It’s how we rebound when they go awry. And even more importantly, how we grow from it.

    It’s not lobster, but these crab cakes are a favorite of mine, and I’ll stick with the seafood theme.  I made these for a seafood Thanksgiving my family had a few years back, and they were a huge hit. That trick using shrimp in the binder is key, and quite brilliant.  Thanks to America’s Test Kitchen for this one. The sauce wasn’t actually in the original recipe, just an addition of mine because, well, you know, sauce…

Enjoy.

 

Best Crab Cakes with Mustard Sauce

 

WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS9894_cvr-sfs-best-crab-cakes-clr-17-1

Our crab cakes are not bound with flavor-muting bread crumbs, gloppy mayo, and eggs.  Instead, a delicate shrimp mousse holds everything in place and enhances crabmeat’s natural sweetness. Add some classic components like Old Bay and lemon juice, and they can’t be beat.

 

INGREDIENTS

1 pound lump crab meat, picked over for shells

1 cup milk

1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs

Salt and pepper

2 celery ribs, chopped

½ cup chopped onion

1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 ounces shrimp, peeled, de-veined, and tails removed

¼ cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

 

INSTRUCTIONS

Fresh crab meat will make these crab cakes taste even better. With packaged crab, if the meat smells clean and fresh when you first open the package, skip steps 1 and 4 and simply blot away any excess liquid.

 

  1. Place crabmeat and milk in bowl, making sure crab is totally submerged. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

 

  1. Meanwhile, place ¾ cup panko in small zipper-lock bag and finely crush with rolling pin. Transfer crushed panko to 10-inch nonstick skillet and add remaining ¾ cup panko. Toast over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer panko to shallow dish and stir in ¼ teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Wipe out skillet.

 

  1. Pulse celery, onion, and garlic in food processor until finely chopped, 5 to 8 pulses, scraping down bowl as needed. Transfer vegetables to large bowl. Rinse processor bowl and blade and reserve. Melt butter in now-empty skillet over medium heat. Add chopped vegetables, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened and all moisture has evaporated, 4 to 6 minutes. Return vegetables to large bowl and let cool to room temperature. Rinse out pan and wipe clean.

 

  1. Strain crabmeat through fine-mesh strainer, pressing firmly to remove milk but being careful not to break up lumps of crabmeat.

 

  1. Pulse shrimp in now-empty food processor until finely ground, 12 to 15 pulses, scraping down bowl as needed. Add cream and pulse to combine, 2 to 4 pulses, scraping down bowl as needed. Transfer shrimp puree to bowl with cooled vegetables. Add mustard, hot pepper sauce, lemon juice, and Old Bay seasoning; stir until well combined. Add crabmeat and fold gently with rubber spatula, being careful not to overmix and break up lumps of crabmeat. Divide mixture into 8 balls and firmly press into 1/2-inch-thick patties. Place cakes on rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

 

  1. Coat each cake in panko, firmly pressing to adhere crumbs to exterior. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in now-empty skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Place 4 cakes in skillet and cook without moving them until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Using 2 spatulas, carefully flip cakes, add 1 tablespoon oil, reduce heat to medium-low, and continue to cook until second side is golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Transfer cakes to platter. Wipe out skillet and repeat with remaining 4 cakes and remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Serve immediately.

 

For the sauce

1 Tbsp Colman’s dry mustard.

1 cup mayonnaise.

2 tsp Worcestershire sauce.

1 tsp A-1 Sauce.

¼ cup heavy cream or milk.

Salt to taste

Place the mustard in a small mixing bowl. Whisk in the mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, A-1 Sauce, cream and a pinch of salt. Mix until well blended and creamy. Chill the sauce, covered, until serving.

Day 28: Put on the Feed Bag

    While Hawaii wasn’t originally the ideal destination for our honeymoon, as neither of us wanted to be traditional or cliche, it ended up being our landing-place for a week and a half.  The Wife had been everywhere.  I had been nowhere.  But she’d never been to Hawaii.  Honestly, it’s the only vacation I’ve never wanted to come home from. I was coming off an accelerated summer program of 3 classes in less than 8 weeks, or something crazy like that, and also the wedding, so I was pretty burned out.  Hawaii sounded like a great idea. We left early from O’Hare, before the sun was up, and landed in LA…at breakfast time. The long stretch of the Pacific meant that by the time we made it to Hawaii, we’d had a small breakfast twice, but nothing for eat for six hours or so.  It was basically noon-time in Kauai when we landed, and while I was giddy with excitement about the ruffling palm trees and swell of the blue glass ocean that I was starting to see via the tall windows of the car rental place, I was absolutely starving.

    A quick side note.  Most of the traveling I did as a kid was to see family.  Arkansas to see grandma (see last year’s blog). Minnesota or Indiana to see Mom’s extended family.  Florida or Bahamas to see Aunt Patty and Uncle Mike. But for the most part, traveling was restricted to car car or van, pee breaks at rest stops, and staring at atlases while Pops drove.  We ate everywhere we went, obviously, but one of the things I didn’t take into account at the time, or appreciate as much as I should have, was the importance of regional cuisines. But, looking back, even if the trips weren’t extravagant, I ate some pretty great stuff.  The BBQ in Arkansas. Conch fritters in the Bahamas. All the farm-cooked fare we devoured in Minnesota. Turtle steak at Aunt Patty’s. I can remember coming down the stairs, hearing her in the kitchen hammering out that turtle meat with a mallet, which is pretty tough otherwise.  When I asked what in the world she was doing, and she told me she was prepping dinner, and I’m not sure I’ve heard her laugh as hard as she did when she saw my face.

    A few days later my Uncle Mike took us to a small food stand at the docks in Nassau, where I watched men pull live conchs from the shell, quickly cut the squirming mollusk into pieces, toss it in a clear Ziploc bag of lemon juice and spices, and hand it to us.  My Uncle Mike turned the bag upright and devoured it.

    “I like to feel it wiggle on the way down,” he laughed his mighty laugh as we squirmed.  While I didn’t follow suit, I did try conch salad, which was still raw conch, just mixed with peppers and onions and lemon juice.  The citrus and crunch of the peppers paired with that fresh seafood flavor of the conch was delightfully fresh and tasty.

    Like I said, I hadn’t really started to appreciate the culture behind food until the time right before I met my wife, so Hawaii turned out to be heaven in terms of eating.  The salmon poke. Poi. Kalua pork. The fresh mango and papaya and coconut from roadside vendors. Spam. Yes, Spam. Shave ice. Fish tacos. Malasada donuts from Punalu’u Bake Shop.  Hula Pie at Duke’s…oh…my…God. Macadamia nut crusted opah. Kona coffee gelato. Sides of mac ‘n cheese and potato salad with everything. Mac nut crusted french toast. Ok, I have to stop this. It’s too hard to type with drool on your keyboard.  

    The food in Hawaii, the way it was borne out of an amalgamation of so many cultures, blew me away.  Polynesian. New England. Japanese. Chinese. Filipino. European. Such an interesting mix of dishes.  It started my tradition of purchasing a cookbook of regional fare every time I travel now.

    That first day, however, after we landed and secured the rental car, and our stomachs rumbled with the need for sustenance, we found ourselves eating soup.  I know, soup doesn’t sound like the best choice on a hot day on the beautiful island of Kauai. But this wasn’t any soup. It was saimin. And it’s the result of combining Japanese ramen, Chinese mein, and Filipino pancit.  Recommended by my wife’s cousin, we stopped at a small eatery just a few minutes from the airport. The first thing that stole my attention wasn’t the quaintness of the tiny shop, the screen door that slammed at your back, the salty ocean carrying through the windows on the breeze, or the looks we got from local eaters.  It was the chickens. Chickens in the parking lot. Chickens on the sidewalk. Chickens on the beach. Chickens everywhere. And roosters, who managed to sneak up and scare the daylights out of you by shrieking at your back, or wake you as early as 2 am. If there was one thing a Midwestern boy didn’t expect to see in Hawaii, it was an island overrun by chickens.  Seriously, you couldn’t get out of your car without hitting one with the door. Apparently the island had been hit by a storm some years back that set loose thousands of domesticated chickens from damaged coops, and they had certainly flourished since then. These feral birds run all over the place, a couple times even cornering my terrified wife in the car.

    So my first Hawaiian meal was a $3 bowl of saimin in a tiny, tired little restaurant.  A huge bowl of noodle soup inspired by so many cultures from around the world, listening to the crow of roosters outside, giggling at ridiculousness of it all while I admired the ingredients and toppings that included soba noodles, fresh ginger, roast pork, carrot matchsticks, sliced narutomaki (pink and white fish cake), soft-boiled eggs and green onions.  Yum. I’ve included an Instant Pot recipe for this delicious stuff, though it includes chicken instead of pork. Easily interchangeable though. Also, include whatever you love to eat in ramen: wontons, spam, shrimp, pea pods.  It really doesn’t matter.  Enjoy.

 

Instant Pot Saimin

Ingredientsdownload

2 tsp sesame oil

2 tablespoons grated or finely chopped ginger

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

4 cups chicken stock

3 1/2 cups water

1 1/4 lb skinless, bone-in chicken thighs

1/3 cup soy sauce

Dry Soba noodles – the amount can vary depending on what you use, but this recipe is for 4 servings, so use that as your reference.  Ramen works for this too.

1-2 cups finely chopped baby bok choy greens or finely chopped baby kale

1-2 cups shredded carrots

Himalayan or sea salt

1/4 cup chopped scallions or chives for optional garnish

fresh chili paste (or sriracha)

Narutomaki – Japanese pink and white fish cake, sliced, for garnish

2 – 4 soft boiled eggs for garnish (scrambled or fried works too)

 

Instructions

INSTANT POT:

Set Instant Pot to saute and add sesame oil once the pot is hot. Stir in garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, being careful not to burn the garlic.

Add in chicken, stock, water, and soy sauce. Lock lid and pressure cook for 30 minutes.

After cook time is through, remove chicken and let cool. Skim the top of the broth to remove any fat.

Add soba noodle cakes into the IP and place cover on the pot. The noodles should cook in the steam in just a few minutes…about three or so.  Don’t over cook these, as they can become gummy real fast. As soon as the noodles are soft, remove them from the pot and portion out into four bowls.

Next add the greens and the carrots to the pot. If your broth isn’t hot enough for them to steam in, turn your pot to sauté and stir your veggies as they soften or cook on manual for zero minutes.

When your veggies are cooked, carefully remove the chicken from the bones (it should fall right off) and add it the pieces to the pot. Taste the broth and season with salt (I used 1/2 tsp) and more ginger, if you want.

Scoop about 2 cups of soup on top of each bowl of noodles and garnish with scallions, dash of fresh chili paste, narutomaki, and soft boiled eggs

Day 27: In Your Salad Days

    I hadn’t actually heard this idiom until recently, but I love it.  It simply means ‘in one’s youth,’ but it makes me smile every time I read it.

    My son, who’s four, and clearly still in the throes of his salad days, has always loved food.  My children have been polar opposites when it comes to dining. My daughter, in her earliest high-chair stages, would eat until she issued a small burp, at which point you weren’t getting another bite in her mouth.  Seriously.  Her jaws could clamp shut like a castle iron gate.  My son, on the other hand, would eat ravenously, mouthful after mouthful. Like a bartender, you had to cut him off, at which point there would often be screeching sadness. Even the stuff he didn’t like. He would eat like a good soldier, and make his yucky face, sometimes shivering with disgust.  Ten seconds later, he would be sitting there, mouth open, waiting for the next yucky bite. I think he would have eaten until he burst back then if we let him.

    Food beckoned the best sounds and actions from him before he had words.  Sitting there in his high hair in Chinatown, or any restaurant for that matter, he would erupt with an “ooooohhhhhhhh,” or “mmmmmmmmmmm,” when the servers brought plates to the table.  He just loved to eat. It was loud enough to bring the table to laughter, as well as a few of the tables around us. He’s a smiley guy, too, so he’s easy to notice, often becoming the favorite guest of the table for the restaurant workers.  Waves and smiles, he found his own way to interact with people back then, and they all said the same thing, “Oh, he’s so cute.” At one point, he began blowing kisses to the waitresses from across the restaurant, and they would giggle hysterically before blowing them back.  On the way out of the building he would wave goodbye to every table that would respond to him, saying, “bye bye” to sometimes twenty people or more before getting to the door.

    My father-in-law, who has a pretty amazing story himself, loves to eat as much as anyone I know, so food has often become their bonding experience in these first four years of Alex’s little life.  He relishes in feeding my son.

    “Do you wanna go yum cha?” he’ll ask my son.  While the direct translation means ‘to drink tea’ he means dim sum, which is implied in the statement.  He knows the answer already, but loves to hear the cheer from Alex. If you haven’t tried dim sum, I definitely recommend it.  It’s Chinese brunch, and offers a ton small plates of steamed or fried dumplings, with many different fillings. It can serve as a snack or a main course.  Alex also knows the menu before we even sit down: siu mai (pork dumplings) shrimp rolls, chow mein, bao bao (these are steamed buns stuffed with anything from a lotus paste to BBQ pork to egg custard), har gao (shrimp dumplings)…the list goes on and on.  

    I haven’t attempted anything like those dishes yet, and to be honest, I don’t think I want to.  It would be a ton of work to create those little dumplings, working by myself, and I would probably only be able to get two or three done well.  There’s something special about going to Chinatown for this meal, where I can both expect it to be amazing, and not kill myself trying to recreate it.  

    Occasionally, though, going that extra step to create something is just so worth it.  Like grandmothers who make homemade tamales or pastas or meatballs. The time and effort and love that goes into something like that creates a memorable dish for all.  While it’s a loose tie-in today, I’m choosing to post my empanada recipe. A couple years ago I attempted them for the first time, and they came out way too big.  More like a hand-pie, it was an appetizer gone haywire. Delicious, yes. I specifically love the chicken broth in the actual dough. But people were full before dinner, and that was a problem.  The second time I made them, I doubled the number of empanadas I made out of the same amount of dough, so they were half the size. Much better, even if it did take twice as long. And I won’t lie.  These are time-consuming. But hey, it’s worth it, even if the reward is just the smiles on the faces of those you love.

 

Empanadas

 

INGREDIENTSIMG_3595

FILLING

5 teaspoons vegetable oil

¾ pound 85 percent lean ground beef

¾ pound ground pork

Salt and pepper

1 onion, chopped fine

1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced

6 scallions, white parts minced, green parts sliced thin

3 garlic cloves, minced

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup chicken broth

DOUGH

4 cups (20 ounces) all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

8 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup chicken broth

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 quart vegetable oil for frying

 

INSTRUCTIONS

MAKES 32 EMPANADAS

You can make the dough and the filling up to 24 hours ahead and refrigerate them separately. You can also shape and fill the pies, refrigerating them for up to 24 hours before frying. Use a Dutch oven that holds 6 quarts or more.

  1. FOR THE FILLING: Heat 2 teaspoons oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add beef, pork, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook, breaking up pieces with spoon, until no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer meat to bowl.
  2. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to now-empty skillet and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onion, bell pepper, scallion whites, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper and cook until vegetables are just starting to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cayenne and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Return meat and any accumulated juices to skillet with vegetables. Sprinkle flour over meat and cook, stirring constantly, until evenly coated, about 1 minute. Add broth, bring to boil, and cook until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Transfer filling to bowl and stir in scallion greens. Refrigerate until completely cool, about 1 hour. (Filling can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)
  4. FOR THE DOUGH: Process flour, salt, and baking powder in food processor until combined, about 3 seconds. Add shortening and pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, 6 to 8 pulses. Add broth and eggs and pulse until dough just comes together, about 5 pulses. Transfer dough to lightly floured counter and knead until dough forms smooth ball, about 20 seconds. Divide dough into 16 equal pieces. (Dough can be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)
  5. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Working with 1 piece of dough at a time, roll into 6-inch circle on lightly floured counter. Place ¼ cup filling in center of dough round. Brush edges of dough with water and fold dough over filling. Press to seal, trim any ragged edges, and crimp edges with tines of fork. Transfer to prepared sheet. (Filled pies can be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)
  6. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees. Set wire rack in second rimmed baking sheet. Add 1 quart oil to large Dutch oven until it measures about ¾ inch deep and heat over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Place 4 pies in oil and fry until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes per side, using slotted spatula or spider to flip. Adjust burner, if necessary, to maintain oil temperature between 325 and 350 degrees. Transfer pies to prepared wire rack and place in oven to keep warm. Return oil to 350 degrees and repeat with remaining pies. Serve with your favorite sauce.